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The wisdom of Lenin’s What is to be Done?

With dissatisfaction and anger growing, with confrontation intensifying, and with more and more institutions and authority discredited, the need for effective responses grows, says ZOLTAN ZIGEDY

“They take from Marxism all that is acceptable to the liberal bourgeoisie… cast aside only the living soul of Marxism, ‘only’ its revolutionary content.” – VI Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International

STANDING with me on a cold corner with a sign urging bank disinvestment, a venerated comrade reminded me of the lasting value of Vladimir Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? 

Food for thought: while we read this classic in our political youth, does it retain its relevance as we gain experience and mature?

What Is To Be Done? began as a promissory note to expand a polemical sketch written in May of 1901 entitled Where to Begin. The question lingered in Lenin’s mind for nearly a year before the lengthy pamphlet emerged.

What Is To Be Done? is not an easy read. It is filled with esoteric references to journals, personalities, and events specific to turn-of-the-last-century Russia, as well as unusually named political tendencies. It is easy to confuse the various “Rabochaya” or “Rabocheye” (workers’ newspapers) or forget the meaning of “economism,” “narodnism” or “legal ‘Marxism’.”

But Lenin’s goals can be put rather simply:

● Identify the political trends or tendencies that are obstacles to advancing to socialism.

● Establish conditions necessary for the advancement to socialism.

“Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” Martynov. “The movement is everything, the final aim is nothing.” Bernstein.

For Lenin, the epigrams pronounced by AS Martynov and Eduard Bernstein — a German theoretician of socialist gradualism — were symptomatic of an infection to the body of revolutionary socialism. 

For those “socialists,” socialism was simply the product of the struggle for reforms, an inevitable final step or stage in the evolution of the workers’ movement. 

Set in motion, political and economic struggle would — on its own — through “timid zigzags” (Lenin’s characterisation) ultimately lead to socialism.

In Lenin’s words, they and their adherents imagine that movements “pure and simple can elaborate, and will elaborate, an independent ideology for itself, if only the workers ‘wrest their fate from the hands of the leaders’.” 

They submit that it is bureaucratic and foot-dragging trade union and political leaders who retard the natural evolution of reformism toward discarding capitalism and constructing socialism.

Democracy plus continual reforms equals socialism, in the minds of Martynov, Bernstein, the French socialist Alexandre Millerand, the German socialist Georg von Vollmar and their ilk.

Lenin regards these views as a sharp departure (revision) of the theory of revolutionary socialism, a departure based upon the unjustifiable faith in spontaneity. He views “spontaneity” as a key concept in understanding both the potential of struggle and its limits. 

Using the industrial strikes of 1896 in Russia as an example, he shows that the working-class movement and the people’s movement will always generate a fightback, a response to exploitation and oppression. 

But it will always be limited to immediate grievances and immediate remedies without the further introduction of a conscious element, a leap to attacking capitalism itself. The idea that spontaneous political motion will, by itself, find its way to socialism is a false and harmful illusion.

Defiance, resistance, sabotage, demonstrating, civil disobedience, etc are largely spontaneous responses of individuals or groups; strikes, planned actions with demands, political initiatives, and other collective actions are often spontaneous, in Lenin’s sense, but “nothing more nor less than consciousness in an embryonic form.” 

Because they have elements of planning and goals, though limited and immediate, these struggles offer the potential for more radical, more profound change. 

They lack only ideology, organisation, and a programme of advancement, elements that must come from a united, disciplined, and committed group of socialist partisans. 

Those partisans must bring a vision beyond simple reformism to provide the tools for overthrowing the grip of capitalist social and economic relations.

“’RM’ writing in Rabochaya Mysl says: ‘That struggle is desirable which is possible, and the struggle which is possible is that which is going on at the given moment.’ This is precisely the trend of unbounded opportunism, which passively adopts itself to spontaneity,” Lenin writes.

