The revolutionary lessons of Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done?’August 10, 2018
We publish Rob Sewell’s introduction to Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet, What is to be Done? Rob (editor of Socialist Appeal, the IMT’s British paper) explains the importance of this text, in which Lenin rebuked reformist and opportunist trends in the Russian Social Democracy, and argued for building a committed party of professional revolutionaries to lead the working class to power. It bears huge relevance for Marxists striving for revolution today.
Lenin’s book What is to be Done? is a Marxist classic on the building of the revolutionary party. It is also the text most criticised by reformists and academics alike for supposedly planting the seeds of totalitarian dictatorship.
An example of the vitriol poured on Lenin is the following by the historian Anthony Read in his book The World on Fire (London, 2008, pp.5-6):
“Bolshevism was founded on a lie, setting a precedent that was to be followed for the next ninety years. Lenin had no time for democracy, no confidence in the masses and no scruples about the use of violence. He wanted a small, tightly organised and strictly disciplined party of hard-line professional revolutionaries, who would do exactly as they were told.”
This open hatred should not surprise us. But nothing could be further from the truth. While Marx is thrown a few “compliments” about his analysis of capitalist crisis by bourgeois commentators, Lenin has no such redemption. He is relentlessly attacked and slandered by an unholy alliance. The reason for this is that Lenin built a party that was able to carry out the socialist revolution and gave an example to the workers of the world of how, concretely, capitalism could be overthrown.
Ever since, the bourgeois have attempted to bury the real essence of Lenin’s work and promote the idea that Stalinism and Leninism are “essentially” the same thing. This idea enjoys the joint approval of liberals, democrats, reformists, idealists, pragmatists, and anarchists alike.
Regardless of these unfounded slanders, What is to be Done? has an important place in Marxist literature, and is a major landmark in the history of Russian Marxism that needs to be studied seriously by those who want to change society.
The reason why this work has not been given sufficient attention may be due to the fact that the book contains an exaggeration, where the author bent the stick too far in stating that the working class left to itself can only arrive at a trade union consciousness.
This is clearly not the case. History has shown many times, starting with the Chartists, that the working class in struggle can indeed arrive at a socialist consciousness. In fact, as the book shows, Lenin had borrowed this idea from Karl Kautsky, the then leader of the German Social-Democracy and the Second International.
The fact is that after this single reference, Lenin never again repeated this mistaken formulation and even within the pages of the work admits that this is a “blunt formula” and “sharply simplified” which he used to attack the opportunistic deviation of the Russian “Economists”, a right-wing trend within the movement at that time, that in effect denied the role of the revolutionary party.
Despite this one exaggeration, Lenin’s What is to be Done? contains a wealth of knowledge on the importance of the revolutionary party, which today deserves much greater study. In fact, Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife and co-worker, urged its study “by everyone who wants to be a Leninist in deeds and not words.” (Reminiscences of Lenin, p.66)
The book was published in early 1902 to great acclaim within the Marxist circles of Russia. “What is to be Done? was a great success”, explained Krupskaya. “It supplied the answers to a number of vital and pressing questions. Everyone keenly felt the need for an underground organisation working according to a plan.”
“The pamphlet was an ardent appeal for organisation. It outlined a broad plan of organisation in which everyone would find a place for himself, become a cog in the revolutionary machine, a cog, which, no matter how small, was vital to the working of the machine.” (Ibid, pp.76)
Lenin’s work was an important contribution in this early period of the Russian revolutionary movement. It should be read in conjunction with his other articles of the same period, in particular Where to Begin?, which is complementary to What is to be Done?
In fact, Where to Begin? opens with the statement: “In recent years the question of ‘what is to be done’ has confronted Russian Social-Democracy with particular instance. It is not a question of what path we must choose (as was the case in the late eighties and early nineties), but of what practical steps we must take upon the known path and how they shall be taken. It is a system and a plan of practical work.” (LCW, vol.5, p.17) Lenin’s later work was simply a development of these basic ideas.
