V. I. Lenin
Translation: Lars Lih
Editing: Alice Malone, Roderic Day

What Is To Be Done? (Abridged) (1902)

70 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1902) is a legendary text. That said, as Lars Lih points out in his extensive study Lenin Rediscovered (2010), [1] even Lenin agreed it’s an easy text to misunderstand and misread in retrospect. Many of its still-relevant general conclusions get lost amid details; people, publications, and even entire named political tendencies referred to in it are now forgotten. Lih also points out how careless translation makes the problem worse. For example, konspiratsiya, which really means something like today’s “security culture” (guarding against surveillance), often becomes conspiracy, a “false friend.” [2] In reality, Lenin’s championing of konspiratsiya is not in contradiction with his opposition to “the narrowing of political struggle to the level of a conspiracy.”

In order to try to breathe some life into the text and rouse interest in revisiting it, Alice Malone and I decided to put together our own edition of this great work. Our goal can be understood like this: if Lih’s work contextualizes What Is To Be Done? by greatly expanding its volume and fleshing out every little detail, we in turn extend his work by using this understanding to trim the text down to what we consider its enduring essentials.

Read this with caution, understanding RS has exerted extensive editorial judgment, reordering its contents and altering wording over Lih’s own editorial decisions. For example, we replaced all references to “Social Democracy,” which we deem very misleading today, with “Communism.” [3] We also decided, for example, to translate relevant publication names to English, since they seem aptly evocative of the political currents they aimed to represent. [4]

If this “remix” intrigues you, and you’re up to learn a lot, pick up Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered (which includes Lih’s full original translation of What Is To Be Done?) and get some friends together for a reading group.
 — R. D.


1.1. Primitive Riots and Revolutionary Theory

Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. It is impossible to emphasize this thought too much at a time when along with the fashionable preaching of opportunism people are carried away with the narrowest possible forms of practical activity.

Primitive riots already expressed a certain awakening of purposiveness: [5] the workers lost their age-old faith in the unshakability of the order that oppressed them, they began… I won’t say to understand, but to feel the necessity of collective resistance, and they broke once and for all with slavish humility before the bosses. But this was still much more an expression of despair and revenge than of struggle.

It goes without saying that it would never occur to us to blame these activists for this lack of preparation. But in order to draw some practical lessons from their first try, and to gain some benefit from the experience of the movement, it is necessary to be frank about the reasons and significance of this or that failing.

The lack of preparation of the majority of revolutionaries is completely natural and should not worry us overmuch. Given that there was a correct definition of tasks and also the energy to try again and again to fulfill those tasks, these temporary failures were only half-misfortunes. Revolutionary experience and organizational skills are things that come with time — if there is the desire to develop the necessary qualities in oneself. In a revolutionary cause, an awareness of our failings is more than halfway to fixing them!

But a half-misfortune became a real misfortune, when this awareness began to fade (and it was very much alive among the Communists of 1895-8) [6] and when there appeared people — and even Communist periodicals — who came up with theoretical arguments that turned such failings into virtues, who even tried to justify theoretically their own slavishness and bowing before spontaneity. [7]

It is time to sum up the results of this tendency, whose content is very inexactly characterised by the overly narrow label of “economism.”

1.2. “Economism” vs. Purposiveness

There can be no disputing that the mass movement is indeed the most important phenomenon. But the question is: what do we mean when we say that this mass movement “determines tasks”? There are two possibilities: we either bow before the spontaneity of this movement, reducing the role of Communists down to a simple servicing of the worker movement as such (the possibility adopted by “economists”); or the mass movement puts before us new theoretical, political, organizational tasks — much more complicated than those found satisfactory in the period before the emergence of the mass movement.

The supporters of a “purely worker movement,” worshippers of the closest and most “organic” link with the proletarian struggle, opponents of any non-worker intelligentsia (even if it is a Communist intelligentsia), are compelled for the defence of their position to resort to the conclusions of bourgeois “trade unionists in exclusivity.” But this talk about the “over-valuation of ideology” is a profound error. Any bowing before the spontaneity of the worker movement, any disparagement of the role of the “purposive element” — of the role of Communism — signals just by itself, completely independent of whether the disparager wishes this or not, the strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology over the workers.

But why — the reader will ask — does the spontaneous movement, the movement that goes along the line of least resistance, go precisely to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology originated much longer ago than the socialist ideology, that it has been worked out in a more all-encompassing manner, and that it disposes of immeasurably greater means of dissemination. And the younger the socialist movement is in any particular country, the more energetic must be the struggle against all attempts to strengthen the non-socialist ideology, the more resolutely must the workers be warned against those bad counsellors that cry out against “the overestimation of the purposive element” and so forth.

Looking back, many years later, when the struggle over the issue of the choice of path has ended and history has given a final judgement about the suitability of the path actually chosen, it is, of course, not too difficult to show one’s profundity with pronouncements about the growth of party tasks that grow together with the Party. But in a time of real confusion, when the Russian “critics” and the “economists” lower Communism to Trade Unionism, and terrorists zealously preach the adoption of a “tactics-as-plan” that simply repeats old mistakes — to limit oneself to this kind of profundity is equivalent to issuing oneself a “certificate of poverty.”

1.3. “Economism” and Terrorism

There is not just an accidental but a necessary internal link between “economism” and terrorism. At first glance, our affirmation might appear to be a paradox — so great is the evident distance between people who emphasize the “grey ongoing struggle” and people who call for the most self-sacrificing struggle of individuals. But it is not a paradox. “Economists” and terrorists bow before different poles of the spontaneous current: the “economists” before the spontaneity of the “authentically working-class movement” and the terrorists before the spontaneity of the passionate indignation of intelligentsia who do not have the ability, or who do not find it possible, to link revolutionary work into a single whole with the worker movement. It is difficult for anyone who has lost faith in this possibility, or who never had it, to find any other outlet for his feelings of indignation and for his revolutionary energy than terror. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and, in the present case, good intentions will not save anyone from being drawn in spontaneous fashion down the “line of least resistance.”

