What Is To Be Done?

September 29, 2008

Paul D’Amato sets Lenin's What Is to Be Done? in the context of the struggle to build a socialist organization in Russia.

IN DECEMBER 1895, Vladimir Lenin, then a young Russian Social Democrat, was arrested in St. Petersburg and spent the next four years in Siberian exile. He had been the leader of a local social democratic circle for two years.

In exile, he spent part of the time working on a massive work analyzing the nature of Russian capitalism. On the practical side, he hatched a plan to produce a national newspaper that could unite around it the scattered, isolated groupings of Russian revolutionaries throughout the empire into a single all-Russian Social Democratic Party.

An attempt to form a national party had been made at the first national Russian Social Democratic conference in 1898, but it was small and unrepresentative, and most of its participants were arrested immediately after the conference took place.

It did, however, produce a manifesto that encapsulated the orthodox view of the majority of Russian Marxists at the time, including Lenin: "The further east one goes in Europe, the meaner, more cowardly and politically weak the bourgeoisie becomes, and the greater are the cultural and political tasks that fall to the proletariat."

Lenin's plans bore fruit; the periodical Iskra (the Spark)--which gathered as editors both the most prominent young leaders, such as Lenin and Julius Martov, but also the founders of Russian Marxism, such as George Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod--was able over a period of three years, from 1900 to 1903, to win over the majority of Russian committees to Lenin's proposal for the all-Russian party.

Lenin outlined his plan in a number of articles in Iskra. The first step, he said, was an all-Russian political newspaper. "Without it," he wrote, "we cannot conduct that systematic, all-round propaganda and agitation, consistent in principle, which is the chief and permanent task of Social Democracy in general and, in particular, the pressing task of the moment, when interest in politics and in questions of socialism has been aroused among the broadest strata of the population."

This passage gives a hint of the urgency of Lenin's call; he believed that the working-class movement was advancing by leaps and bounds, and that the socialists, with their purely local, agitational work, usually centered around lending assistance to workers' economic struggles, were lagging behind these developments. The working class, he wrote, "has demonstrated its readiness, not only to listen to and support the summons to political struggle, but boldly to engage in battle."

What else to read

THE TASKS of the Iskraists, therefore, were not purely organizational or technical. Lenin and his cohorts were waging a political fight against other trends in the movement--namely, the trend known as "economism," centered around a newspaper called Rabochaya Mysl (Workers Thought), but also the eclectic trend around the newspaper Rabochaya Dyelo (Workers Dawn), which seemed unable to take a firm stand on anything.

In Lenin's opinion, the economists made a virtue of the socialist movements' weaknesses, arguing that the task of socialists was merely to support workers' economic struggles. The elitist assumption was that workers weren't ready for political agitation.

The economists, argued Lenin, were the Russian variant of the German "revisionists," led by Eduard Bernstein, who famously wrote that the movement was everything and the final goal nothing. In Russia, Lenin argued, the economists were attempting "to narrow the theory of Marxism, to convert the revolutionary workers' party into a reformist party."

Lenin's beef with the Dyelo group was that it downplayed the danger of economism, alternatively criticizing and flirting with their ideas. The Dyeloists also were uncritical of terrorism, and though it is rarely acknowledged by Lenin's critics over the years, Iskra spent some time engaging in a polemic in favor of the methods of mass struggle and against individual terror, on the grounds that this tactic "disorganizes the forces, not of the government, but of the revolution."

For Lenin, the main imbalance was between the rapid growth of class struggle--strikes, even general strikes, and May Day demonstrations--while the organization of socialists that could provide a national leadership and unite the disparate struggles into a common front against the autocracy was lacking. Worse, there were political trends in the movement that saw this as a perfectly fine state of affairs.

THIS IS the context in which Lenin wrote his now famous booklet What Is to Be Done? published in early 1902.

The context is precisely what is missing from most accounts of this work. Lenin noted the fact as early as 1907: "The basic mistake made by those who now criticize 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."

