Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
Lenin’s 1902 book, What Is To Be Done, is one of the most important of all the great texts of revolutionary Marxism.
Its importance is especially great in the period we are now going through, when as a result of Stalinism and the defeats of the labour movement which it inflicted or precipitated, everywhere Marxism has come to be separated from the working class and its movement. The great task we face is once more to combine Marxism with the working class movements.
What Is To Be Done was a polemical barrage against those who resisted the plan propounded by Lenin, Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich. Martov and others in the fortnightly paper, Iskra [Spark] and the magazine Zarya [Dawn], published abroad and smuggled into Russia. Iskra worked to consolidate the widespread but scattered and uncoordinated elements of the Russian Marxist movement.
After underground work over two decades, operating under ferocious state repression, isolated circles were doing illegal agitational and educational work around factories all over Russia. They had to be welded into an effective Marxist political party.
The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party had been established at a Congress at Minsk in 1898, but had soon fallen into disarray as a results of arrests, the desertion to the bourgeois liberals of leaders like Pyotr Struve, and the fact that a proper basis for a Marxist party had not been laid before 1898.
What Is To Be Done was written to tear down opponents of Iskra’s plan for reorganising the party. But it is a great deal more than that. It is a positive exposition of the fundamental ideas of Marxism on all the questions raised in the course of the Russian Marxist’s work.
We do not work in conditions like those in Tsarist Russia, but, fundamentally, these ideas are still central to all possible practical situations within which Marxists work to “agitate, educate and organise” workers.
But of all the great texts of revolutionary Marxism, What Is To Be Done, has been the most misrepresented. By unscrupulous or uncomprehending opponents, which is to be expected, but also by ignorant or unscrupulous “Leninists”. This article, the second of three, is an attempt to expound Lenin’s ideas, mainly in his own words, of the work which a political paper like Solidarity does.
Lenin deals with one of the central questions of Marxist politics — the relationship between Marxism, and Marxists, and the “spontaneous” working class movement.
On one level Marxism is nothing but the theoretical summing up of the experience of the working class. The experience of the first mass working class movement, Chartism in Britain in the 1830s and 40s, played a great part in shaping the Marxism which Marx and Engels created in the 1840s and afterwards. But it was not the only element in it. Marxism also grew out of the highest learning of the bourgeoisie — German philosophy and English political economy. It grew out of the work of “utopian socialists” such as Robert Owen.
The utopian socialists responded to the horrors which industrial capitalism inflicted on the proletariat by creating imaginary alternative social systems and then trying to build them from scratch as socialist colonies in some wilderness or other (in Texas, for example).
Marx and Engels brought all these things together to create the new outlook on the world.
Though this outlook subsumed the social experience of the proletariat and what could be learned from its attempt to build a labour movement, and though it expressed the historic interests of the working class, the fact that Marxism also embodied the highest learning of bourgeois society necessarily meant that it began divorced from the living working class. For the learning on which Marxism was erected was, in general, not the possession of capitalism’s exploited wage-slaves.
Even when they accepted the socialist conclusions that Marx and Engels had established out of that learning, workers could not “spontaneously” arrive at Marxism for themselves. By definition, it had to come to them from “outside”, brought by representatives of the educated classes. In the first instance, Marx and Engels.
And if not at Marxism, what exactly does the working class “spontaneously” arrive at when it tries to generalise its experience and elaborate its own distinct outlook? Lenin’s answer was that the working class arrives spontaneously only at trade union consciousness. And what of “spontaneous” socialism?
The proletariat also threw up men like Wilhelm Weitling and Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who created their own variants of utopian socialism, or — Proudhon — an outlook that corresponded to the interests of the petit bourgeois, the small producer, rather than those of the proletariat. With both of these famous socialists Marx clashed bitterly, counterposing his own ideas to theirs.
It is true that the German artisan Joseph Dietzgen, also drawing on the pre-existing bourgeois learning, arrived independently at an approximation to the ideas Marx and Engels worked out in the 40s. But Dietzgen was as little typical of his class as Marx and Engels were of theirs.