It is hardly accidental that many Russian liberals — both open liberals and those who wear a Marxist mask — sympathize wholeheartedly with terror and try to give support to the upsurge in terrorist moods at the present moment. Liberty [8] propagandizes terror as a means of “instigating” the worker movement, of giving it a “powerful shock.” It would be difficult to find an argument that more obviously refutes itself! Let’s think: are there really so few outrages in Russian life that we have to invent some special means of “instigation”? And, from another angle, if someone is not instigated or not instigable even by Russian abuses of power, then isn’t it obvious that he will also look on the duel between the government and a handful of terrorists with sublime indifference? The point is this: the worker masses are very much instigated by the despicable features of Russian life, but we do not yet know how to collect (if I may so express myself) and concentrate all those droplets and streams of popular indignation that percolate out of Russian life in vastly greater quantities than we think or can conceive but which indeed must be merged into one gigantic flood.

This task can be accomplished. This is proved irrefutably by the enormous growth of the worker movement and the hunger of the workers for political literature mentioned earlier. Calls to apply terror, exactly like calls to impart a political character to the economic struggle itself, are just different ways of shirking the most urgent responsibility of Russian revolutionaries: to organize the conduct of all-sided political agitation. Liberty wants to replace agitation with terror and it openly admits that “once intensive, energetic agitation begins among the masses, then the excitative (instigating) role of terror is done.”

As it happens, this demonstrates that both terrorists and “economists” underrate the revolutionary activeness of the masses, in spite of the clear testimony of the spring events, even though the former busy themselves in search of artificial “instigations” while the latter talk about “concrete demands.” Both the one and the other pay insufficient attention to the development of their own activeness in the matter of political agitation and the organization of political indictments. [9] But one cannot replace this task with any other, either now or at any other time.

1.4. “Economism” and “Tailism”

The role of Communism is to be a “spirit” that does not merely brood above the spontaneous movement but lifts up this movement to “its” programme. Its role is certainly not to drag along in the tail of the movement: this is useless for the movement in the best case and extremely harmful in the worst case. But The Workers’ Cause not only adopts this “tactics-as-process” but elevates it into a principle, so that a better name than opportunism for its tendency would be tailism[10]

The overwhelming majority of Russian Communists in the period just passed were almost completely taken up with the work of organizing factory indictments. It is enough to recall Workers’ Thought [11] to realise the extent of this focus, and how it was forgotten in all of this that, taken by itself, organizing economic indictments is in essence not yet Communist but only Trade-Unionist activity. The indictments encompassed, in essence, only the relation of workers of a given trade to their bosses, and all they accomplished was that the sellers of labour-power learned how to sell their “commodity” more advantageously and to fight the buyer on a ground of a purely commercial deal.

Communism guides the struggle of the worker class not only for advantageous conditions in the sale of labour-power but also for the abolition of the social system that forces the have-nots to sell themselves to the rich. Communism understands the worker class not only in its relation to a given group of entrepreneurs but in its relation to all classes of modern society, and to the State as organized political power. It is therefore understandable that Communists must not confine themselves to an economic struggle and also that they must not allow the organization of economic indictments to be their predominant activity. We must also actively take up the political education of the worker class, the development of its political awareness.

1.5. Propaganda and Agitation

Up to this time, we had thought (along with Plekhanov and, indeed, with all the leaders of the international worker movement) [12] that, if the propagandist takes up the issue, for example, of unemployment, he should explain the capitalist nature of crises, demonstrate the reason for their inevitability in present-day society, describe the necessity of their transformation in socialist society and so forth. In a word, he should give “many ideas” — so many that all these ideas in all their interconnections can only be assimilated right away by a few (comparatively few) individuals.

When the agitator talks about the same issue, he will select for his example something notorious that is very well known to all his listeners — let’s say, an unemployed family who perished from hunger, or the intensification of poverty, and so on — and then directs all his energy to use this fact known to each and all in order to give to the “mass” one idea: the idea of the insanity of the contradiction between the growth of riches and the growth of poverty. He will try to awaken in the mass dissatisfaction and indignation about this crying injustice while leaving its full explanation to the propagandist.

The propagandist thus acts for the most part by the printed word while the agitator acts by the living word. A good propagandist has different qualities than a good agitator. To carve out a third area or third function of practical activity and define this function as “the call to the mass to undertake certain concrete actions” is a complete muddle, since any such “call” as a separate act is either a natural and inevitable supplement to a theoretical treatise, to a propagandistic pamphlet, to an agitational speech, or it is part of direct implementation of a particular mass action.

2.1. Economic Indictments vs. All-Sided Political Indictments

Let us now consider, what should political education be? Can we limit ourselves to propagandizing the idea of the enmity of the worker class towards the autocracy? Of course not. It is not enough to explain the political oppression of the workers (just as it is not enough to explain to them the opposition between their interests and that of the owners). It is necessary to agitate in relation to each concrete manifestation of this oppression (just as we have come to agitate in relation to concrete manifestations of economic oppression). And since this oppression falls on the most various classes of society, since it appears in the most various areas of life and activity — at workplaces, as citizens, interpersonally, in faith, in science, and so on and so forth — surely it is obvious that we will not carry out our task of developing political awareness of the workers, if we do not take upon ourselves the organization of an all-sided political indictment?

