Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, written in late 1901 and early 1902, is one of the most important books ever written. Certainly it is one of the most important socialist texts in existence.
Yet it is often seen, even by people who are not antagonistic to Lenin and his work, in the grim retrospective shadow of Stalinism. This, we are told, is the book in which Lenin expounded his notion of a highly centralised party of “professional revolutionaries”, and therefore, whatever Lenin’s intentions, it was the seed of what, over the next three decades, developed into the totalitarian dictatorship of the state bureaucracy over the working class and all the peoples of the USSR.
The root of Stalinism lay in Leninism, and the root of Lenin’s distinctive approach lay in What Is To Be Done?
The most relentless advocates of this idea were the Stalinist ruling class in the USSR and the Communist Parties all over the world, who parroted whatever Moscow said. “Stalin is the Lenin of today”, was one of their key slogans. And Lenin was the Stalin of yesterday...
Stalinism and Bolshevism were one. Or at least, Bolshevism was the seed and nutriment of Stalinism. This lie has been lovingly sustained and preserved by the bourgeoisie and its academics. Adapted, preserved, and sustained too by quite a few muddled socialists.
A reading of What Is To Be Done? in its real context demolishes the myths. At the time, a great network of independent Marxist circles, doing valuable work such as the production of factory bulletins and leaflets existed all across Russia. Police repression had smashed the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party set up in 1898. The illegal newspaper Iskra (Spark), published abroad, was trying to reforge the RSDLP, the newspaper acting as both
Marxist propagandist and organisational network.
Lenin wrote What Is To Be Done? as an exposition of what Iskra and the journal Zarya (Dawn) were doing and wished to do, and what was wrong with those Marxists who opposed them.
In the first of two articles, Jack Cleary discusses the real meaning of What Is To Be Done?
Lenin starts by discussing the demand for the “Freedom of criticism of Marxism within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party”:
At first sight, nothing would appear to be more strange than the solemn appeals to freedom of criticism made by one of the parties to the dispute. Have voices been raised in the advanced parties against the constitutional law of the majority of European countries which guarantees freedom to science and scientific investigation?
In fact, Lenin sees in the claim for “freedom of criticism” the demand for freedom to revise Marxism from a doctrine of revolution into one of piecemeal reform. That is what concerns Lenin:
It is no secret... that two trends have taken form in present-day international Social-Democracy... The essence of the “new” trend, which adopts a “critical” attitude towards “obsolete dogmatic” Marxism, has been clearly enough presented by Bernstein and demonstrated by Millerand.
Eduard Bernstein had proposed to change the German party from a movement preparing to overthrow capitalism into a movement for open-ended reform. He had defined his attitude in this aphorism about the labour movement in history: “The movement is everything, the goal, nothing”. Millerand, in France, had become a minister in a bourgeois government, and moreover, in one which also contained General Gallifet, one of those who had butchered 10,000 workers after the suppression of the Paris Commune, in 1871. Lenin:
Social-Democracy must change from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms. [Bernstein] denied... the possibility of putting socialism on a scientific basis and of demonstrating its necessity and inevitability from the point of view of the materialist conception of history...
The very concept, “ultimate aim”, was declared to be unsound, and the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat was completely rejected. Denied was the antithesis in principle between liberalism and socialism.
Denied was the theory of the class struggle, on the alleged grounds that it could not be applied to a strictly democratic society governed according to the will of the majority, etc.
Lenin explains the fact that the criticism of Marxism by Bernstein and his friends, had sprung up suddenly ready made:
... This criticism of Marxism has long been directed from the political platform, from university chairs, in numerous pamphlets and in a series of learned treatises.... The entire younger generation of the educated classes has been systematically reared for decades on this criticism, [so] it is not surprising that the “new critical” trend in Social-Democracy should spring up, all complete...
The content of this new trend did not have to grow and take shape: it was transferred bodily from bourgeois to socialist literature.
Lenin explains the relationship which he sees between the theorising of the German, Bernstein and the French “socialist” minister Millerand:
The French socialists have begun, not to theorise, but to act. The democratically more highly developed political conditions in France have permitted them to put “Bernsteinism into practice” immediately, with all its consequences. Millerand has furnished an excellent example of practical Bernsteinism... If democracy, in essence, means the abolition of class domination, then why should not a socialist minister charm the whole bourgeois world by orations on class collaboration? Why should he not remain in the cabinet even after the shooting-down of workers by gendarmes has exposed, for the hundredth and thousandth time, the real nature of the democratic collaboration of classes?...
