Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Lenin - What is to be done?

[For our final history essay, we had to analyze a particular historical document. It sounds boring, but choosing Lenin's What is to be done? allowed me to discuss some interesting issues relating to Lenin's corruption adaption of Marxism.]

Lenin – What is to be done?

Lenin’s political pamphlet What is to be done? was first published in Geneva in 1902. Russia was at this time floundering in social and political turmoil. Different factions offered a variety of solutions and conflicting ideologies in the hope of inspiring change. Lenin wrote What is to be done? for his fellow socialists, addressing what he saw as the crucial issues of the day. He attacked the ‘economist’ ideology for its departure from orthodox Marxism and worship of ‘spontaneity’. He also elaborated his plans for the organization of the revolutionary movement, justifying the undemocratic system of creating a small elite group of ‘professional revolutionaries’. The pamphlet has intrinsic historical importance simply for what it is and what it represents. Furthermore, the instrumental value of the document is evident from the consequences of its publication – both in the short and long term.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Russia was going through a period of rapid industrial growth, but the working conditions for the growing proletariat were appalling. They had inadequate accommodation, poor safety regulations, and worked long hours under harsh, punitive labour laws for meagre pay.[1] Trade unions and political parties were banned, and strikes were illegal. In this repressive environment, opposition to the Tsarist autocracy was widespread. There was no doubt in the minds of many Russians that change was necessary – the only question was regarding the nature and extent of the desired upheaval.

To address these issues, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was (illegally) founded in 1898, while Lenin was exiled in Siberia. There were two distinct, and ultimately irreconcilable, factions within Social-Democratic political thought. Members of the more moderate faction were dubbed ‘economists’ for their emphasis on economic reform rather than political revolution. Their priorities are evident from the Workers’ Thought journal’s stated motto: “The struggle for economic betterment, the struggle with capital in the sphere of everyday vital interests, and strikes as the means of this struggle”.[2] Lenin led the revolutionaries (who ultimately formed the Bolshevik party), and vigorously attacked the ‘economist’ perspective. In 1900 he returned from exile and – in Europe – founded the underground newspaper Iskra, through which he intended to develop a strong organizational network and fight the ‘economist’ heresy.[3]

Against this background of conflicting Socialist ideologies, and continuing the work of Iskra, Lenin wrote What is to be done?. Directed at his fellow socialists, both intellectuals and the workers themselves, Lenin’s aim is succinctly assessed by Connor to be “to establish once and for all the primacy of the activist view”[4] within Social-Democratic political thought. His biographer, David Shrub, notes the simplicity of Lenin’s general writing style – sometimes harshly criticized by his contemporaries – yet observes that “If his writing was often repetitious and over-simplified…[his words nevertheless] carried power for the larger mass at which they were aimed”.[5]

A major focus of Lenin’s pamphlet was to attack and discredit the ‘economists’, as exemplified by Workers’ Thought. The journal effectively redefined socialism as a gradual, peaceful series of reforms: “We see it [socialism] within the workers’ movement itself…in the gradual transition of contemporary private production first to social control by the organized workers (trade unions)…and subsequently in the general representative institution of the country”.[6] Lenin, in What is to be done?, argues vigorously against this view. He observes that “Workers’ Thought believes merely that ‘politics always obediently follows economics’”,[7] and then points out that the economic struggle of workers is connected with bourgeois politics, not Social-Democratic politics. He writes that “trade unionism means precisely ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie”, thus Lenin sees the ideology of the ‘economists’ as “tantamount to the abandonment of Socialism”.[8]

The next major issue Lenin attacks the ‘economists’ for is their support of what he calls ‘spontaneity’ over ‘consciousness’, that is, the workers over the intellectuals. From the workers’ perspective, the intellectuals were viewed with some suspicion, but more than that, as being somewhat unnecessary. After all, “the one tested weapon the workers understood and the government respected was the strike”,[9] and this weapon succeeded whether it was legal or not. What the workers (initially) wanted was economic, rather than political, reform, so the intelligentsia and their plans for revolution were somewhat superfluous to this end. But the issue of spontaneity also went deeper than that, for the ‘economists’ insisted that the workers would eventually (and ‘spontaneously’) work out their own, independent, ideology. The very idea was anathema to Lenin, who reserved this role solely for the intellectual: “the workers could not yet possess Social-Democratic consciousness. This consciousness could only be brought to them from the outside”.[10]

The other main focus of the pamphlet regards organization of the revolutionaries. Lenin observed that “in an autocratic country, the more we narrow the membership…the more difficult will it be to ‘catch’ such an organization”.[11] For this reason, he proposed having a small, well trained group of ‘professional revolutionaries’ at the core of the organization. He extolled the virtues of ‘utter centralization’, and dismissed his democracy-advocating critics, pointing out that the openness required by democracy would be suicidal for a secret organization.[12] However, a series of arrests of Iskra agents in 1902 demonstrated the shortcomings of Lenin’s centralization. The police simply intercepted a few messages, went through a short period of observation and pursuit, and nearly the entire Iskra organization fell into their hands.[13]

The intrinsic value of What is to be done? should not be underestimated. Wildman described the pamphlet as Lenin’s “definitive pronouncement on all theoretical and practical questions”,[14] a rather grandiose statement, but perhaps not too far off the mark. It is valuable to historians today because it provides them with a direct indication of Lenin’s political thought – both what he thought were the crucial issues for the socialist movement to face in 1902, and his proposed solutions – and thus it is a key document for understanding the underlying ideologies of the later Soviet Union, and its huge influence on global history in the twentieth century.