A fight had already been waged for some time for ideological clarity with disputes between Marxism and Populism, the latter of which espoused not class struggle but individual terrorism; and then with the advocates of “Legal Marxism”, which had abandoned the revolutionary essence of Marxism.
The dispute taken up in Lenin’s book, was with the opportunism of the “Economists”, which had become prominent. It was through these ideological battles that Russian Marxism took shape.
It should be clear from Lenin’s writings that the development of the revolutionary party is a complex process that goes through different stages and takes shape over a number of years and even decades. Its birth pangs can be painful and it is subject to continuous crystallisation, regroupings and even splits before emerging as a mass force. What is to be Done? was part of this crystallisation.
It can be said that the Lenin’s work has particular importance for today, given, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the attacks on Lenin and Leninism as well as the political backsliding of present-day various sectarian groups. Having burnt their fingers on their ultra-leftism, these groups then abandoned all hope and dashed in an opportunist direction.
This is a particular characteristic of the Socialist Workers Party, a supposedly “Leninist” organisation, which over the years established popular front organisations, such as the Anti-Nazi League, Respect, the Stop the War Coalition and Stand Up to Racism, where there was no mention of a socialist programme for fear of alienating their liberal supporters. The SWP’s “anti-imperialist” opportunism pushed them into bed with all kinds of elements, including their scandalous support of black reaction in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, the Socialist Party of England and Wales wanted to become more popular by changing its name from “Militant Labour” to the more politically bland “Socialist” Party.
These organisations as soon as they get close to the working class, begin to adapt their propaganda to the reformist milieu within the labour movement, while at the same time elevating crude “activism” to a panacea. All they offer is the thin political gruel of their “mass” newspapers, which become increasingly reformist in character. In times of austerity, the SP, while calling for no cuts, offers sound advice to local authorities on how to tweak and balance their budgets, as if there can be a solution on a capitalist basis. In this way, they have become a mirror image of yesterday’s “Economists” by deliberately lowering the level of “the working-class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade unionism and to a ‘realistic’ struggle for petty, gradual reforms”, to use Lenin’s words.
For the Russian “Economists”, the workers were supposedly only interested in economic or “bread and butter” issues. Such an approach can be summed up as “workerism”, an attempt to lower the political level as a “short-cut” to the masses. This, however, was not a proletarian tendency, despite its demagogy, but the snobbishness of intellectuals who imagined that the way to win workers is to pander to their so-called “prejudices”. However, such attempts to curry favour with the masses are never successful.
Lenin wrote this book in late 1901 and early 1902 to answer the “burning questions of our movement” about organisation and at the same time criticising the party’s right wing. At this time, the Russian Marxists were grouped around their newspaper Iskra, which had waged a struggle to build the party based on sound theoretical principles.
Without doubt, Lenin’s book constitutes an important contribution to theory and explains the vital role of the revolutionary party as the organiser and director of the proletarian revolution. In fact, Lenin’s life work was unique in understanding the essential role of the party. His genius allowed him to see far more clearly than anyone else in the movement concerning the importance of the party.
For Lenin, the centralised party was essential in order to lead the masses to victory in the revolution. Lenin understood that such a party could not be improvised, “since it is too late to form the organisation in times of explosion and outbursts”. Instead it needed to be consciously built before such events occurred, starting with the assembling of a cadre of “professional revolutionaries”.
Given the tasks facing the revolutionary party, it could not be an amateurish loose outfit, but needed to be based upon the principles of a centralised party, known as “democratic centralism”. This provided it with the most effective democratic form of organisation.
On this basis, following a democratic discussion within its ranks, culminating in a congress, the majority would decide its policy and priorities. These would then become the official policy for the whole party. Lenin’s conception was not new but modelled on the example of the party of German Social-Democracy, which he admired.
He himself stressed his lack of originality at the Second Congress of the RSDLP, saying he had no “intentions of elevating my own formulations, as given in What is to be Done?, to ‘programmatic’ level, constituting of special principles.” (LCW, vol.13, p.107)
Today it is fashionable among reformists and ex-Marxists to deny the essence of Lenin’s position by attempting to present it as only valid for the conditions of Tsarist Russia at the time. But it is not correct to say that Lenin’s struggle to build the Bolshevik Party was due to Russian exceptionalism.