Is it true that economic struggle is in general “the most widely applicable means” of drawing the masses into the political struggle? Completely untrue. A no less “widely applicable” means of “drawing in” is each and every manifestation of police oppression and autocratic outrage — and definitely not just manifestations tied to the economic struggle. The local deputies and their corporal punishment of the peasants in rural areas, the bribe-taking of bureaucrats and the way the police treat the urban man-in-the-street, the violence against dispossessed people and the mockery of the people’s striving toward light and knowledge, the extortion of taxes and the persecution of sectarians, the harsh drill of soldiers and the treatment of students and liberal intelligentsia as if they were in the military — speaking generally, why should we consider that all of these and a thousand other similar manifestations of oppression that are not tied to the “economic” struggle are a less “widely applicable means” and an occasion for political agitation and drawing in the masses to political struggle?

In fact, the opposite is the case: in the general sum of the day-to-day occurrences in which the worker suffers (either in his own person or in the person of those close to him) from lack of rights, abuse of power and violence, there is no doubt that only a small minority consists of police oppression that is specific to the economic struggle. So why narrow in advance the sweep of political agitation, why call only one of the means “the most widely applicable,” when a Communist should recognise others that are, speaking generally, no less “widely applicable”?

We, as Communists, should not in any way whatsoever give grounds for the opinion (or misunderstanding) that economic reforms are the ones that we most value or the ones that we consider the most important, and so forth.

2.2. Genuine Political Awareness

The awareness of the worker class is not genuine political awareness if the workers are not taught to respond to each and every occurrence of abuse of power and oppression, violence and malfeasance, no matter which class is affected — and, in so doing, respond precisely with a Communist point of view and no other. The awareness of the worker masses cannot be a genuine class awareness if the workers do not learn, on the basis of concrete and (this is essential) topical political facts and events, to observe each of the other social classes in all the manifestations of their intellectual, moral and political life — if they do not learn to apply in practice a materialist analysis and a materialist evaluation of all sides of the activity and life of all classes, strata and groups of the population. He who focuses the attention, powers of observation, and awareness of the worker class exclusively or even primarily on itself, is no Communist: the self-knowledge of the worker class is inextricably tied to full clarity in its conceptions of the mutual relations of all classes of present-day society — conceptions that are not only theoretical… more precisely, not so much theoretical as they are worked out via experience of political life.

In order to become a Communist, a worker must have a clear conception of the economic nature and the social and political profile of the landowner and the priest, the bureaucrat and the peasant, the student and the homeless tramp — know their strong sides and their weak ones, be able to analyze the catchwords and the sophisms of all possible kinds by which each class and each stratum conceals its selfish desires and its actual essence. A worker must be able to analyze how various institutions and laws reflect this or that interest, and how they do so. And this “clear conception” cannot be taken from any book: it can be given only by living pictures and up-to-the-minute indictments of what is happening at any given time around us — the things about which everybody has something to say or at least about which people whisper among themselves. A “clear conception” comes when people realize what is expressed in such and such an event, in such and such statistics, in such and such a judicial decision, and so on and so on and so on. These all-sided political indictments are a necessary and fundamental condition of the education of the masses in revolutionary activeness.

2.3. Raising Our Activeness

Why does the Russian worker still show in so limited a fashion his revolutionary activeness in connection with the police’s bestial treatment of the people, the persecution of sectarians, the corporal punishment of peasants, the outrages of the censor, the torment of the soldiers, the persecution of the most harmless cultural undertakings and so forth? Is it because the “economic struggle” does not “push him to face” the need for such activeness or that revolutionary activeness promises him so little in the way of “tangible results,” so little in the way of “positive” results? No — such a view is, let us repeat it, nothing other than an attempt to shift the blame and to shift one’s own philistinism (and Bernsteinism) over to the worker mass. [13]

We must blame ourselves, our falling behind the movement of the masses, since we have yet not been able to organize indictments of these despicable things in a sufficiently broad, clear and timely fashion. If we do this (and we must do it and we can do it), — the very simplest worker will understand, or will feel, that the dark force that mocks and oppresses the student and the sectarian, the muzhik [14] and the writer, is the same that oppresses and weighs on him at each step of his life. And, when he does feel this, he will himself desire, with an overwhelming desire, to respond — and he will know how to do it, today setting up a chorus of catcalls for the censor, tomorrow demonstrating before the home of a governor who repressed a peasant riot, the day after tomorrow giving a lesson to the priests who are nothing but policemen in cassocks doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, and so forth. We still have done very little, almost nothing, to throw into the worker masses fresh and all-sided indictments. Many among the Communists are not even aware that this is our responsibility, and so they follow in spontaneous fashion the “grey ongoing struggle” within the narrow framework of factory life.

Under these circumstances, to announce that “The Spark [15] has a tendency to disparage the significance of the forward march of the grey ongoing struggle in comparison with the propaganda of brilliant and self-sufficient ideas” is to drag the Party backward, to defend and glorify our lack of preparation and our falling behind. Our business — the business of the Communist journalists — is to deepen, broaden and intensify political indictments and political agitation.

For this it is necessary that the intelligentsia spend less time telling workers what they already know, and more time giving them what they don’t know, what they themselves will never be able to learn from their own factory and “economic” experience, namely: political knowledge. It is you, the intelligentsia, that can bring them this knowledge, and you are obliged to deliver it to them a hundred and a thousand times more than you are doing up to now, and what is more, deliver it not only in the form of disquisitions, pamphlets and articles (which are often, if you will forgive my frankness, a little boring!), but, without fail, also in the form of living indictments of what exactly our government and our dominant classes are doing in all areas of life. Just carry out more zealously this responsibility of yours, and talk less about “raising the activeness of the worker mass.”

Less bowing before spontaneity, gentlemen, and more thought to raising your activeness!

