V. I. Lenin
Original publication: ru.wikisource.org
Translation: Roderic Day

Engels on the Importance of Theoretical Struggle (1902)

This is the last section of the first chapter of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?. This RS translation was rendered from a machine first pass, then improved by comparing with the version provided by the Marxists Internet Archive as well as Lars Lih’s in Lenin Rediscovered — a text that provides a lot of detail about this historical period.

“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. [1] We are very glad that this question has been raised, and we would only propose to add to it only one other:

Who are the judges?

We have before us two publishers’ announcements. One is the programme of Rabocheye Dyelo, periodical organ of the Union of Russian Social-Democrats. [2] The other is the announcement of the renewal of the publications of the Emancipation of Labour group. [3] Both are dated 1899, a year by which the “crisis of Marxism” had long been under discussion. And what do we find? In the first of these works, you would seek in vain for any reference to this phenomenon, or any definite statement of which position the new publication intended to take on this question. Not a word is said about theoretical work and the urgent tasks that now confront it, either in this programme or in the supplements to it that were adopted by the Third Congress of the Union Abroad in 1901. During this entire time the Editorial Board of Rabocheye Dyelo neglected theoretical questions, although Social-Democrats all over the world were absorbed by them.

In contrast, the other announcement [from the Emancipation of Labour group] points first of all to the declining interest in theory in recent years, urges “vigilant attention to the theoretical side of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat,” and calls for “merciless criticism of the Bernsteinism and other anti-revolutionary tendencies” in our movement. [4] The issues of Zarya [5] that have since come out show how this program was carried out.

Thus we see that pompous phrases about “the ossification of thought” and so on conceal a lack of concern and a lack of ability as relates to the development of theoretical work. The case of the Russian Social-Democrats illustrates with particular clarity a pan-European phenomenon already noted by German Marxists long ago: that the much vaunted “freedom of criticism” implies not the substitution of one theory for another, but rather the abandonment of a consistent and carefully considered theory altogether — it implies eclecticism and lack of principles. [6] Anyone who is at all familiar with the actual state of our movement cannot fail to see that the widespread dissemination of Marxism has been accompanied by a certain degradation of theoretical standards. Thanks to its practical significance and practical successes, the movement attracted quite a few people who had very little or even no theoretical training. One can therefore judge how tactless it is for Rabocheye Dyelo to quote, with triumphal airs, Marx’s epigram “Every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disarray is like shouting “Congratulations!” to mourners at a funeral procession. Moreover, these words of Marx are taken from his letter about the 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 don’t bargain over principles, don’t make theoretical “concessions.” [7] This is how Marx thought, and yet we have people who try to belittle the importance of theory in his name!

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. And, for Russian Social-Democracy in particular, the importance of theory is strengthened by three more circumstances, which are often forgotten. First, our Party is just now beginning to form, is just now working out its features, and is still far from settling accounts with other tendencies of revolutionary thought that threaten to divert the movement from the correct path. On the contrary, precisely this most recent period has been marked by renewed vitality on the part of non-Social-Democratic revolutionary tendencies (something Axelrod warned the Economists about a long time ago). [8] [9] Under these circumstances, a seemingly “unimportant” mistake can have the most dire consequences, and only short-sighted people can consider factional disputes and a strict differentiation between shades of opinion premature or superfluous. The consolidation of this or that “shade” may determine the fate of Russian Social-Democracy for many years to come.

Second, the Social-Democratic movement is in its very essence an international movement. This does not only mean that we must combat national chauvinism, it also means that an incipient movement in a young country can only be successful if it assimilates the experience of other countries. And this kind of assimilation requires more than a simple familiarity with these experiences, or a simple copying of the latest resolutions. It requires an ability to approach these experiences critically, to verify them independently. Whoever reflects on how enormously the present-day worker movement has grown and developed will realize what a buildup of theoretical forces and of political (as well as revolutionary) experience is required to carry out this task.

Third, the national tasks of Russian Social-Democracy are unlike those confronted by any other socialist party in the world. We are tasked with the political and organizational responsibilities involved in the liberation of a whole people from the yoke of autocracy, about which we will speak more later. At the moment we wish only to underline that the role of an advanced fighter can only be fulfilled by a party guided by an advanced theory. And to have some concrete idea of what this means, let the reader recall such forerunners of Russian Social-Democracy as Herzen, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky and the brilliant constellation of revolutionaries of the ’70s; let him ponder over the world significance which Russian literature is now acquiring… that ought to be enough!

What follows are some remarks of Engels from 1874 on the question of the significance of theory for the Social-Democratic movement. Engels recognizes not just two forms of the great struggle of Social-Democracy (political and economic), as is customary among us, but three, placing theoretical struggle alongside the other two. His words of advice to the German worker movement — one that had by then already become strong, practically and politically — are so instructive from the point of view of contemporary questions and disputes, that the reader will forgive us, we hope, for citing at length the preface to the pamphlet The Peasant War in Germany, copies of which have long since become extremely rare:

The German workers have two important advantages compared with the rest of Europe. First, they belong to the most theoretical people of Europe; second, they have retained that sense of theory which the so-called “educated” people of Germany have totally lost. Without German philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific Socialism (the only scientific Socialism extant) would never have come into existence. Without a sense for theory, scientific Socialism would have never become blood and tissue of the workers. What an enormous advantage this is, may be seen on the one hand from the indifference of the English labour movement towards all theory, which is one of the reasons why it moves so slowly in spite of the splendid organization of the individual unions; on the other hand, from the mischief and confusion created by Proudhonism in its original form among the Frenchmen and Belgians, and in its caricature form, as presented by Bakunin, among the Spaniards and Italians.