Of course, the conditions in Tsarist Russia were extremely difficult and required underground methods of work. Party congresses, for instance, could not take place inside Russia for fear of arrest and repression. That was the fate of the founding congress of the RSDLP in 1898, where the leading participants were arrested shortly afterwards. Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labour Group could only operate in exile. Likewise, Iskra had to be published abroad and smuggled back into Russia.
However, Lenin’s theory of organisation was not determined simply by Russian conditions. It was based upon the need to build a party that could lead the working class to power. The importance of such a party is based upon historical experience. Never in history has the ruling class ever given up its power and privileges without a struggle, and that means with no holds barred. History shows that the revolutionary class requires a party and leadership which are prepared to overcome this challenge. Despite the heroic role of the masses, experience shows that without such a party the revolution will not succeed.
The importance of the Bolshevik Party was demonstrated by the success of the October Revolution. Conversely, the defeats suffered by the working class over the last 100 years can be put down to the failure to build such a party. In fact, the key obstacle that stands between the working class and the victory of socialism is the unresolved problem of leadership. That is what is meant by “the question of the party”. Until the working class resolves this question, the conscious expression of the revolutionary process, the issue of workers’ power will remain elusive.
Due to the many defeats of the past and the protracted development of events in recent decades, many have abandoned all hope of building such a party. They have become sceptical and burned out.
Instead of building first a cadre organisation and then the party, they talk about “building the movement” and “building the left” as the way forward. They fail to understand that you cannot artificially “build the movement”. The movement of the working class is primarily built by great events. Incapable of understanding this, they inevitably end up in the swamp of reformism, especially its “left” milieu. Such types, in fact, litter today’s Labour movement.
While Lenin’s book contains many general lessons, it was specifically written in answer to concrete problems relating to the early “circle” period of the Russian movement. In 1907, in a preface to his writings, Lenin emphasises this point. “The basic mistake made by those who criticise What is to be Done? is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite and now long past, period in the development of our Party. This mistake was strikingly demonstrated, for example, by Parvus (not to mention numerous Mensheviks), who, many years after the pamphlet appeared, wrote about its incorrect or exaggerated ideas on the subject of an organisation of professional revolutionaries…
“To maintain today that Iskra exaggerated (in 1901 and 1902!) the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries, is like reproaching the Japanese, after the Russo-Japanese War, for having exaggerated the strength of Russia’s armed forces, for having prior to the war exaggerated the need to prepare for fighting these forces. To win victory the Japanese had to marshal all their forces against the probable maximum of Russian forces. Unfortunately, many of those who judge our Party are outsiders, who do not know the subject, who do not realise that today the idea of an organisation of professional revolutionaries has already scored a complete victory. That victory would have been impossible if this idea had not been pushed to the forefront at the time, if we had not ‘exaggerated’ so as to drive it home to people who were trying to prevent it from being realised.”
Lenin went on:
“Iskra fought for an organisation of professional revolutionaries. It fought with especial vigour in 1901 and 1902, vanquished Economism, the then dominant trend, and finally created this organisation in 1903. It preserved it in face of the subsequent split in the Iskrist ranks and all the convulsions of the period of storm and stress; it preserved it throughout the Russian revolution; it preserved it intact from 1901-02 to 1907.” (LCW vol. 13, pp., 101-103)
In fact, its preservation demonstrated its success in the victory of October 1917.