2.4. The Trade Union Secretary vs. The People’s Tribune

“All are agreed” that we must develop the political awareness of the worker class. Let us now ask ourselves how to do this and what is required for doing it. The economic struggle “pushes the workers to face” only issues about the relation of the government to the worker class and therefore — no matter how much we labour over the task of “imparting a political character to the economic struggle itself” — we will never be able to develop the political awareness of the workers (up to the level of Communist political awareness) within the framework of this task, because the framework itself is too narrow.

Class political awareness can be brought to the worker only from without, that is to say from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of the relations of workers to owners. The only area from which this knowledge can be taken is the area of the relations of all classes and strata to the State and to the government — the area of the interrelations between all classes. Therefore, one cannot answer the question “What is to be done to bring political knowledge to the workers?” with the response that the majority of activists are contented with, namely: “Go to the workers.” In order to bring the workers political knowledge, the Communists must go to all classes of the population, must send the detachments of its army in all directions.

Let us examine the type of Communist circle found most commonly in recent times and look closely at its work. It has “links with the workers” and is content with that; it publishes leaflets in which factory abuses are flayed along with police violence and the government’s actions that are so biased toward the capitalists; during conferences with workers, the conversation does not ordinarily go beyond or barely goes beyond the limits of these same themes; very rarely are there reports and conversations on the history of the revolutionary movement, on issues of domestic and external policies of our government, on issues of the economic evolution of Russia and Europe and the position in modern society of this or that class and so on; nobody even thinks of obtaining and broadening links to the other classes in society.

In essence, the ideal activist as pictured by members of these circles — in the majority of cases — is something much closer to a secretary of a trade union than to a Socialist political leader. The secretary of any trade union always helps the workers conduct their economic struggle, organizes factory indictments, explains the injustice of laws and of measures that hinder the freedom of strikes or the freedom to establish pickets (to warn all and sundry that there is a strike at a given factory), explains the partiality of the arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes of the people, and so on and so on. In a word, any secretary of a trade union conducts and helps others conduct the “economic struggle with the owners and the government.”

We cannot insist too strongly that this is not yet Communism, and that the ideal of the Communist should not be a secretary of a trade union but a people’s tribune who can respond to each and every manifestation of abuse of power and oppression, wherever it occurs, whatever stratum or class it concerns. The people’s tribune can generalize all these manifestations into one big picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation, is able to use each small affair to set before everybody his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, and to explain to each and all the world-historical significance of the liberation struggle of the proletariat.

2.5. All-Sided Political Indictments: A Retreat From Class?

We said that a Communist, if he insists (more than just in words) on the necessity of an all-sided development of political awareness of the proletariat, must “go to all classes of the population.” I will be asked: how to do this? Do we have forces to do this? Is there any ground for such work among all the other classes? Will not this mean a retreat, or lead to a retreat, from the class point of view? Let us dwell on these questions.

We should “go to all classes of the population” as theoreticians, as propagandists, as agitators and as organizers. No one doubts that the theoretical work of Communists is directed toward the study of all the particularities of the social and political position of individual classes. But extremely little is being done in this connection — disproportionately little in comparison with the work aimed at the study of the particularities of factory life. In our committees and circles, you will meet people who are genuinely learned in the special subject of something like railroad manufacture, but you will find almost no examples of members of these organizations (when they are compelled, as often, to leave practical work for this or that reason) devoting themselves especially to some topical issue of our social and political life that could provide the occasion for Communist work in other strata of the population. When we talk about the lack of preparedness of the present-day leaders and guides of the worker movement, we must certainly also remember lack of preparation of this kind, since it is also tied closely to the “economist” understanding of “close and organic links with the proletarian struggle.”

But the main thing, of course, is propaganda and agitation in all strata of the people. He is no Communist who forgets in practice that “the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement” [16] and that we are obliged therefore to lay out our views in front of the whole people and to underline general democratic tasks, not hiding for a moment our socialist convictions. He is no Communist who forgets in practice about his responsibility to be in advance of all in presenting, sharpening and resolving any general democratic issue.

3.1. The Communist Vanguard

It is not enough just to call oneself a “vanguard,” an advanced detachment — one has to act so that all other detachments see and are compelled to admit that we are indeed moving out ahead. And we ask the reader: are the representatives of the other “detachments” really such fools simply to accept our word about being a “vanguard”?

Just imagine the following concrete situation. A Communist goes to the “detachment” of educated radicals, or liberal constitutionalists, and says: “We are the vanguard and before us stands the task of imparting, to the greatest extent possible, a political character to the economic struggle itself.” A moderately intelligent radical or constitutionalist (and there are lots of intelligent people among the Russian radicals and constitutionalists) will only smile when hearing such a speech. And the faint smile of our constitutionalist will turn into Homeric laughter when he learns that what these Communists who talk about “Communism as a vanguard” fear most on earth — at the present time of almost complete domination of spontaneity in our movement — is “underestimating the spontaneous element,” “underestimating the significance of the ‘forward march of the grey ongoing struggle’ in comparison with ‘the propaganda of brilliant and self-sufficient ideas’,” and so on and so on. An “advanced” detachment which fears that purposiveness might overtake spontaneity, and which fears to put forward a daring “plan” that would compel general recognition even from those who disagree! Haven’t these people confused the word “vanguard” with the word “rearguard”?

It goes without saying that we cannot guide the struggle of the students, the liberals and so forth for their “current interests,” but that’s not the point, my most highly respected “economist”! The point is, rather, the possible and the necessary participation of various social strata in the overthrow of the autocracy, and this “energetic activity of various oppositional strata” we not only can but definitely must guide if we want to be a “vanguard.”