The embrace of spontaneity as the wellspring of political and social change is identified by Lenin with withdrawal from the struggle for qualitative change, from meaningful engagement with the source of exploitation and oppression. This surrender to “realism,” pragmatism, the “possible” is opportunistic because it courts respectability or an easy legitimacy and compromises the fight for the liberation of working people from the chains of exploitation to garner the nearest goals of the closest moment.

“We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic [socialist] consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, ie, the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism … arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.”

Lenin’s distinction between trade union consciousness and socialist consciousness holds true, over 100 years later. No events since have shown Lenin’s assessment to be wrong. No working-class or popular movement has taken up socialism without its introduction from outside the movement, typically through a socialist political organisation. 

In a world dominated by the ideology of capitalism, in the course of “the drab ordinary struggle,” the idea of socialism is alien. It is the task of dedicated socialist revolutionaries — armed with a programme and of one mind — to bring socialist consciousness to the popular movements.

Those like the Russian acolytes of Bernstein in Lenin’s time — the economists, the “legal” Marxists, the Socialist Revolutionaries — “kneel in prayer to spontaneity, gazing with awe (to take an expression from Plekhanov) upon the ‘posterior’ of the proletariat.”

The communist movement coined the term “tailism” to more politely capture Plekhanov’s vivid description of political opportunism. 

Slavishly deferring to the “drab, everyday struggles” of the trade union movement or the spontaneous peoples’ movement will get us no closer to socialism.

Political forces will invariably arise that promise to spur spontaneous action by the popular masses through acts of terrorism; they intend to “excite” the working class, to give it “strong impetus” to press its supposedly latent radicalism. For Lenin, this is equally a departure from sound revolutionary strategy. 

Like reformism (economism), the anarchism of the act (early narodnism and the Socialist Revolutionaries) fails to recognise a role for determined agitating and organising the people for the overthrow of capitalism and the building of socialism.

Revolutionaries are not aloof from the fight for democratic reforms: “He is no Social-Democrat [revolutionary] who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question.” But Lenin also emphasises that this practice must not “for a moment [conceal] our socialist conviction.”

But revolutionaries should not be confused into thinking that the fight for democratic reforms is more than it is: “Trade-unionist politics of the working class is precisely bourgeois politics of the working class. Give us an organisation of revolutionaries, and we will overturn Russia!”

Lenin’s famous proclamation is not an idle boast, but a concise statement of the necessity of an organisation of committed, dedicated revolutionaries placing the struggle for socialism above all.

The task before the revolutionary movement is to develop and maintain working-class leadership of the popular movements while shedding the patronising attitude of delivering only that which is “accessible” to the masses. 

Recognising the “excellently trained enemy,” Lenin insists that revolution must be a profession, combining the skills of propagandist, organiser and agitator. 

The revolutionaries must develop tools: leaflets, pamphlets, books, etc, but most importantly a national organ (newspaper, website, etc) that serves as a collective propagandist, agitator, and organiser, a tool for raising a definitive political line and rallying and making contact with followers.

Of course socialist revolutionaries must come together as an organisation, as a party, as a vehicle for overthrowing capitalism. A loose-knit, independent scattering of even the most dedicated revolutionaries could hardly pose a threat to the forces and resources defending capitalism and its ruling class. That party must bring to the masses a programme, a road map leading to socialism above all else.

Lenin stresses that a revolutionary organisation cannot be seduced by the sirens of “primitive” or “toy” democracy, the false radicalism of direct representation so often advocated by young intellectuals and anarchists. Lenin cites the experiences of Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Fabian Society) and Karl Kautsky (German Social Democratic Party) — two sources at odds with Leninism — on their negative practical experiences with the folly of strict referenda democracy. 

Lenin recognised that direct democratic decision-making under the harsh, war-like conditions imposed by battling capitalism was sheerly utopian.

These are the answers that Lenin gave in his time to the question What Is To Be Done? Does Lenin’s revolutionary theory hold relevance for the struggles of today?

Over generations, Lenin’s insights, admonitions, strategies and tactics have been muted, diluted, or revised by many prominent left-wing thinkers in capitalist countries. 