When Lenin published What is to be Done? in early 1902, all the supporters of Iskrawelcomed its conclusions. They regarded it as an important contribution to the development of the party. However, the bitter split at the Second Congress in the summer of 1903 opened up a tirade against the book. “Now they [differences] had come out at the Congress, and everyone who had had a grudge against Iskra, against Plekhanov and Lenin, went out of his way to fan it up into a disagreement on a fundamental issue”, explained Krupskaya. “Lenin was attacked for his article Where to Begin? and his pamphlet What is to be Done? and accused of being ambitious, and so on.” (Reminiscences of Lenin, International Publishers, New York, pp.95)
It was here that the story began that Lenin’s so-called “elitist ideas” on organisation, of professional revolutionaries, and the like would lead to a dictatorship within the party. Subsequently, bourgeois academics and reformists have claimed that these organisational methods would ultimately lead to Stalinism. But this is completely false. Stalinism arose from the isolation of the revolution in a backward country, not some organisational norms.
Lenin’s What is to be Done? famously opens up with a quote from Lassalle to Marx from 24th June, 1852. This is no accident and serves to set the serious tone for the rest of the book. “…Party struggles lend a party strength and vitality; the greatest proof of a party’s weakness is its diffuseness and the blurring of clear demarcations; a party becomes stronger by purging itself…”
Philistines bristle at the suggestion of a “purge” strengthening the party, especially in the light of the experience of Stalinism. The word “purge” has a completely different connotation today than in 1852 or 1902. The idea is that a genuinely homogeneous party is much stronger than a heterogeneous one cannot be denied. Over a period of time, the party can attract all kinds of accidental elements with alien ideas that can play a very negative role. The party is not a play-ground for such types. It was far better to politically split with those who were moving in the opposite direction.
As Marx explained, the revolutionary party is a living organism, which evolves at each stage of its development. The transformation from a small circle to a larger grouping leads to different methods, as does the transformation to a mass party. There is a tendency for some who played a role in one period to be left behind in a new period in the organisation’s development. This can give rise to frictions and even splits at a certain stage. Splits can be viewed as unfortunate, but they are sometimes inevitable and even necessary. Just as a human being sheds or “purges” dead cells to allow new cells to grow in their place, a similar process takes place within the party.
Lenin explains that the early years of the Russian movement were inevitably dominated by small circles of Marxists. These circles played a progressive role. But they eventually became a barrier to the further development of the party. “And the transition to a democratically organised workers’ party, proclaimed by the Bolsheviks in Novaya Zhizn in November 1905, i.e., as soon as the conditions appeared for legal activity – this transition was virtually an irrevocable break with the old circle ways that had outlived their day”, explained Lenin. (LCW, vol.13, p.105)
As the whole history of Bolshevism shows, political differences and arguments over strategy and tactics can become very heated. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was known as the school of hard knocks. They had many polemics. Lenin noted this feature in 1907: “The pamphlets What is to be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Backpublished in this collection present to the reader a heated, at times bitter and destructive, controversy within the circles abroad. Undoubtedly, this struggle has many unattractive features.” Nevertheless, out of such clashes, there emerged a new political clarity, which provided the Party with greater cohesion and confidence.
Throughout his lifetime, Lenin was firm in his defence of revolutionary principles and defence of Marxism. When What is to be Done? was published the struggle against the Russian “Economists” was reaching its conclusion. In the preface to the book, Lenin states that there would make no progress in Russia “until we have completely put an end to this [Economist] period”. The book was used to settle the scores with this opportunist tendency.
Lenin also explained that the struggle against Marxism was developed by the bourgeois intelligentsia in the universities and transferred to the reformists and opportunists in the Labour movement, where it became their stock-in-trade. That remains the case today.
To this day, the worst ideological garbage is produced in the universities. The cadres of the revolutionary party therefore needed to be theoretically equipped to answer the arguments of its political enemies, above all in the so-called places of learning. Lenin uses the whole of the first section of What is to be Done? to explain that the “Economist” trend was part of the opportunist trend in the international movement, on a par with the revisionists led by Eduard Bernstein in Germany and Millerand in France. Lenin saw his struggle against “Economism” in Russia as part of this international struggle.
Freedom of Criticism
He went on to attack the notion of so-called “freedom of criticism” put forward by the “Economists” as a fashionable slogan of those who were determined to drive “Social-Democracy into trade unionist channels.” He saw this “freedom of criticism” as a clear attempt to be “free” to smuggle in alien ideas into the revolutionary party.
