What to do with 'What is to be done?'

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Tue, 19/01/2010 - 20:16,

Review of Lars T. Lih's Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done? in context (2008 Haymarket).

Lenin’s What is to be done? (WITBD) ranks as one of his most famous books and it is a text that revolutionary socialists have long used to educate ourselves. However our understanding of the book will never be the same again after Lars T. Lih’s, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done? in context, first published in 2005 and now also available in paperback. This 900-page book of interpretation, together with a new translation of WITBD is a substantial piece of scholarship and certainly one that rewards the patient reader.

Lih takes issue with the standard interpretation of WITBD, which has been widely held by both academics and by Marxist activists. This reading of Lenin’s WITBD sees it as a manual for building a party of new type, a ruthless, centralised, authoritarian party of conspiratorial intellectuals who manipulate workers and divert their trade union struggles towards socialism. Lih argues that this interpretation has its roots in Stalinism (the first English translation of the book came out in 1929), as well as in the cold war versions of Leninology. However he also finds examples of it in the Trotskyist tradition – for example in SWP leader Tony Cliff’s books on Lenin.

But WITBD was not considered a canonical text by Lenin himself or by the Bolsheviks. It was not referred to at all in Bukharin’s extensive writings, nor by Trotsky after he became a Bolshevik in 1917. It was not a seminal text of the early Communist International. When Lenin reprinted the book with some small abridgements in 1907, he wrote that, “The basic mistake made by people who polemicise with What is to be Done? at the present time is that they tear this production completely out of specific historical context, out of a specific and by now long-past period in the development of our party... “What Is To Be Done? is a summary of Iskra tactics and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 and 1902. Precisely a ‘summary’, no more and no less.” (LCW 13 p.102)

However Lih’s achievement is to put WITBD into context – and in particular into the international socialist context in which it was written. By carefully analysing Lenin’s writings before and immediately after WITBD, Lih simultaneously explains how much Lenin had in common with other Marxists writing at the time, how to a significant extent he was trying to apply the lessons from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) model to Russian conditions, and how far many of his arguments were specific to Russia at the time.

When Lenin wrote WITBD in 1901-02, the basic situation in Russia for socialists was well summed up by Leon Trotsky in his book, The History of the Russian Revolution: “Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century had a population of about 150 million, of whom more than 3 million were in Petrograd and Moscow... In Russia, however, the working class in all branches of labour, both city and village, numbered in 1905 no less than 10 million, which with their families amounts to more than 25 million – that is to say, more than the whole population of France in the epoch of the great revolution.” (Volume 1 1932/1980 p.12)

In addition, the Russian empire was ruled by a tsarist autocracy, who together with other landowners kept millions of peasants in poverty and other non-Russian peoples in a prison-house of nations. At the time WITBD there was no parliament, no freedom of assembly or organisation or of the press. Unions were banned. Revolutionaries were routinely arrested and sent to prison in Siberia. There was a small revolutionary Marxist current in exile, around Georgi Plekhanov, as well as loose committees in some Russian cities, who faced constant police harassment. According to Lih, there had been around 3,500 members of Social-Democratic organisations in all the years prior to the Second Congress. (2008 p.443)

However the Russian revolutionaries looked to a model in Germany to understand what the future would hold for them. The SPD was formed in 1875, but was repressed by the German government between 1878 and 1890, with its leaders imprisoned or exiled, its newspapers banned (and hence smuggled into Germany for circulation) and trade union activity was made virtually impossible. The party received less than 500,000 votes in 1878; but after it was legalised in the early 1890 it was getting nearly 1.5m. Union membership quickly recovered and had increased four-fold from the time of the law. By the early 1890s the SPD published sixty political papers. In 1900, the SPD had nearly 400,000 members (out of an industrial working class of 15 million).

According to Lih, when Lenin wrote WITBD he was a passionate “Erfurtian”. He accepted the SPD as a model party; accepted the Erfurt Programme (1891) as an authoritative statement of the Social-Democratic mission; and accepted Karl Kautsky’s influential commentary the Erfurt Programme as an authoritative definition of Social Democracy. The Social Democrats were bringing good news to the proletariat. The SPD created a party of a new type, possessing a clear commitment to the final goal of socialism, it was centralised and disciplined, it was as democratic as possible, and it was organised on a nation-wide scale. (2008 p.6)

Lenin’s argument can be summarised as: let us build a party much like the SPD as possible in underground conditions so that we can overthrow the tsar and become even more like the SPD. This is clear from his writings before WITBD. For all Marxists at the beginning of the twentieth century, the SPD was the ‘party of a new type’ or ‘vanguard party’.

Lih compares Lenin’s writings before WITBD with Kaul Kautsky’s works, especially his commentary on the Erfurt programme (badly translated into English as The Class Struggle, 1910). He highlights the remarkable, parallel concerns, where Kautsky takes from Marx and Engels and Lenin borrows from all three. It is clear that Lenin is committed to working class self-emancipation. Another common theme is the merger of Social Democracy and the workers’ movement. Lenin also highlights the importance of political freedom for the development of the workers’ movement, repeating the same metaphors of “light and air” as used by Engels and Kautsky. Finally there is an emphasis on producing a regular newspaper in order to carry out the words of another SPD leader William Liebknecht: “Studieren, propagandieren, organisieren”— Learn, propagandise, organise.