It is with this complex network of interlinked questions that Lenin deals in the section of What Is To Be Done entitled: “The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the [Marxist] Social-Democrats.”
Lenin begins by invoking the spirit of the great revolutionary populist movement of the past, the lone fighters who had killed the Tsar in 1881 and died on the scaffold, in jails and in bleak exile: the new, working class movement must recreate the splendid dedication and ardent revolutionary spirit of the old movement, but on a higher level.
By VI Lenin
Our movement, much wider and deeper than the movement of the seventies, must be inspired with the same devoted determination and energy that inspired the movement of that time… No one, we think, has up to now doubted that the strength of the modern movement lies in the awakening of the masses (principally, the industrial proletariat);… its weakness [in contrast to the seventies] lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders.
“[The Marxist paper] Rabochye Dyelo… in its polemic with Iskra and Zarya… tried to ascribe [its] ‘general disagreements’ [with Iskra] to a more profound cause — to the ‘different appraisals of the relative importance of the spontaneous and consciously “methodical” element’ [in the development of labour movements]. Rabochye Dyelo’s indictment reads: a ‘belittling of the significance of the objective, or the spontaneous, element of development’… [This thesis] illuminate[s] the quintessence of the present-day theoretical and political differences that exist among Russian Social-Democrats...
“The question of the relation between consciousness and spontaneity is of enormous general interest, and for this reason the question must be dealt with in great detail.
We [have] pointed out how universally absorbed the educated youth of Russia was in the theories of Marxism in the middle of the nineties [When for a while thinly disguised Marxist books were allowed a limited legality]. In the same period the strikes that followed the famous St. Petersburg industrial war of 1896 assumed a similar general character. Their spread over the whole of Russia clearly showed the depth of the newly awakening popular movement, and if we are to speak of the ‘spontaneous element’ then, of course, it is this strike movement which, first and foremost, must be regarded as spontaneous. But there is spontaneity and spontaneity.
Strikes occurred in Russia in the 1860s and 70s (and even in the first half of the nineteenth century), and they were accompanied by the ‘spontaneous’ destruction of machinery, etc. Compared with these ‘revolts’, the strikes of the 90s might even be described as ‘conscious’, to such an extent do they mark the progress which the working-class movement made in that period. This shows that the ‘spontaneous element’, in essence, represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in an embryonic form.
Even the primitive revolts expressed the awakening of consciousness to a certain extent. The workers were losing their age-long faith in the permanence of the system which oppressed them and began... I shall not say to understand, but to sense the necessity for collective resistance, definitely abandoning their slavish submission to the authorities. But this was, nevertheless, more in the nature of outbursts of desperation and vengeance than of struggle.
The strikes of the nineties revealed far greater flashes of consciousness; definite demands were advanced, the strike was carefully timed, known cases and instances in other places were discussed, etc.
The revolts were simply the resistance of the oppressed, whereas the systematic strikes represented the class struggle in embryo, but only in embryo.
Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social Democratic [class-conscious socialist] struggles. They marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system [our emphasis], i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness.
In this sense, the strikes of the nineties, despite the enormous progress they represented as compared with the ‘revolts’, remained a purely spontaneous movement.
We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic [Marxist] consciousness among the workers. This consciousness could only 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, i.e., 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.
Trade unionism does not exckude “politics” altogether, as some imagine. Trade unions have always conducted political (but not Social-Democratic) agitation and struggle...
The theory of [Marxist] socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.
In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.
In the time of which we are speaking, the middle [eighteen] nineties, [Marxism] not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipation of Labour group [of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich and others] but had already won over to its side the majority of the revolutionary youth in Russia.
Hence, we had both the spontaneous awakening of the working masses, their awakening to conscious life and conscious struggle, and a revolutionary youth, armed with Social-Democratic theory and straining towards the workers. In this connection it is particularly important to state the oft-forgotten (and comparatively little-known) fact that, although the early Social-Democrats of that period zealously carried on economic agitation (being guided in this activity by the truly useful indications contained in the pamphlet [of Kramer and Martov] On Agitation, then still in manuscript), they did not regard this as their sole task.