“And if we judge people, not by the glittering uniforms they don or by the high-sounding appellations they give themselves, but by their actions and by what they actually advocate, it will be clear that ‘freedom of criticism’ means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy, freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a bourgeois party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism… The cry heard today, ‘Long live freedom of criticism’, is too strongly reminiscent of the fable of the empty barrel”, explained Lenin.
Above all, Lenin attacked those who wanted a free-for-all to water down or abandon revolutionary politics. In response, they accused him of an inability to compromise and of being sectarian. But Lenin warned his fellow comrades against being dragged into the “marsh” by those who wanted to take them in an opportunist direction. He posed the question very sharply but very clearly:
“We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance under their fire. We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and have chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation. And now some among us begin to cry out: ‘Let us go into the marsh!’ And when we begin to shame them, they retort: ‘What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road!’ Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are ‘free’ to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!”
In What is to be Done? Lenin defined the outlook of the “Economists” as a tendency which displayed complete distain for theory.
Theory they said was of no interest to workers. “Our concern is the working-class movement,” stated the “Economists”, “the workers organisations here, in our localities.” They went on: “all the rest is merely the invention of doctrinaires, ‘the overrating of ideology’…”
Their constant talk of the “working class movement” was a cover for their real contempt towards workers. As with the sectarian organisations today, they believed that the workers are not intelligent enough to understand theory. Therefore, the revolutionary movement had to concentrate on “bread and butter” issues. The sects trail after the workers, telling them how bad things are. But workers are not stupid and know quite well that their wages and conditions are bad. This approach was the hallmark of the “Economists”. While basic demands and slogans have their importance, in this epoch of deep crisis, workers are searching increasingly for broader explanations and not agitation.
Contempt for theory
Lenin takes the example of the Rabocheye Dyelo, the newspaper of the “Economists”, which with an air of triumph quoted Marx’s words “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”. Twisting what Marx said, the “Economists” believed that the workers had no need for revolutionary ideas and theory, only general activity.
“To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day”, explains Lenin.
“Moreover, these words of Marx are taken from his letter on the Gotha Programme, in which he sharply condemns eclecticism in the formulation of principles. If you must unite, Marx wrote to the party leaders, then enter into agreements to satisfy the practical aims of the movement, but do not allow any bargaining over principles, do not make theoretical ‘concessions’. This was Marx’s idea, and yet there are people among us who seek – in his name – to belittle the significance of theory!”
The essential idea that runs throughout Lenin’s work is the need to train Marxist cadres – professional revolutionaries – with a thorough grasp of Marxist theory. “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”, states Lenin emphatically, who then goes on to state: “This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.” This was Lenin taking a pop shot at mindless activism, so beloved today by those on the left. Of course, Lenin was not opposed to activity in general, but this had to be connected to raising the political and theoretical level.
To emphasise this point, Lenin quotes the words of Fredrick Engels from 1874 when he stressed the importance of theory in building the movement. Engels recognises not simply two forms of the revolutionary struggle (political and economic), “as is the fashion among us”, but three forms, placing the theoretical struggle on a par with the first two.
For those involved in fighting for Marxism in Britain, Engels makes a telling point. He explains that the dismal approach to theory in the British working-class movement was the main reason why it “crawls along so slowly”. Engels stressed, “In particular, it will be the duty of the leaders to gain an ever-clearer insight into all theoretical questions, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old-world outlook, and constantly to keep in mind that socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, i.e., that it be studied.”
From the point of view of the International Marxist Tendency, we have faithfully followed Engels’ advice to the letter with the seriousness it deserves. We need to constantly train our co-thinkers to think as Marxists in order to resist the opportunist pressures that exist within the movement, which are none other than the pressures of capitalism.
Laughably, our recognition of the vital importance of Marxist theory is a matter of derision for our opponents. But we are in good company. “The people who cannot pronounce the word ‘theoretician’ without a sneer”, observed Lenin, were precisely those who wallow in their own ignorance. We are very familiar with such worthless types, the cynics and sceptics, who have contempt for theory. This is only a mirror for their contempt for the working class. Theory, after all, is only the past generalised experience of the working class. Theory is not an academic discourse but a guide to action.