This was epitomised by the newspaper Iskra (The Spark) and its sister journal Zaria (Dawn). Plekhanov, Axelrod, Lenin, Martov and Trotsky had produced fifteen issues of Iskra by the time WITBD was completed in early 1902. If printed in book form they would take up 774 pages (the 51 issues brought out by Lenin would run to 2,200 pages). Lih argues that “it was dense, difficult and not meant for the faint of heart or the newly literate”. To an unappreciated extent, Karl Kautsky directly supported the Iskra enterprise. He contributed an autobiographical essay to Zaria (a valuable and overlooked one) and an article to Iskra entitled ‘The Slavs and Revolution’ which became a classic. (2008 p.160-61)

Finally, WITBD has to be understood in the context of Lenin’s immediate opponents. Firstly, just as the SPD had to fight the reformist revisionists within its ranks, so Lenin and Iskra fought against economism – summarised as “have the workers carry out economic struggle (to speak more precisely: the trade-unionist struggle, for this embraces a specific worker politics as well), and have the Marxist intellectual fuse with the liberals for a political ‘struggle’.” (Lih 2008 p.154)

But Lenin was also fighting those around the paper Rabochee delo, who shared much of the Erfurtian framework but who did not have a serious, thought –through plan for reviving the Marxist movement in Russia. Lih shows that Lenin’s arguments against Rabochee delo were somewhat overstated – but entirely in keeping with harsh attacks on the paper by Riazanov, Axelrod and Plekhanov.


Much of the orthodox interpretation of WITBD rests on the subsequent history, when the Iskra group split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in 1903 – and eventually into separate parties. Lih shows that Lenin emerged from this fight as the defender of party democracy against those Mensheviks who wanted to overturn a party conference decision merely to accommodate the minority.

Lenin’s comments on party organisation in 1905 indicate that WITBD was no party model for all times and all circumstances. For example he wrote in his draft resolution for the Third Party Congress (February 1905): “Under conditions of political freedom, our Party can and will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable for the collective thousands that make up the party.” (LCW 8 p.196)

In another article, The Reorganisation of the Party (November 1905) he argued: “The conditions in which our Party is functioning are changing radically. Freedom of assembly, of association and the press has been captured... We, the representatives of revolutionary Social-Democracy, the supporters of the “Majority” [Bolsheviks], have repeatedly said that complete democratisation of the Party was impossible in conditions of secret work, and that in such conditions the “elective principle” was a mere phrase. And experience has confirmed our words... But we Bolsheviks have always recognised that in new conditions, when political liberties were acquired, it would be essential to adopt the elective principle... The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.” (LCW 10 p.29-30, p.32)

WITBD today

How should we understand WITBD and draw lessons from it for today. The theme that clearly runs through the book is the importance of a Marxist newspaper in articulating a socialist world view. WITBD explains better than any other Marxist text that the class struggle is fought on three fronts: the economic (workplace), the political and the ideological. Lenin’s point is that the socialist contribution to the ideological fight is decisive for other battles. The fight for clarity, for assessing reality and for thinking through the implications require thoroughgoing discussion, scientific research and detailed exposition. And in order to fight the ideological battle, regular publications were needed.

The so-called “scandalous passages” in Chapter II of WITBD should be understood within the context of SPD orthodoxy. When Lenin borrowed Kautsky’s phrase about socialist consciousness coming “from without”, he meant that it came from outside the basic workplace relation of wage labour and capital and was originally developed by bourgeois intellectuals (i.e. Marx and Engels). Far from a permanent state of affairs, Lenin was anxious to emphasise the way socialist ideas are about workers’ self education and self-awareness. Similarly, Lenin’s criticism of “bowing to spontaneity” was really a criticism of the revolutionaries for failing to keep up with the spontaneous struggle of the workers (such as Lenin had witnessed in 1895-96). In both cases, a Marxist newspaper was the key vehicle for overcoming these limitations.

Lenin followed Plekhanov’s understanding of propaganda (big ideas for a few people) and agitation (simple ideas for large numbers). He conceived of socialists as tribunes, fighters on all issues of exploitation and oppression, part of his strategy (again inherited from Plekhanov) of the working class as the leading hegemonic force in the fight against tsarism. Again, the newspaper provides the worker intellectuals with the crucial tool to educate themselves and others and in spreading the Marxist good news.

Lenin criticisms of Marxist revolutionaries in WITBD should be understood closely within the context of the time he was writing. He wanted revolutionaries to learn how to evade the police, to circulate their publications widely without constant arrest, and to develop consistent and lasting connections with all struggles. However the skills could be learned by the “professional revolutionaries” like workers learned a trade. Under conditions of repression, the party would not be fully democratic – though having a regular paper would prepare the way for political freedom. And such a paper would facilitate the organisation of meetings, convincing contacts and generalise struggles.

In short, a socialist newspaper was the key mechanism for helping the workers’ movement to adopt socialist ideas, or to put it differently, for workers to develop their own world view for their own emancipation. Stripped of the specifics of Russian conditions in 1901-02, there is still much to learn from WITBD. Lenin copied the SPD, but with his emphasis on theoretical clarity and ideological demarcation, he perfected the model. What became the Bolshevik Party was the result of decades of effort to build a revolutionary organisation. WITBD, in the context of what came before and what came after, remains a vital compass for building small groups into a revolutionary party capable of leading the working class to victory.

Marxist Theory and History

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