“We,” if we wish to be advanced democrats, must take care to push people who are personally dissatisfied only with their university or only with their local institutions to face up to the worthlessness of our political institutions as a whole. We must take upon ourselves the task of organizing an all-sided political struggle under the guidance of our party so that as much help as possible can be given and will be given to that struggle and to that party by each and every oppositional stratum. We must take the activists of Communism and make them political leaders, leaders capable of guiding all manifestations of the all-sided struggle, capable at the crucial moment “to dictate a positive programme of action” to the turbulent students, the dissatisfied neighborhood people, the indignant sectarians, the offended rural teachers, and so on and so on.

To provide the workers with genuinely all-sided and living political knowledge, we need “our people,” Communists, to be everywhere, in all social strata, in all sorts of positions that give them the possibility to know the internal workings of our state mechanism. And these people are necessary, not only for propaganda and agitation, but even more for organization.

3.2. Falling Behind Non-Communist Revolutionaries

The great majority of people from the non-worker classes who are engaged in indictments — and to be a vanguard, it is precisely necessary to draw in other classes — are sober politicians and pragmatic, business-like people. They know perfectly well that it is dangerous to “complain” about even the lowest bureaucrat, not to mention the “all-powerful” Russian government. And they will turn to us with complaints only when they see that their complaint is genuinely capable of having a real effect and that we constitute a political force. In order to impress third parties this way, we must work long and hard on raising our purposiveness, initiative and energy — it is not enough to hang a sign saying “vanguard” on the theory and practice of a rearguard.

But if we are obliged to take upon ourselves the organization of indictments of the government genuinely addressed to the whole people, then how does the class character of our movement express itself? This is the question that will be posed, and is posed to us, by the overzealous worshipper of “close and organic links with the proletarian struggle.” The class character is expressed in this: it is we, the Communists, who organize these indictments addressed to the whole people. Furthermore, the illumination of all the issues raised by agitation will be carried out in an unremitting Communist spirit without the slightest indulgence toward deliberate and unintentional distortions of Marxism.

We advise people who habitually pronounce on the topic of the disagreements among Communists with a good deal of self-assurance but without much thought, and who say that these disagreements are on inessential matters and that no schism is justified — we advise these people to think good and hard. It does not take a great deal of thought to understand why any bowing before the spontaneity of the mass movement, any lowering of Communist politics to Trade-Unionist politics, is precisely preparing the ground for turning the worker movement into a tool of the bourgeois democracy. A spontaneous worker movement in and of itself creates (and inevitably creates) only Trade Unionism, and a Trade-Unionist politics by the worker class means precisely a bourgeois politics by the worker class. The participation of the worker class in the political struggle and even in the political revolution in no way ensures that its politics are Communist politics.

The activeness of the worker masses has turned out to be higher than our own activeness. We did not have on hand enough prepared revolutionary leaders and guides and organizers with an excellent understanding of the mood in all oppositional strata and who were able to stand at the head of the movement, to turn a spontaneous demonstration into a political one, to broaden its political character, and so on. Under these circumstances, our falling behind will inevitably be used by more flexible, more energetic non-Communist revolutionaries; the workers, no matter how energetically and with what self-sacrifice they fight with police and troops, no matter in how revolutionary a fashion they act, will prove to be merely a force supporting these non-Communist revolutionaries — a rearguard of the bourgeois democracy rather than a Communist vanguard.

3.3. Artisanal Limitations

The character of the organization of any institution is naturally and inevitably defined by the content of the activity of that institution. It is particularly necessary to awaken in anyone who participates in practical work, or who intends to undertake such work, a dissatisfaction with the artisanal limitations dominant among us, as well as an unshakeable resolution to escape from them. Lack of practical preparation, clumsiness in organizational work is truly common to all of us, including those who have stood for revolutionary Marxism unswervingly from the very beginning. And, of course, no one can castigate the activists for this lack of preparation in and of itself. But the concept of “artisanal limitations” includes something else besides lack of preparation: the narrow scope of all one’s revolutionary work in general, the failure to understand that this narrow work cannot form the basis of a well-constructed organization of revolutionaries, and lastly — this is the main point — attempts to justify this narrowness and to exalt it into a special “theory.” In other words, bowing to spontaneity in this area as well.

People say that we should “prepare a general strike” or that we need to instigate the “sluggish” course of the worker movement by means of “excitative terror.” Both these tendencies — the opportunists as well as the “revolutionists” — abdicate before the domination of artisanal limitations. They do not believe in the possibility of freeing themselves from it, they do not understand our first and most pressing practical task: to create an organization of revolutionaries that is able to assure the energy, stability and continuity of the political struggle. All the ruminations of Krichevskii and Martynov, of the danger of underestimating the significance of the spontaneous element, or of “the grey ongoing struggle,” about “tactics-as-process” and so forth — all these ruminations are exactly a glorification and defence of artisanal limitations. These people who cannot pronounce the word “theorist” without a condescending smirk — who label their own genuflection before simple lack of preparation and lack of development as “a feel for real life” — are, in fact, exposing their failure to understand our most pressing practical tasks.

A circle of “artisans” will not find political tasks accessible, as long as these artisans are not aware of their artisanal limitations and do not free themselves from them. If, added to all this, these artisans have fallen in love with their own artisanal limitations, if they put “practical” in italics without fail and imagine that this practicality demands a lowering of their tasks to the level of the understanding of the most backward strata of the masses — then, of course, these artisans are hopeless and they will find political tasks inaccessible in general.