While Lenin never repeated his slip that socialist consciousness has to be brought to the working class from outside, this error has been repeated ever since by every sectarian under the sun to justify their haughty role as clever “missionaries” coming from outside to lead the workers’ movement.
As we explained, Lenin bent the stick too far in correctly exposing the limits of spontaneity (“slavish cringing before spontaneity”), which was the hallmark of the “Economists”. “On the contrary, the expression I used – and it has since been frequently quoted – was that the ‘Economists’ had gone to one extreme. What is to be Done?, I said, straightens out what has been twisted by the ‘Economists’”, explained Lenin. “The meaning of these words is clear enough: What is to be Done?is a controversial correction of ‘Economist’ distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light.” (LCW, vol.13, p.107-108)
The “Economists” always trailed after the prejudices of the workers and tried to tell them what they already knew. They demagogically used catchphrases like “the workers for the workers” and “we must concentrate, not on the ‘cream’ of the workers, but on the ‘average’, mass worker”. This was simply an adaptation to the backwardness of the working class. But the working class has a strong side and a weak side shown in different periods. It has the potential to become a revolutionary class, and we base ourselves upon this necessity, but Marxists do not treat the working class as a sacred cow. As Trotsky later explained:
“The masses, of course, are not at all impeccable. Idealization of the masses is foreign to us. We have seen them under different conditions, at different stages and in addition in the biggest political shocks. We have observed their strong and weak sides. Their strong side-resoluteness, self-sacrifice, heroism – has always found its clearest expression in times of revolutionary upsurge. During this period the Bolsheviks headed the masses. Afterward a different historical chapter loomed when the weak side of the oppressed came to the forefront: heterogeneity, insufficiency of culture, narrowness of world outlook.” (Their Morals and Ours)
The opportunist approach of the “Economists” is an attempt to shout louder than your own voice and seek shortcuts to success where none exist. Not surprisingly, they were adherents of the “labour movement pure and simple”, and worshippers of the closest “organic” contacts with the workers. They held the greatest contempt towards theoreticians, despite the fact that Marx and Engels were the greatest of theoreticians. In effect, they accepted “the arguments of the bourgeois ‘pure trade unionists’,” to use Lenin’s words. They dismissed revolutionary theory and the conscious element in the struggle, and so reduced the revolutionary movement (i.e. Social-Democracy) “to the level of trade unionism”.
Importance of politics
Lenin countered this tail-endism by saying that “the fundamental economic interests of the proletariat can be satisfied only by a political revolution that will replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat…” A mass revolutionary party based on the working class was needed, but one built upon the rock of Marxist principles and theory.
While Lenin understood the importance of agitation in exposing bad working conditions and such like, he nevertheless regarded such activity as a “purely trade union” level of struggle. In contrast, Lenin stressed the need to lead “the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the property-less to sell themselves to the rich… Hence, it follows that not only must Social-Democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working classes and the development of their political consciousness.”
In other words, beginning with the immediate problems of the workers, it is necessary to generalise these experiences and link them to the wider struggle of the working class to change society. This means being able to link together agitation, propaganda and theory. However, Lenin nevertheless warned against the use of crude agitation, because simply pointing to the bad conditions suffered by the workers was treating them as little children. “Such activity is not enough for us; we are not children to be fed on the thin gruel of ‘economic’ politics alone,” he explained. “It is not enough to explain to the workers that they are politically oppressed.” It is necessary to take up all instances of injustice in different spheres of life in order to help develop the political consciousness of workers. It is by linking the daily struggles to a revolutionary programme and theory – linking the particular to the general – that Marxists can raise the level of consciousness. You cannot do this by simply telling workers what they already know.