On the contrary, from the very beginning they set for Russian Social-Democracy the most far-reaching historical tasks, in general, and the task of overthrowing the [Tsarist] autocracy, in particular…
[It is important to establish here] the fact that a part (perhaps even a majority) of the Social-Democrats, active in the period of 1895-98, justly considered it possible even then, at the very beginning of the ‘spontaneous’ movement, to come forward with a most extensive programme and a militant tactical line. Lack of training of the majority of the revolutionaries, an entirely natural phenomenon, could not have roused any particular fears.
Since the tasks were properly defined, since the energy existed for repeated attempts to fulfil them, temporary failures represented only part misfortune. Revolutionary experience and organisational skill are things that can be acquired, provided the desire is there to acquire them, provided the shortcomings are recognised, which in revolutionary activity is more than half-way towards removing them.
But what was only part misfortune became full misfortune when this consciousness began to grow dim… when there appeared people — and even Social-Democratic organs — that were prepared to regard shortcomings as virtues, that even tried to invent a theoretical basis for their slavish cringing before spontaneity. It is time to draw conclusions from this trend, the content of which is incorrectly and too narrowly characterised as Economism.
... [Due to arrests and deportations] the membership of the circles then functioning underwent such constant change that no continuity was established and, consequently, differences in point of view were not recorded in any documents.
The founding of Rabochaya Mysl brought Economism to the light of day... It is well worth dwelling on [the] leading article [of the first issue of Rabochaya Mysl because] it brings out in bold relief the entire spirit of Rabochaya Mysl and Economism generally...
[It says] ‘…The virility of the working-class movement is due to the fact that the workers themselves are at last taking their fate into their own hands, and out of the hands of the leaders’; this fundamental thesis is then developed in greater detail. Actually, the leaders (i.e. the Social-Democrats, the organisers of the League of Struggle) were, one might say, torn out of the hands of the workers by the police; yet it is made to appear that the workers were fighting against the leaders and liberated themselves from their yoke!
Instead of sounding the call to go forward towards the consolidation of the revolutionary organisation and the expansion of political activity, the call was issued for a retreat to the purely trade union struggle. They announced that ‘the economic basis of the movement is eclipsed by the effort never to forget the political ideal’, and that the watchword for the working-class movement was ‘Struggle for economic conditions’ (!) or, better still, ‘The workers for the workers’.
It was declared that strike funds ‘are more valuable to the movement than a hundred other organisations’... etc. Catchwords like ‘We must concentrate, not on the “cream” of the workers, but on the “average”, mass worker’; ‘Politics always obediently follows economics’, etc., etc., became the fashion, exercising an irresistible influence upon the masses of the youth who were attracted to the movement but who, in the majority of cases, were acquainted only with such fragments of Marxism as were expounded in legally appearing publications.
Political consciousness was completely overwhelmed by spontaneity — the spontaneity of the ‘Social-Democrats’..., the spontaneity of those workers who were carried away by the arguments that a kopek added to a ruble was worth more than any socialism or politics, and that they must ‘fight, knowing that they are fighting, not for the sake of some future generation, but for themselves and their children’ (leader in Rabochaya Mysl, No. 1).
Phrases like these have always been a favourite weapon of the West-European bourgeois, who, in their hatred for socialism, strove… to transplant English trade-unionism to their native soil and to preach to the workers that by engaging in the purely trade union struggle they would be fighting for themselves and for their children, and not for some future generations with some future socialism. And now [some Russian Social-Democrats] have set about repeating these bourgeois phrases.
It is important at this point to note three circumstances that will be useful to our further analysis of contemporary differences.
In the first place, the overwhelming of political consciousness by spontaneity, to which we referred above, also took place spontaneously. This may sound like a pun, but, alas, it is the bitter truth. It did not take place as a result of an open struggle between two diametrically opposed points of view, in which one triumphed over the other; it occurred because of the fact that an increasing number of ‘old’ revolutionaries were ‘torn away’ by the gendarmes and... increasing numbers of ‘young’... Social Democrats appeared on the scene...