And what did the French socialists achieve?
The reward for... this corruption of the socialist consciousness of the working masses — the only basis that can guarantee our victory — the reward for this is... miserable reforms, so miserable in fact that much more has been obtained from bourgeois governments!
For Lenin the truth of anything is always concrete — it is discernible only in the whole context and framework which defines and qualifies what any part or aspect of a thing means. That people have the right to scientific investigation, goes he has said almost without saying. But what does the demand for “freedom of criticism” mean here and now, at this stage of the development of the Russian movement?
“Freedom of criticism” means... freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism.
“Freedom” is a grand word, but under the banner of freedom for industry the most predatory wars were waged, under the banner of freedom of labour [non-union], the working people were robbed. The modern use of the term “freedom of criticism” contains the same inherent falsehood.
Those who are really convinced that they have made progress in science would not demand freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old...
The Marxist movement is a voluntary association of people who need not a “live and let live” indifference to truth and falsehood, but a rigorous attempt to separate truth from falsehood, and a no less rigorous selection of those admitted to their ranks on the basis of adhering to certain ideas and perspectives. He uses a famous image for what a revolutionary organisation is:
We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly 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 with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation.
The “marsh” is the realm of eclecticism, theoretical scepticism and recoil from intellectual and political rigour.
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!
The Marxists are concerned to hammer out the political basis for a consistently revolutionary Russian working class movement. He recalls that the German Marxist movement, to which he, like all Russian Marxists, looks as the great example to follow, has been built by way of a rigorous attitude to principles, politics and theory...
At the time Engels dealt his blows at [Eugen] Duhring [a university professor who propounded new systems of economics, philosophy, etc], many representatives of German Social-Democracy inclined towards the latter’s views, and accusations of acerbity, intolerance, uncomradely polemics, etc., were hurled at Engels even publicly at a Party Congress. At the Congress of 1877... a resolution [was introduced] to prohibit the publication of Engels’s articles in [the party paper] Vorwarts [Forward] because “they do not interest the overwhelming majority of the readers”, and...their publication had caused great damage to the Party, that Duhring too had rendered services to Social-Democracy.
Lenin now turns to the peculiarities of Russia, where in the mid-1890s the “curious phenomenon” of Legal Marxism had appeared
...In a country ruled by an autocracy, with a completely enslaved press, in a period of desperate political reaction in which even the tiniest outgrowth of political discontent and protest is persecuted, the theory of revolutionary Marxism suddenly forces its way into the censored literature and, though expounded in Aesopian language, is understood by all the “interested”.
The government had regarded only the ideas of the populist terrorists as dangerous and at first welcomed any criticism of them. Then the Government caught on and set its censors on the legal Marxists.
Meanwhile, Marxist books were published one after another, Marxist journals and newspapers were founded, nearly everyone became a Marxist, Marxists were flattered, Marxists were courted, and the book publishers rejoiced at the extraordinary, ready sale of Marxist literature...It is no secret that the brief period in which Marxism blossomed on the surface of our literature was called forth by an alliance between people of [both] extreme and of very moderate, bourgeois democratic [politics]...
Then was it not an error for revolutionary and consistent Marxists to ally with people who, thinking they were Marxists, were in fact bourgeois democrats? No, says Lenin.
Only those who are not sure of themselves can fear to enter into temporary alliances even with unreliable people ... Thanks to this alliance, an astonishingly rapid victory was obtained over Narodism [the populist agrarian socialist terrorists] and Marxist ideas (even though in a vulgarised form) became very widespread...
But an essential condition for such an alliance must be the full opportunity for the socialists to reveal to the working class that its interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the bourgeoisie.
However, the Bernsteinian and “critical” trend, to which the majority of the legal Marxists turned, deprived the socialists of this opportunity and demoralised the socialist consciousness by vulgarising Marxism, by advocating the theory of the blunting of social contradictions, by declaring the idea of the social revolution and of the dictatorship of the proletariat to be absurd, by reducing the working-class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade-unionism and to a “realistic” struggle for petty, gradual reforms...[“Economism”] In practice it meant a striving to convert the nascent working-class movement into an appendage of the liberals.
The “ex-Marxists”, who took up the flag of “criticism”... entrenched themselves in this literature. Catchwords like “Against orthodoxy” and “Long live freedom of criticism”... forthwith became the vogue... This trend did not confine itself to the sphere of literature. The turn towards “criticism” was accompanied by an infatuation for Economism among Social-Democratic practical workers.