Underlying this whole argument is the conflict between Marxism and opportunism. While the opportunists separated the struggle for reforms and revolution, Lenin emphasises the inseparable link between them. “Revolutionary Social Democracy has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities…” he writes. But that is not the end of the matter. “In a word, it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism.” Revolutionaries wanted to raise wages, but that was not the end of the matter. They wanted the workers to govern society.
Following Plekhanov, Lenin went on to outline the difference between agitation and propaganda: “if we give many ideas to a small number of people we have propaganda; if we give one idea to a large quantity of people we have agitation.” However, it is the role of the revolutionary propagandist to provide an all-rounded explanation to the workers of the capitalist crisis and the way out: “the propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of society into a socialist society, etc.”
Lenin pointed to the weaknesses of the Russian party. Taking the example of its study circles, Lenin criticised their low political level:
“Let us take the type of Social-Democratic study circle that has become most widespread in the past few years and examine its work. It has ‘contacts with the workers’ and rests content with this, issuing leaflets in which abuses in the factories, the government’s partiality towards the capitalists, and the tyranny of the police are strongly condemned. At workers’ meetings the discussions never, or rarely ever, go beyond the limits of these subjects. Extremely rare are the lectures and discussions held on the history of the revolutionary movement, on questions of the government’s home and foreign policy, on questions of the economic evolution of Russia and of Europe, on the position of various classes in modern society, etc…
“In fact, the ideal leader, as the majority of the members of such circles picture him, is something far more in the nature of a trade union secretary than a socialist political leader. For a secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket (i.e., to warn all and sundry that a strike is proceeding at a certain factory), explains the partiality of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois class, etc., etc. In other words, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct ‘the economic struggle against the employers and the government’. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people… who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Revolutionaries first and foremost
Of course, Lenin is not arguing against revolutionaries working in trade unions or taking up individual issues. He is certainly in favour of such work. But he shows the limits and dangers of this approach if treated in a one-side way. For Lenin, in working in such an environment, Social-Democrats must be revolutionaries first and foremost and trade unionists second. They had to become worker-cadres. The party has a duty to inoculate its members against the dangers of opportunism by raising their theoretical level, ensuring they attend party meetings, and ensuring that their work is carried out under the direction of the party. Lenin saw this as a condition of membership of the party. This control is even more important where party members take positions in the workers’ movement, where there is the danger that they can be sucked in to become simply a “trade union secretary”, which Lenin warned against.
He hammered home that any watering down of “Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade unionist politics means preparing the ground for converting the working-class movement into an instrument of bourgeois democracy.” This reflects the enormous pressures within the workers’ movement to conform. Instead of the revolutionaries changing their environment, the environment changes them.
Throughout the book, which is a polemic against spontaneity and the adaption to trade union (bourgeois) politics, Lenin consistently argues for the building of a revolutionary vanguard party, based upon “professional revolutionaries”, who are prepared to dedicate all their time and effort to such revolutionary work. “The organisation of the revolutionaries must consist first and foremost of people who make revolutionary activity their profession (for which reason I speak of the organisation of revolutionaries, meaning Social-Democrats). In view of this common characteristic of the members of such an organisation, all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, not to speak of distinctions of trade and profession, in both categories, must be effaced.”
Here speaks the real Lenin. Within the revolutionary party, there can be no difference between workers and students: all are comrades and communists. All prejudices were left outside and were not welcome. It was not a class question, but a political one. As far as the party is concerned, students who come from a middle-class background are educated, along with worker comrades, in the ideas of Marxism. In doing so, they politically abandon their former class prejudices and come over to the standpoint of the proletariat.
This was the case with practically the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party which was made up of former students. Incidentally, Lenin’s conception of a vanguard party, which is regarded as heinous elitism by all of his critics, from reformists to anarchists, is nothing more than a party that offers leadership to the working class. The role of the party is not to trail behind the workers, but, based on its collective experience, to offer a real way forward. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing. In fact, it is the whole raison d’être of a revolutionary workers’ party.