Secondly, in the very first literary expression of Economism we observe the exceedingly curious phenomenon — highly characteristic for an understanding of all the differences prevailing among present day Social Democrats — that the adherents of the ‘labour movement pure and simple’, worshippers of the closest ‘organic’ contacts (Rabochye Dyelo’s term) with the proletarian struggle, opponents of any non-worker intelligentsia (even a socialist intelligentsia), are compelled, in order to defend their positions, to resort to the arguments of the bourgeois ‘pure trade-unionists’.
This shows that... all worship of the spontaneity of the working class movement, all belittling of the role of ‘the conscious element’, of the role of Social-Democracy, means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers. All those who talk about ‘overrating the importance of ideology’, about exaggerating the role of the conscious element, etc., imagine that the labour movement 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’. But this is a profound mistake.
To supplement what has been said above, we shall quote the following profoundly true and important words of Karl. Kautsky on the new draft programme of the Austrian Social-Democratic Party.
‘Many of our revisionist critics believe that Marx asserted that economic development and the class struggle create, not only the conditions for socialist production, but also, and directly, the consciousness [K K’s italics] of its necessity. And these critics assert that England, the country most highly developed capitalistically, is more remote than any other from this consciousness judging by the draft, one might assume that this allegedly orthodox Marxist view, which is thus refuted, was shared by the committee that drafted the Austrian programme.
In the draft programme it is stated: ‘The more capitalist development increases the numbers of the proletariat, the more the proletariat is compelled and becomes fit to fight against capitalism. The proletariat becomes conscious of the possibility and of the necessity for socialism. In this connection socialist consciousness appears to be a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle.’
But this is absolutely untrue. Of course, socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the proletariat has, and, like the latter, emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions.
Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [KK’s italics]: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von aussen hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig]. Accordingly, the old Hainfeld programme quite rightly stated that the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat (literally: saturate the proletariat) with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose of itself from the class struggle. The new draft copied this proposition from the old programme, and attached it to the proposition mentioned above. But this completely broke the line of thought...’
This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge.
But in order that working men may succeed in this more often, every effort must be made to raise the level of the consciousness of the workers in general; it is necessary that the workers do not confine themselves to the artificially restricted limits of ‘literature for workers’ but that they learn to an increasing degree to master general literature.
It would be even truer to say ‘are not confined’, instead of ‘do not confine themselves’, because the workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only a few (bad) intellectuals believe that it is enough ‘for workers’ to be told a few things about factory conditions and to have repeated to them over and over again what has long been known.
Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology).
Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.
There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology... for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.
Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy. The sentence employed by the authors of the Economist letter published in Iskra, No. 12, that the efforts of the most inspired ideologists fail to divert the working-class movement from the path that is determined by the interaction of the material elements and the material environment is therefore tantamount to renouncing socialism.
If these authors were capable of fearlessly, consistently, and thoroughly considering what they say, as everyone who enters the arena of literary and public activity should be, there would be nothing left for them but to ‘fold their useless arms over their empty breasts’ and surrender the field of action to the [bourgeois liberals, like the] Struves and Prokopoviches, who are dragging the working-class movement ‘along the line of least resistance’, i.e., along the line of bourgeois trade-unionism, or to the [attempt to create police-controlled pseudo trade unions, whose leaders like the Moscow policeman Zubatov]... are dragging it along the line of clerical and gendarme ‘ideology’.
It is often said that the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism. This is perfectly true in the sense that socialist theory reveals the causes of the misery of the working class more profoundly and more correctly than any other theory, and for that reason the workers are able to assimilate it so easily, provided, however, this theory does not itself yield to spontaneity, provided it subordinates spontaneity to itself. Usually this is taken for granted, but it is precisely this which Rabochye Dyelo forgets or distorts. The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, most widespread (and continuously and diversely revived) bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.