Lenin’s choice in London: to rob a bank or not?

Lenin’s speech to the “Red Army

In August 1903, a small group of politically enthusiastic Russian dissidents held a meeting in London. All of them were passionate revolutionaries, and the meeting was full of excitement and verbal exchanges.

There were about 50 of them, including Vladimir Lenin, Lev Trotsky, and other die-hard revolutionary activists, all bent on ousting the Russian Tsar.

The competing political views of the time may seem unimportant, but they have tumbled through history in countless waves with far-reaching consequences.

More than 100 years ago, the Russian revolutionary movement was divided into two main factions: the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. In a pub in Islington, London, an important vote took place.

The “hard-line” Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, wanted to form a highly centralized, well organized party, while the “moderate” Mensheviks preferred to form a loose, broad-based coalition with other revolutionary sympathizers.

In the years that followed, the rift between the two factions deepened as issues and affiliations shifted, until the October Revolution in Russia 14 years later.

In 1917, the second revolution in Russia, the so-called “October Revolution,” saw the Bolsheviks seize power. The Mensheviks were first sidelined and then defeated. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, founded the Soviet Union.

The 1903 conference in London was the first time when the rift between the two factions became apparent. Lenin’s Bolshevik faction failed to pass by a few votes on the issue of organizational discipline of party members.

However, seven delegates who opposed Lenin at the time withdrew from the conference over other differences, allowing the Bolshevik faction to win a key vote on the editorial board of the party newspaper.

Bar Party Conference

This vote led Lenin to call his faction the “Bolsheviks,” or the “majority” in Russian, and his opponents the “Mensheviks,” or “minority”.

The differences between the two sides at the conference were extremely sharp. According to early Russian Marxist researcher Richard Mullin, Lenin’s notes show that the noisy conference took place in the Three Johns bar in Islington.

Neil Faulkner, author of “The Russian Revolution – A People’s History,” said, “The London Congress of 1903 was extremely significant in determining the direction of Bolshevism in its development.”

Of course, the significance of the conference will be viewed very differently from different political perspectives.

“Many on the revolutionary left would say that it was revolution or reform, and that the conference marked a parting of the ways between the two factions.”

“But many enlightened commentators would feel as if the conference was a seed that eventually turned into the Soviet labor camps of the 1930s.”

These Russian revolutionaries, to avoid being watched, shifted their meetings from one pub to another. They had no shortage of supporters among British trade union activists and knew which pubs had meeting rooms suitable for gatherings.

Their first meeting place was a nightclub on Charlotte Street in central London, but other meeting places are now unrecorded.

In fact the 1903 Revolutionary Party Convention was originally held in Brussels, but was moved to London because of harassment by the Belgian police. The British authorities showed greater tolerance and acceptance of the Russian revolutionaries in exile than many other European governments.

It was because the British authorities turned a blind eye that some of the other important events of the Russian revolutionary movement took place in Britain as well.

In 1907, the Congress of the Revolutionary Party was moved to London because it was explicitly banned by the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian authorities. This conference took place after the mass protests against the Tsar in 1905 and was therefore much larger, with more than 300 delegates.

The venue for the congress was the Brotherhood Church in Hackney, East London. This church has now been knocked down and rebuilt as a residential building.

It was attended by almost all the leading figures of the future Bolshevik Revolution: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin (then a minor player), Zinoviev, Kamenev, Livinov and the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky. This was the last plenary meeting before the revolution.

The participants first registered to meet in a building on Fulbourne Street in the Whitechapel district of East London. The building, which still stands, was then home to the Jewish Socialist Activists Club.

Stalin and Maxim Litinov, who later became the Soviet Foreign Minister, boarded in a modest house on nearby Fieldgate Street, a street where more livable apartment blocks are now being built.

At the Congress, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were increasingly divided. One of the issues discussed was whether bank robberies should be authorized to raise funds for revolutionary activities.

The vast majority of the delegates were so poor that they did not even have money to travel to their hometowns, until an eccentric soap producer in London, who had watched the congress, was so inspired that he agreed to give the revolutionaries a loan.

Previously, between 1902 and 1903, Lenin had spent about a year in London. He spent most of his time and energy researching and writing in the reading room of the British Museum and editing the revolutionary journal The Mars.

Lenin’s Room

Lenin studied economics works and works about Russian peasants in the reading room of the British Museum.

Many of the books Lenin read here would not have been authorized for distribution in Russia, so Lenin lamented the British government’s dedication and commitment to the library. He told a friend, “The British bourgeoisie really spends money on libraries, and that’s the way they should be.”

Lenin visited London many times, basically staying near the Bloomsbury district, which made it easy for him to go to museums.

In 1902, the Mars newspaper was printed in London and smuggled into Europe to enter Russia. A pro-revolutionary left-wing publishing company provided Lenin with offices and printing equipment.

Today, this is the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell. They still have a “Lenin Room” with a small statue of him, an original edition of The Martian and Lenin’s Selected Works.

On the wall outside the Lenin Room is a map showing the route used to smuggle the newspaper “Mars”. For Lenin, this revolutionary publication would not only help him build a network of fellow revolutionaries, but also spread his preferred political analysis.

It was in London that Lenin and Trotsky first met in October 1902. They discussed the political situation in Russia, and Lenin took Trotsky for a scenic drive around London.

As they both passed the Houses of Parliament, Lenin said to Trotsky, “That’s their famous Westminster.”

Trotsky later wrote that Lenin did not mean “they” as in England, but “their ruling class.”

Yet it was that parliament, and the system it represented, that allowed Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades to enjoy political freedom in England and to pursue their revolutionary ideals.