3.4. On Mutual Aid and “Red Tape”

I recall a conversation with one fairly thorough-going “economist” with whom I was not previously acquainted. We were talking about the pamphlet Who Will Carry Out the Political Revolution? and we quickly came to an agreement that its basic shortcoming was that it ignored the question of organization. We thus imagined that we were in complete solidarity — but… the conversation continued on its course and it turned out that we were talking about different things. My fellow conversationalist accused the author of ignoring strike funds, mutual aid societies and so forth, while I had in mind the organization of revolutionaries that was necessary for “carrying out” the political revolution. And, as soon as this disagreement made itself known — well, I can’t remember that I once agreed with this “economist” about any principled issue at all!

In order to direct the nascent trade movement in a channel desirable for Communism, it is necessary first of all clearly to grasp the absurdity of the plan of organization with which the Petersburg “economists” have been obsessed for almost five years. Let us take the second set of rules of their plan, as it is worked out more thoroughly. The body of the rules consists of fifty-two sections: twenty-three sections set out the construction, the procedures and the departmental responsibilities of the “worker circles” that are set up in each factory (“not greater than 10 people”) and that elect the “central (factory) groups.”

To talk about the “political liberation of the worker class” and then to write organizational rules like these reveals a complete lack of understanding of the genuine political tasks of Communism. Not one of the fifty or so sections reveals even a glimmer of understanding that we need a broad political agitation among the masses that illuminates all sides of Russian absolutism and provides a whole portrait of the different social classes in Russia. And not only political but even Trade-Unionist aims cannot be realized with such rules, since these aims demand organization according to trade and this is not even mentioned. But probably the most characteristic feature is the striking unwieldiness of the whole “system” as it tries to link each separate factory with the “committee” by means of permanent threads consisting of identical and ridiculously detailed rules that involve a three-stage system of elections. Crushed by the narrow horizon of “economism,” the thinking of the authors of the rules becomes addicted to details of the sort that reek of red tape and office routine. In practice, of course, three quarters of these sections are never applied, but the notarized organization with a central group at each factory helps the police in their efforts to carry out incredibly broad sabotage.

Any agitator with even a spark of understanding of what he is doing can find out in complete detail from a simple conversation what kind of demands the workers want to bring forward. A small, closely compact nucleus of the most reliable, experienced and toughened workers who have reliable representatives in the main districts and who are tied to the organization of revolutionaries according to all the rules of the strictest possible confidentiality will be able to carry out fully — along with the broadest participation of the mass and without any formalization — all the functions incumbent on a trade organization and, besides, do so in a way that is most desirable for Communism. Only in this way can we attain the strengthening and development, in despite of all gendarmes, of a Communist trade movement.

The moral of all this is simple: if we begin by firmly establishing a strong organization of revolutionaries, then we will be able to assure the stability of the movement as a whole, to realize Communist aims along with specifically Trade-Unionist ones. If, on the other hand, we begin with a broad worker organization that is allegedly “accessible” to the mass (and, in practice, accessible mostly to the gendarmes, making revolutionaries more accessible to the police), then we will achieve neither Communist aims nor Trade-Unionist ones. [17] We will not escape from artisanal limitations and, given our fragmentation and our eternal tendency to be destroyed by the police, we will only make the mass more accessible to Trade Unionists of the clerical or liberal type.

3.5. On Leaders

Plekhanov was a thousand times right when he not only identified workers as the revolutionary class, not only proved the inevitability and unavoidability of their spontaneous awakening, but also presented to the “worker circles” a great and noble political task. You brag about your practicality and you don’t see (a fact known to any Russian activist) what miracles for the revolutionary cause can be brought about not only by a circle but by a lone individual. Or do you think that our movement can’t produce real leaders like those of the seventies? Why? Because we’re unprepared? But we are preparing ourselves, we will go on preparing ourselves — and we will not stop until we are prepared!

Take the Germans. [18] How this crowd of millions knows how to value its “dozen” tried and true political leaders, how firmly they latch on to them! More than once, the deputies from hostile parties in parliament tease the socialists: “Fine democrats you are! Only in words are you a movement of the worker class, but in reality the same old clique of leaders are always before us. Always the same Bebel, always the same Liebknecht, year after year, decade after decade. Why, your supposedly elective worker delegates are even more irremovable than the bureaucrats appointed by the Emperor!” But the Germans merely smile contemptuously at these demagogic attempts to oppose “the crowd” to “the leaders,” to inflame in the former unworthy and envious instincts, to steal from the movement its solidity and stability by destroying the trust of the mass in the “dozen clever ones.”

Political thought has developed enough among the Germans, and they have had enough experience, for them to understand that without the “dozen” of talented (and talent is not something available by the “hundreds”) and experienced leaders who have been long schooled and prepared for their trade — leaders who have learned to work together smoothly as a team — without all this, a steadfast struggle is impossible on the part of any class at all in modern society.

Various demagogues have arisen from among the Germans who have flattered the “hundred fools,” flattered the “muscular fist” of the mass, instigating it (in the manner of Most or Hasselmann) to reckless “revolutionary” actions while instilling lack of trust toward the firm and steadfast leaders. And only thanks to an unremitting and uncompromising struggle with any and all demagogic elements within socialism has German socialism grown so much and acquired such strength. And our sages here in Russia — in a period when the entire crisis of Russian Communism can be explained by the fact that there are not enough prepared, developed and experienced leader and guides for the masses who are awakening in spontaneous fashion — tell us with all the profundity of a simpleton: “Oh, it’s bad when the movement does not come from below!”

“A committee of students is of no use and cannot be relied upon.” Absolutely correct. But the conclusion we need to draw is that we need a committee of revolutionaries by trade — it doesn’t make any difference whether it is a student or a worker who makes out of himself a revolutionary by trade. You draw the conclusion that one shouldn’t “push the worker movement from the side.” Due to your political naïveté you don’t notice that you’re playing into the hands of our “economists” and artisanal limitations. May one ask what exactly is meant by the “pushing” of our workers by our students? If you pick such a grotesque expression as “pushing from the side,” it will inevitably create in the worker (in any event, a worker that is just as undeveloped as you are) a lack of trust toward all who bring him political knowledge and revolutionary experience “from the side,” and will call forth an instinctive desire to reject all such people. Just for this reason, you show yourself a demagogue, and demagogues are the worst enemies of the worker class!