The seduction of parliamentary politics, the burnished image of bourgeois democracy, doubts about the working class as a force for change, the rise of cultural and life-style radicalism combined with many other factors to distract the left from the revolutionary socialist programme. 

The cold war and the demonisation of communism further prodded the US and much of the academic and student western European left to distance itself from Leninism. 

The ABC phenomenon — Anything But Communism — became deeply embedded in the “radicalism” of the late 20th century. 

A “new” left — purposefully new in order to dissociate from Leninism and cold war ostracisation — sought new forms of radicalism, new approaches to struggle, new types of organisations.

Ironically, the new left found answers that had already failed in the past, in the kinds of politics toward which Lenin had earlier targeted his ideological weapons. And today’s US and European left reproduces many of the same tendencies.

It has been a common thread weaving through the US left that so-called participatory democracy is the foundation of radical politics and emancipatory or empowering for oppositional movements. 

From the new left of the ’60s to the Occupy and Indignados movements, this approach has been foundational. The fetish for procedure has not only overshadowed establishing a common programme, but often blocked the achievement of one.

Organisationally, the insistence upon participatory democracy is stiflingly rigid. It fails to acknowledge the various types of democracy: direct, representational, ballot, referendums, etc; it fails to recognise the appropriateness of the different types by time, place, and circumstance; and it fails to grasp the organisational fit of different democratic modes.

Accordingly, obsessive participatory, direct democracy becomes an obstacle to the establishment of an effective revolutionary organisation charged with the tasks of building a movement for socialism to face the gale forces of the immensely powerful resources and the security apparatuses of a ruthless ruling class. 

Revolutionary movements must respect democratic norms, but not the cult of procedure that Lenin mocks as “toy” or “primitive” democracy.

Occupy and similar movements have floundered on the rocks of organisational chaos grounded in procedural sectarianism, a failure to establish efficient and effective leadership channels. Many once promising movements fall as quickly as they rise without the appropriate, effective democratic standards.

It is a commonplace with today’s left to assume that removing the brakes that are thought to be restraining broad movements — typically bureaucratic, entrenched leaders — will in itself unleash worker or mass action. On this view, existing popular institutions — trade unions, political parties, advocacy organisations, etc — only need fresh, democratically elected leaders to unleash the march toward a better world, towards socialism. 

Rather than tackling the difficult task of planting the germ of socialist thought into the movements, modern-day US leftists too often expect to see the idea of replacing capitalism — the commitment to socialism — flower spontaneously.

History knows of no serious challenge to capitalism emerging automatically, without the intervention of a revolutionary organisation. Nonetheless, many in the US left deny the necessity or the desirability of a Leninist “organisation of revolutionaries.” 

Instead, they count on the magical, spontaneous emergence of a socialist consciousness where none existed before. Swayed by cold war dogma, they unthinkingly fear the ogre of “vanguardism.”

Despite many lifetimes of shredded hopes of taming capitalism by working for change within the Democratic Party, a new generation of idealistic youth are placing their hopes in the Democratic Party and a class collaborationist trade union movement. 

They follow modern day “legal” Marxists and other theorists of social democracy who ask them to “kneel in prayer to spontaneity,” expecting a radical vision to spring forth without the intercession of a revolutionary organisation. 

Tailing bourgeois institutions and workers’ organisations umbilically linked to bourgeois institutions can only bring bourgeois politics, paraphrasing Lenin.

With dissatisfaction and anger growing, with confrontation intensifying, and with more and more institutions and authority discredited, the need for effective responses grows. Over 100 years ago, Lenin’s famous pamphlet What Is To Be Done? cleared much of the ideological underbrush, discarded most of the false roads and missteps foiling a movement for socialism.

Today, these false roads, missteps and ideological thickets again block the road to 21st-century socialism.

What Is To Be Done? demonstrates the need for a political organisation of ardent, committed revolutionaries, united with a programme to overthrow capitalism. 

Since the retreat of communism, Leninism has unfortunately been discarded by many on the left. But the wisdom of Lenin’s pamphlet is needed now more than ever. 


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