Historians, borrowing from Lenin's contemporary critics, have continued the trend, presenting this work not as a particular polemic for a particular time, but as a timeless work that stands as the founding text of "Leninism."

In the process, they have distorted it beyond recognition. Various passages are used to "prove" that Lenin had, at this point, lost faith in the working class' revolutionary potential, and paradoxically, also feared the spontaneous struggle of workers--and on that basis, now advanced the idea that only a hyper-centralized party of bourgeois intellectuals could lead the revolution to victory.

One only has to read What Is to Be Done? (something these accounts are meant to discourage you from doing) to see that such interpretations bear no relationship to Lenin's work.

Lenin's work is infused with confidence in the "spontaneous" strivings of the working class toward socialist consciousness in Russia. But he is also aware that these strivings will mean nothing unless a unified socialist party is built that can provide political leadership in the struggle--that is, can organize the working class to play not merely a role as a stage army used by liberals, but to lead in the fight to topple the autocracy.

It is with this in mind that Lenin emphases the importance of centralization (the movement had been completely decentralized), without which the autocracy could not be defeated; of the need for an all-Russian newspaper, without which a national party could not be built; and of creating an organization of professional revolutionaries (that is, people who devote themselves full time to party work).

The latter was at the time necessary because of the "amateurish" character of the local work, which made it very easy for police to arrest and break up local committees. These were largely proscriptions for what to do next in very specific circumstances, not a blueprint for all times.

That doesn't mean there are not questionable formulations in What Is to Be Done?-- only that these have been isolated and blown out of proportion.

Lenin argues that socialist consciousness, at least initially, can only be brought to workers "from without." This became the basis for saying that Lenin believed workers must be led by intellectuals.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Lenin wanted socialist workers to become leaders in the party. Lenin wanted the working class to lead the struggle against autocracy. That's his modus operandi in its entirety.

On the other hand, Lenin chastises the economists for arguing that the workers "aren't ready" for politics and need to be spoon-fed propaganda. His point is that while the working class may spontaneously gravitate toward socialism, bourgeois ideology also imposes itself on the working class to an even greater degree--hence, the crucial role of the party, not of intellectuals but of the most advanced workers, to winning the rest of the class to socialism.

As Lenin summarized (in what is almost an exact paraphrase by Lenin of an article by an economist), the economists argued that the desirable struggle was that "which is possible, and the struggle which is possible is that which is going on at the given moment." Lenin, on the other hand, looked at what existed and wanted to figure out what was the next step.

Whereas the economists wanted to drag along at the tail of the movement, Lenin wanted the party to lead the movement. The economists blamed the working class for not being revolutionary enough; Lenin blames the socialists for "lagging behind the mass movement."

Is it not clear from this that the economists were the elitists, and not Lenin?

Lenin himself later explained What Is to Be Done? as "a summary of Iskra tactics and Iskra organizational policy in 1901 and 1902. Precisely a 'summary,' no more and no less."

Does that mean that What Is to Be Done? is of purely historical interest? Not at all. It teaches us that revolutionaries do not oppose the fight for reforms, but always "subordinate the struggle for reforms...to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism." It teaches us that socialists cannot simply participate in the struggle, but must strive to always bring their politics to the struggle, and find ways to advance that struggle to the next level.

Lenin makes clear that workers cannot lead the fight for socialism if they are encouraged to fight only around economic issues at the workplace. Their own experience of struggle, combined with the propaganda and agitation of socialists, must instill in them an instinctive hatred of all forms of oppression, "no matter what stratum of people" are affected.

"He is not Social Democrat who forgets in practice," argues Lenin, "his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating and solving every general democratic question," from freedom of assembly, to the rights of women and national minorities.

Lenin is also clear that to become the vanguard in the struggle, "the advanced contingent," it "is not enough to call ourselves the 'vanguard.'" Such a position has to be earned through practice.

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