Oh yes! Don’t rush to raise a howl about the “un-comrade-like methods” of my polemic! I am far from suspecting the purity of your intentions, I already have said that someone can become a demagogue out of pure political naïveté. But I have shown that you have lowered yourself to demagoguery. And I will never tire of repeating that demagogues are the worst enemies of the worker class. [19]

3.6. On Conspiracy and Subordination

We have come out against and, of course, will always come out, against the narrowing of political struggle to the level of a conspiracy. This, of course, in no way means denying the necessity of a strong revolutionary organization.

In the book by the Webbs on English Trade Unionism [20] there is an interesting chapter entitled “Primitive Democracy.” The authors discuss how the English workers in the first period of the existence of their unions considered it a necessary sign of democracy to have everybody do everything in the administration of the unions: not only were all issues decided by taking a vote of all members but all official positions were occupied by all members in turn. It required a long historical experience for the workers to understand the absurdity of this conception of democracy and the necessity, on the one hand, of representative institutions and, on the other hand, of officials who know their trade. It required several cases of the financial ruin of union funds for the workers to understand that the issue of the proportional relationship between paid dues and benefits given out cannot be decided simply by a democratic vote but also required input from a specialist in insurance matters.

Isn’t it demagoguery when you battle against a sketch of a plan not only by denouncing it and advising comrades to reject it, but also by inciting people who are inexperienced in revolutionary matters against the author of the sketch for this reason alone, that he dared to “hand down laws,” act as a “supreme regulator” — in other words, that he dared to propose a sketch of a plan? Can our party develop and move forward if merely an attempt to lift up local activists to broader views, tasks, plans and so forth is rejected not only because the proposed views are untrue but also because of people being “offended” that someone “wants” to “lift us up”? But contempt toward a writer who lowers himself to cries of “autocracy” and “subordination” does not relieve us of the obligation to clear up the confusion presented to the reader by such people.

4.1. The Prestige of the Revolutionary in Russia

Our basic sin in organizational matters is that due to our artisanal limitations, we have injured the prestige of the revolutionary in Russia. A person who is flabby and shaky on theoretical issues, who has a narrow horizon, who uses the spontaneity of the mass in justification of his own sluggishness, who resembles more the secretary of a trade union than a people’s tribune, who is unable to advance a broad and daring plan that would inspire respect even from opponents, who is inexperienced and clumsy even in the art of his own trade — the struggle with the political police — excuse me! This person is not a revolutionary but some kind of wretched artisan.

I hope no activist will be angry at me for these sharp words since, insofar as we are talking about lack of preparation, I apply them first of all to myself. I worked in a circle that took upon itself very broad and all-embracing tasks, and all members of our circle had to suffer agonies to the point of illness from our awareness that we were showing ourselves to be nothing but artisans. Our task is not to defend the lowering of the revolutionary to the artisan but to raise the artisan up to the revolutionary. Society produces out of its ranks extremely many people who are fit for “the cause,” but we do not yet know how to utilize them. The lack of specialization is one of the great defects of the technical side of our work.

I am far from denying the necessity of providing popularizing literature for the workers and especially so for the most backward workers (although of course not made vulgar). But what makes me indignant is this constant dragging of pedagogy into political issues, into organizational issues. You defenders of the “middle worker” are, in essence, insulting the workers with your constant desire to condescend to them before starting to talk about worker politics or worker organization.

Why don’t you straighten up when you talk about serious things? Leave the pedagogy to pedagogues, not to those concerned with politics or with organization! You must understand that these very issues of “politics” and of “organization” are serious enough that we should only talk about them completely seriously. Don’t try to avoid the issue with folksy sayings and phrases.

Bowing before spontaneity creates a sort of fear of going even one step away from what is “accessible” to the mass — a fear of rising up too high and too far away from mere attendance on the nearest and most immediate demands of the mass. Don’t be so scared, gentlemen! Recall that as far as organization goes, we stand so low that the bare thought that we could rise too high is absurd!

4.2. The All-Russian Political Newspaper

Can a newspaper be a collective organizer? The central point of the article Where to Begin? [21] consists in asking precisely this question and giving it an affirmative answer. There is no other way to cultivate strong political organizations than by means of an all-Russian newspaper.

People who look at The Spark’s “plan” as a manifestation of writerism do not understand the very essence of the plan. These people think that what the plan puts forward as the most appropriate means at the present moment is put forward instead as a final goal. The establishment of an all-Russian political newspaper (as the The Spark article put it) should be the basic thread. As we hold on to it, we will be able unswervingly to develop, deepen and broaden a revolutionary organization that is always ready to support any protest and any flare-up.

A nation-wide newspaper is the single regular all-Russia enterprise that can sum up the results of the most various kinds of activity and by so doing pushes people to travel without flagging along all the numerous roads that lead to the revolution, just as all roads lead to Rome. If we want unification more than in words only, then it is necessary that every local circle allot right away a fourth, shall we say, of their forces for active work for the common cause, and a newspaper will immediately show this circle the general outline, dimensions and character of the common cause — show precisely which gaps in the entire all-Russian activity are making themselves felt the most, where agitation is absent, where links are weak, what cogs in the huge general mechanism can a particular circle fix or change for better ones.