Interestingly, Lenin explains that prior to the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party the Marxists had worked to establish “student circles”, where “the entire student youth of the period was absorbed in Marxism.” According to Grigori Zinoviev, a former student, “There was a time (chiefly in the second half of the 1890s) when the term ‘student’ was synonymous with the term ‘revolutionary’, for in that period pupils in higher educational establishments were revolutionarily or radically minded and supported the workers’ revolutionary movement.” (History of the Bolshevik Party, New Park Publications, 1973, p.63)
These student revolutionaries, who were persecuted by the tsarist authorities, were to become a bridge to the virgin working class in Russia. The principal leaders of the local movement had already “gained a reputation” for themselves in their student days, explained Lenin.
By winning such students to Marxism and educating them, the revolutionary movement created the youthful forces which could reach the young workers. The whole experience of Bolshevism shows that serious students who are educated in Marxism can become excellent cadres for the revolutionary movement.
Lenin, who always took a great interest in the youth, took the trouble to answer any “anti-student” prejudices of some of his critics. “A committee of students is of no use; it is not stable,” agreed Lenin. “But the conclusion to be drawn from this is that we must have a committee of professional revolutionaries, and it is immaterial whether a student or a worker is capable of becoming a professional revolutionary.” Again, Lenin brushes aside whether revolutionaries are students or workers. He wanted to train up both student and worker cadres. “I mean professional revolutionaries, irrespective of whether they have developed from among students or working men.”
He adds: “our task is not to champion the degrading of the revolutionary to the level of an amateur, but to raise the amateurs to the level of revolutionaries.” However, he added “it takes years to train oneself to be a professional revolutionary.”
“Attention, therefore, must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries; it is not at all our task to descend to the level of the ‘working masses’ as the Economists wish to do, or to the level of the ‘average worker’ as SVOBODA desires to do (and by this ascends to the second grade of Economist ‘pedagogics’). I am far from denying the necessity for popular literature for the workers, and especially popular (of course, not vulgar) literature for the especially backward workers. But what annoys me is this constant confusion of pedagogics with questions of politics and organisation. You, gentlemen, who are so much concerned about the ‘average worker’, as a matter of fact, rather insult the workers by your desire to talk down to them when discussing working-class politics and working-class organisation. Talk about serious things in a serious manner; leave pedagogics to the pedagogues, and not to politicians and organisers!”
A workers’ paper
Lenin, after seeing off his critics, concludes What is to be Done? with an examination of the importance of the workers’ press.
“We could, in the not too distant future, establish a weekly newspaper”, he says “…This newspaper would become part of an enormous pair of smith’s bellows that would fan every spark of the class struggle and of popular indignation into a general conflagration. Around what is in itself still a very innocuous and very small, but regular and common, effort, in the full sense of the word, a regular army of tried fighters would systematically gather and receive their training. On the ladders and scaffolding of this general organisational structure there would soon develop and come to thefore Social-Democratic Zhelyabovs from among our revolutionaries and Russian Bebels from among our workers, who would take their place at the head of the mobilised army and rouse the whole people to settle accounts with the shame and the curse of Russia. That is what we should dream of!”
In October 1917, all this hard work turned this dream into a reality. Lenin had trained a whole generation of cadre-Bolsheviks that were to become the framework for the building of a mass Bolshevik Party. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the party was to draw around itself the best of the working class and peasantry to conquer state power. Today’s Marxists must also learn these lessons to prepare ourselves for the new Octobers that impend. A study of Lenin’s What is to be Done? is an essential part and parcel of this preparation.
1.Andrey Ivanovich Zhelyabov (29 August [O.S. 17 August] 1851– 15 April [O.S. 3 April] 1881) was a Russian revolutionary and member of the Executive Committee of Narodnaya Volya.
2.August Bebel (22 February 1840 – 13 August 1913) was a German Marxist politician, writer, and orator. A collaborator of Marx and Engels, he is best remembered as one of the founders of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP) in 1869, which in 1875 merged with the General German Workers’ Association into the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAPD). During the repression under the terms of the Anti-Socialist Laws, Bebel became the leading figure of the social democratic movement in Germany and from 1892 until his death served as chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.