...Let the workers carry on the economic struggle.. and let the Marxist intelligentsia merge with the liberals for the political “struggle”...
The majority of the Economists look with sincere resentment (as by the very nature of Economism they must) upon all theoretical controversies, factional disagreements, broad political questions, plans for organising revolutionaries, etc. “Leave all that to the people abroad!” said a fairly consistent Economist to me one day, thereby expressing a very widespread (and again purely trade-unionist) view; our concern is the working-class movement, the workers, organisations here, in our localities; all the rest is merely the invention of doctrinaires, “the overrating of ideology”, as the authors of the letter, published in Iskra, No. 12, expressed it, in unison with Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10.
...”The Economists want the revolutionaries to recognise the sovereign character of the present movement” ([the Economists’ paper] Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10, p. 25), i.e., to recognise the “legitimacy” of that which exists; they want the “ideologists” not to try to “divert” the movement from the path that “is determined by the interaction of material. elements and material environment” (“Letter” in Iskra, No. 12); they want to have that struggle recognised as desirable “which it is possible for the workers to wage under the present conditions”, and as the only possible struggle...
“Dogmatism, doctrinairism”, “ossification of the party — the inevitable retribution that follows the violent strait-lacing of thought” — these are the enemies against which the knightly champions of “freedom of criticism” in Rabocheye Dyelo rise up in arms...
Lenin contrasts the neglect of theoretical questions by the champions of freedom of criticism with the attitude and the work of the publishers of Iskra and Zarya (the Group for the Emancipation of Labour) which demands
“vigilant attention to the theoretical aspect of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat”, and calls for “ruthless criticism of the Bernsteinian and other anti-revolutionary tendencies” in our movement. The issues of Zarya to date show how this programme has been carried out.
Thus, we see that high-sounding phrases against the ossification of thought, etc., conceal unconcern and helplessness with regard to the development of theoretical thought. The case of the Russian Social-Democrats manifestly illustrates the general European phenomenon (long ago noted also by the German Marxists) that the much vaunted freedom of criticism does not imply substitution of one theory for another, but freedom from all integral and pondered theory; it implies eclecticism and lack of principle. Those who have the slightest acquaintance with the actual state of our movement cannot but see that the wide spread of Marxism was accompanied by a certain lowering of the theoretical level. Quite a number of people with very little, and even a total lack of theoretical training joined the movement because of its practical significance and its practical successes....
Rabocheye Dyelo had quoted Marx’s statement:
“A single step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”
Lenin: To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day. Moreover, these words of Marx are taken from his letter on the [German Marxists 1875] 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!
Lenin now repeats the words written by George Plekhanov in the early 1880s at the start of the Russian movement:
Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. 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.
But in Russian conditions, there is more:
Yet, for Russian Social-Democrats the importance of theory is enhanced by three other circumstances, which are often forgotten:
First, by the fact that our Party is only in process of formation, its features are only just becoming defined, and it has as yet far from settled accounts with the other [Populist] trends of revolutionary thought that threaten to divert the movement from the correct path. On the contrary, precisely the very recent past was marked by a revival of non-Social-Democratic revolutionary trends... Under these circumstances, what at first sight appears to be an “unimportant” error may lead to most deplorable consequences, and only short-sighted people can consider factional disputes and a strict differentiation between shades of opinion inopportune or superfluous.
The fate of Russian Social-Democracy for very many years to come may depend on the strengthening of one or the other “shade”.
Secondly, the Social-Democratic movement is in its very essence an international movement. This means, not only that we must combat national chauvinism, but that an incipient movement in a young country can be successful only if it makes use of the experiences of other countries. In order to make use of these experiences it is not enough merely to be acquainted with them, or simply to copy out the latest resolutions. What is required is the ability to treat these experiences critically and to test them independently...
Lenin now situates the tasks of the Russian Marxists in the specific conditions of the Russian state and society. Russia, so Lenin and all Russian Marxists believe, faces a bourgeois-democratic revolution against Tsarism — something like the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The question of what role the working class and the Russian Marxist movement will play in that revolution will dominate Russian Marxism up to 1917. Groupings, factions, and parties will group and regroup around different conceptions of the Russian revolution and the role of Marxists in it. Lenin will argue that the Marxists should put themselves at the head of a great national, workers’ and peasant revolution, which will, though led by the workers and peasants not only against the Tsar and the landlords but also in part also against the big bourgeoisie, be only a — profound — bourgeois democratic transformation of Russia.