From a theoretical perspective, the pamphlet signifies a crucial turning point in history, as it marks “the beginning of that distinct variant of Marxism known as Leninism”.[15] According to Marx, socialist revolutions would only occur in advanced societies (such as Britain) which had passed through a completely capitalist phase. By asserting the need for revolutionary action in tsarist Russia, Lenin – influenced by the Russian revolutionary tradition[16] – began to adapt Marxism into an ideology for underdeveloped areas. This idea was further developed in his 1905 pamphlet Two Tactics of Social Democracy, where Lenin introduced the concept of the ‘weak bourgeoisie’, incapable of completing their bourgeois revolution without proletariat help, to further justify the idea of a socialist revolution even in countries which had not yet gone through a capitalist phase.[17]

The publication and spread of What is to be done? had a direct influence on Russian history. The most immediate result of the pamphlet was to accelerate Lenin’s rise to dominance within the RSDLP.[18] As one Iskra agent put it: “Iskra prevailed in… centres of the revolutionary movement only because the Iskra agents had in their hands What is to be done?”.[19] The work provided Lenin’s partisans with the arguments and slogans they then used against their ‘economist’ opponents in political debates. It also gained Lenin many new supporters, attracted either by its organizational ideas or the emphasis it placed on political struggle.[20] The predominant cause of the 1903 split of the RSDLP into separate Bolshevik and Menshevik parties, was, according to Wood, “Lenin’s uncompromising stand on party organization, discipline and leadership outlined in What is to be done?”.[21]

What is to be done? has not only had a huge impact on world history through its influence in forming the Bolshevik party and thus the Soviet Union, but also through the continuing influence it has had on Communist leaders. Lenin’s strategic principle regarding the “necessity of utilising in the political struggle all classes, strata or groups…opposed to the enemy one is fighting”, is one which has since been generally applied by Communists.[22] Perhaps even more significant is his main tactical precept – “in order to win the co-operation of an individual or a social group one must appear as the champion of the cause which this person or group holds to be of paramount importance”[23] – which was employed by Stalin in the wake of the Second World War. By painting himself as a fighter against fascism, Stalin won the support of the West as he brought Eastern Europe under Soviet control. Similar tactics were used by Lenin himself when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. He won the support of the Socialist Revolutionaries by adopting their fundamental cause of land redistribution, and of the Anarchists through the slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’, which they assumed meant an end to the power of the central government.[24]

As the fundamental document of Leninism, What is to be done? is effectively the cornerstone of the Communist ideology which shaped much of twentieth century history. In it Lenin describes the basic divisions which existed within the RSDLP in 1902, and led – in part because of this very document – to the fragmentation of the party the next year. The pamphlet has theoretical importance because it marks the beginning of Lenin’s adaptation of Marxism for underdeveloped Russia. Its practical importance is perhaps even more significant. In the short term, it helped Lenin’s Iskra faction rise to dominance within Russian Social-Democrat political thought. The long-term effect of the pamphlet can be seen through the implementation of the strategic principles it espouses – first by Lenin himself in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and subsequently in the foreign policy his Communist successors. At a time when Russians were asking crucial social and political questions, Lenin provided answers which would change the world forever.


Andrea, A. & Overfield, J., The Human Record: sources of global history (4th ed.), (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Connor, J., Lenin on politics and revolution, (Indianapolis : Pegasus, 1968)

Lenin, V. (trans. & ed. by Utechin, S), What is to be done?, (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1963)

Shrub, D., Lenin: a biography, (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1966)

Wildman, A., The Making of a Workers’ Revolution, (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1967)

Wood, A., The Origins of the Russian Revolution (2nd ed.), (London : Routledge, 1993)

[1] A. Wood, The Origins of the Russian Revolution, (London : Routledge, 1993), p.25.

[2] A. Wildman, The Making of a Workers’ Revolution, (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1967), p.123.

[3] Wood, p.28.

[4] J. Connor, Lenin on politics and revolution, (Indianapolis : Pegasus, 1968), p.xix.

[5] D. Shrub, Lenin: a biography, (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1966), pp.74-75.

[6] Wildman, p.146.

[7] V. Lenin (trans. & ed. by Utechin, S), What is to be done?, (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1963), p.73. Note that Lenin was quoting from the first edition of Workers’ Thought.

[8] Ibid., pp.71,72.

[9] Wildman, p.138.

[10] Lenin, pp.62-63.

[11] Ibid., p.144.

[12] Ibid., pp.158-160.

[13] Wildman, p.236.

[14] Ibid., p.234.

[15] A. Andrea & J. Overfield, The Human Record: sources of global history, (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p.390.

[16] See S. Utechin, ‘Introduction’ in Lenin, V. (trans. & ed. by Utechin, S), What is to be done?, (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1963), p.32.

[17] Connor, pp. xxi, xxii.

[18] Utechin, p.33.

[19] Wildman, p.235.

[20] Utechin, p.33, provides several examples of this, such as the Southern Worker group, which “opposed Lenin’s organizational views, [but] closely co-operated with Iskra on account of its strongly political orientation”.

[21] Wood, p.28.

[22] Utechin, p.18. Note that this quote, and the subsequent one, are Utechin’s summaries of Lenin’s strategic and tactical principles, not direct quotes of Lenin himself.

[23] Ibid., p.18.

[24] Ibid., pp.34-5.


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