The second advantage is that, chronologically speaking, the Germans were the last to appear in the labour movement. In the same manner as German theoretical Socialism will never forget that it rests on the shoulders of Saint Simon, Fourier and Owen, the three who, in spite of their fantastic notions and Utopianism, belonged to the most significant heads of all time and whose genius anticipated numerous things the correctness of which can now be proved in a scientific way, so the practical German labour movement must never forget that it has developed on the shoulders of the English and French movements, that it had utilised their experience, acquired at a heavy price, and that for this reason it was in a position to avoid their mistakes which in their time were unavoidable. Without the English trade unions and the French political workers’ struggles preceding the German labour movement, without the mighty impulse given by the Paris Commune, where would we now be?

It must be said to the credit of the German workers that they have utilised the advantages of their situation with rare understanding. For the first time in the history of the labour movement the struggle is being so conducted that its three sides — the theoretical, the political, and the practical-economical (opposition to the capitalists) — form one harmonious and well-planned whole. In this concentric attack, as it were, lies the strength and invincibility of the German movement.

It is due to this advantageous situation on the one hand, to the insular peculiarities of the British, and to the cruel suppression of the French movements on the other, that for the present moment the German workers form the vanguard of the proletarian struggle. How long events will allow them to occupy this post of honour cannot be foreseen.

But as long as they are placed in it, let us hope that they will discharge their duties in the proper manner. This requires a redoubled effort in all areas of struggle and agitation. It is the specific duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer understanding of the theoretical problems, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old conception of the world, and constantly to keep in mind that Socialism, having become a science, demands the same treatment as every other science — it must be studied. The task of the leaders will be to bring understanding, thus acquired and clarified, to the working masses, to spread it with increased enthusiasm, to close the ranks of the party organisations and of the labour unions with ever greater energy. […]

If the German workers proceed in this way, they may not march exactly at the head of the movement — it is not in the interest of the movement that the workers of one country should march at the head of all — but they will occupy an honourable place on the battle line, and they will stand armed for battle when other unexpected grave trials or momentous events will demand heightened courage, heightened determination, and the will to act. [10]

Engels’s words proved prophetic. Within a few years, the German workers did face an unexpectedly heavy test, in the form of the exceptional law against socialism. [11] And the German workers indeed stood ready and armed and were able to emerge victorious from this test.

The Russian proletariat will have to face an incomparably more severe ordeal; a struggle with a monster in comparison with which an exceptional law in a constitutional country seems a mere pygmy. History has now set before us an immediate task that is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country. The realization of this task — the destruction of the most powerful bulwark, not only of European, but also (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 expect that we will achieve this honorable title, already earned by our predecessors, the revolutionaries of the ’70s, if we succeed in inspiring our movement, which is a thousand times broader and deeper, with the same selfless determination and energy.

[1] Rabocheye Delo — The Workers’ Cause or For The Workers — was a newspaper of Marxist orientation that distinguished itself from its peers by presenting itself as more concerned with practical as opposed to theoretical matters. Like Iskra, it was an émigré newspaper. 

[2] Social-Democracy meant something different in 1902 than it does now. The name then expressed both a focus on “the social question” (inequality, poverty) and a demand for mass participation in political life. The movement was from the very beginning, however, inspired by Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Later in history Communist would once again become the title of choice of revolutionaries, and Social-Democracy would come to refer to the non-revolutionary reformist parties of Western Europe. 

[3] The Emancipation Labour — First Russian Marxist group, founded by G. V. Plekhanov in Switzerland in 1883, with express Marxist-theoretical orientation. 

[4] Eduard Bernstein, who once sat near the helm of the German communist movement (in 1890-1900), eventually came to renege against Marxism, both politically (through reformism) and philosophically (through a “critique” of Hegelianism). He thus became the go-to example of opportunism and revisionism for the revolutionaries of the era. 

[5] Zarya, or Dawn, was a 1901-1902 Russian-Marxist journal published published by the Iskra group, but with a heavier theoretical and political emphasis as opposed to polemics and commentary on contemporary events. 

[6] Earlier in this same chapter, Lenin argues “People who are genuinely convinced that they are moving science forward do not demand freedom for the new views alongside of the old, but the replacement of the latter by the former.” 

[7] Karl Marx’s letter to W. Bracke about the Gotha Programme (5 May 1875). [web] 

[8] “Economists” refers to those who interpreted Marxist materialism in such a way that outcomes were basically pre-determined by economics, such that agitation and non-economic political activity and demands were deemed superfluous. 

[9] Pavel Axelrod was an early Russian Marxist and Social-Democrat, a member of the Emancipation of Labour group referenced approvingly by Lenin earlier. His warning was titled “On the Question of the Present Tasks and Tactics of the Russian Social Democrats” (1898). [web] Upon the party split in 1903, he sided with the Mensheviks, and remained one until his death in 1928. 

[10] Friedrich Engels, 1874 preface to The Peasant War in Germany (1850). [web] 

[11] Chancellor Bismarck’s “Exceptional Law against the Socialists” [Gezetz gegen die gemeinefährlichen Bestrebungen der Sozialdemokratie] introduced in 21 October 1878. [web]