Thirdly, the national tasks of Russian Social-Democracy are such as have never confronted any other socialist party in the world. We shall have occasion further on to deal with the political and organisational duties which the task of emancipating the whole people from the yoke of [Tsarist] autocracy imposes upon us. At this point, we wish to state only that the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory...
Lenin will later on in the book discuss the views of those who argue that ideas, “ideology” can not shape and reshape the workers movement, produced by a particular environment. Here, quoting Friedrich Engels, he outlines the key Marxist idea that the class struggle also takes place on the level of ideas.
Let us quote what Engels said in 1874 concerning the significance of theory in the Social-Democratic movement. Engels recognises, not two forms of the great struggle of Social Democracy (political and economic), as is the fashion among us, but three, placing the theoretical struggle on a par with the first two. His recommendations to the German working-class movement, which had become strong, practically and politically, are ...instructive from the standpoint of present-day problems and controversies:
“The German workers have two important advantages over those of the rest of Europe. First, they belong to the most theoretical people of Europe; and they have retained that sense of theory which the so-called ‘educated’ classes of Germany have almost completely lost. Without German philosophy, which preceded it, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific socialism — the only scientific socialism that has ever existed — would never have come into being.
Without a sense of theory among the workers, this scientific socialism would never have entered their flesh and blood as much as is the case.
What an immeasurable advantage this is may be seen, on the one hand, from the indifference towards all theory, which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions; on the other hand, from the mischief and confusion wrought by Proudhonism, in its original form, among the French and Belgians, and, in the form further caricatured by Bakunin, among the Spaniards and Italians.
The second advantage is that, chronologically speaking, the Germans were about the last to come into the workers’ movement. Just as German theoretical socialism will never forget that it rests on the shoulders of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen -- three men who, in spite of all their fantastic notions and all their utopianism, have their place among the most eminent thinkers of all times, and whose genius anticipated innumerable things, the correctness of which is now being scientifically proved by us -- so the practical workers’ movement in Germany ought never to forget that it has developed on the shoulders of the English and French movements, that it was able simply to utilise their dearly bought experience, and could now avoid their mistakes, which in their time were mostly unavoidable.
Without the precedent of the English trade unions and French workers’ political struggles, without the gigantic impulse given especially by the Paris Commune, where would we be now?
It must be said to the credit of the German workers that they have exploited the advantages of their situation with rare understanding. For the first time since a workers’ movement has existed, the struggle is being conducted pursuant to its three sides -- the theoretical, the political, and the practical-economic (resistance to the capitalists) -- in harmony and in its interconnections, and in a systematic way.
It is precisely in this, as it were, concentric attack, that the strength and invincibility of the German movement lies.
Due to this advantageous situation, on the one hand, and to the insular peculiarities of the English and the forcible suppression of the French movement, on the other, the German workers have for the moment been placed in the vanguard of the proletarian struggle. How long events will allow them to occupy this post of honour cannot be foretold. But let us hope that as long as they occupy it, they will fill it fittingly.
This demands redoubled efforts in every field of struggle and agitation. 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.
The task will be to spread with increased zeal among the masses of the workers the ever more clarified understanding thus acquired, to knit together ever more firmly the organisation both of the party and of the trade unions....
If the German workers progress in this way, they will not be marching exactly at the head of the movement -- it is not at all in the interest of this movement that the workers of any particular country should march at its head -- but they will occupy an honourable place in the battle line; and they will stand armed for battle when either unexpectedly grave trials or momentous events demand of them increased courage, increased determination and energy.”
Engels’s words proved prophetic. Within a few years the German workers were subjected to unexpectedly grave trials in the form of the Exceptional Law Against the Socialists [a law which made their party illegal, from 1878 to 1890]. And they met those trials armed for battle and succeeded in emerging from them victorious.
The Russian proletariat will have to undergo trials immeasurably graver; it will have to fight a monster compared with which an anti-socialist law in a constitutional country seems but a dwarf.
History has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country. The fulfilment of this task, the destruction of the most powerful bulwark, not only of European, but (it may now be said) of Asiatic reaction, would make the Russian proletariat the vanguard of the international revolutionary proletariat.
And we have the right to count upon acquiring this honourable title, already earned by our predecessors [the agrarian socialists and political terrorists of the 1860s, 70s and eighties], the revolutionaries of the seventies, if we succeed in inspiring our movement, which is a thousand times broader and deeper, with the same devoted determination and vigour.