And if we genuinely succeed in getting all or a significant majority of local committees, local groups and circles actively to take up the common work, we would in short order be able to have a weekly newspaper, regularly distributed in tens of thousands of copies throughout Russia. This newspaper would be a small part of a huge bellows that blows up each flame of class struggle and popular indignation into a common fire. Around this task — in and of itself a very small and even innocent one but one that is a regular and in the full meaning of the word common task — an army of experienced fighters would systematically be recruited and trained. Among the ladders and scaffolding of this common organizational construction would soon rise up Communist Zhelyabovs from among our revolutionaries, Russian Bebels from our workers, who would be pushed forward and then take their place at the head of a mobilized army and would raise up the whole people to settle accounts with the shame and curse of Russia. [22]

That is what we must dream about!

4.3. On Dreams

“We must dream!” I write these words and I take fright. It seems to me that I am sitting in a “unification congress,” and across me sit the editors and collaborators of The Workers’ Cause. And, now, comrade Martynov arises and turns threateningly toward me: “And may we permitted to ask, does an autonomous editorial board still have the right to dream without a preliminary polling of the committees of the Party?” And after him arises comrade Krichevskii who even more threateningly continues: “I go further, I ask, does in general any Marxist have the right to dream — one who does not forget that according to Marx mankind has always set itself achievable tasks and that tactics is a process of growth of the tasks that grow along with the Party?”

Just thinking about these threatening questions gives me the shivers, and all I can think of is where to hide. I will try to hide behind Pisarev. [23] On the issue of the conflict between dream and actuality, Pisarev wrote that

If a person is completely without the ability to dream, if he is unable from time to time to run ahead and to view in imagination a complete and finished picture of the creation that has just started to form under his hands — then I simply cannot imagine what stimulus would compel such a person to undertake and bring to completion an extensive and exhausting work in art, science or practical life. […] The conflict between dream and actuality will not lead to any harm, if only the individual dreamer seriously believes in his dream, attentively examines life, compares his observations of life to his castles in the air and in general conscientiously works for the realization of his fantasy. As long as there is some kind of contact between the dream and the real world, everything will turn out fine.

This is the kind of dreaming, unfortunately, of which there is all too little in our movement. And the people who are most to blame are those who make such a big affair out of their sobriety, their “closeness” to the “concrete”: the representatives of legally-permitted criticism along with those of illegal “tailism.”

4.4. A Most Practical Plan

It would be a huge mistake to create a party organization in the expectation either simply of an explosion and street battles or simply of a “forward march of the grey ongoing struggle.” We must always carry on our day-to-day work and always be ready for everything, because it is very often almost impossible to foresee a shift between periods of explosion and periods of quiet.

In a word, the plan for an all-Russian political newspaper, far from being a product of the armchair work of people infected by doctrinairism and writerism (as it may seem to people who have done a poor job of considering the question) is, on the contrary, a most practical plan for starting preparation for an uprising immediately and from all directions, while, at the same time, not forgetting for a moment our essential day-to-day work.

[1] Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context (2010), at Haymarket Books. [web] — R. D. 

[2] In linguistics, a false friend is a word in a different language that looks or sounds similar to a word in a given language, but differs significantly in meaning. [web] — R. D. 

[3] In 1902, “Social Democracy” referred to those who, following Marx, pushed for revolution. In the 21st century, “Social Democracy” refers to parties who push for reform. It was not until the split between the Bolsheviks and European Social Democratic parties in 1918 on questions of imperialism that the Bolsheviks adopted the label “Communists.” See the “Report on the Review of the Programme and on Changing the Name of the Party” (8 March 1918). [web] — R. D. 

[4] Lenin’s Iskra pretends to be a revolutionary “spark,” the liberal Svoboda champions abstract “liberty,” the Rabocheyes focus on “workers,” etc. — R. D. 

[5] Lenin used the word soznatel’nost’, often translated as “consciousness.” Here we side with Lih, who insists on “purposiveness” to better emphasize the idea of action guided by knowledge, rather than mere awareness — a higher level of consciousness than “spontaneous” consciousness. See also the discussion of “spontaneity” below. — A. M. 

[6] The late 1890s were a period of rapid growth in trade union and Communist activity; worker participation in strikes doubled (from 80,000 to 165,000) and the number of circles and committees of revolutionaries nearly tripled (from 50 to 135). See Lenin Rediscovered, pp. 442-443. — A. M. 

[7] Lenin in fact used the word stikhiinyi, translated here as “spontaneous” (and sometimes as “elemental”). Lih considers this so misleading he retains the Russian term throughout, to avoid the implication in English that Lenin wanted to restrict the “impulsiveness” or “unpredictability” of the workers — not the point at all. We decided to fall back on the use of “spontaneous,” but we strongly considered using the term “instinctive” instead, since the point is precisely to problematize the romantic idea that tailing behind the “spontaneous instinct” of the workers is always noblest and best. Lenin insists that a revolutionary ideology would not naturally and straightforwardly flow from the simple experience of factory life, that it was the role of Communists to bring the scientific insights of Marxism to the workers. Think about it like this: the “instinctive” and “spontaneous” response to a kitchen grease fire is, correctly, to put it out. However, a person armed with a scientific understanding of fire will know to use baking soda or a fire blanket instead of simply throwing water at it. In Lenin the same is true of organized activity as compared to spontaneous riots which the tsarist police was very capable of repressing. For an in-depth discussion, see Lenin Rediscovered, pp. 616-628. — Eds. 

[8] Liberty [Svoboda] was a journal published in two issues, in 1901 and 1902. The publishing group folded by 1903 (Lenin Rediscovered, p. 362). — R. D. 

[9] Political indictments are a declaration of war against the government in exactly the same was that economic indictments declare war against the factory owners. And this declaration of war acquires more and more moral significance as the indictment campaign becomes broader and more forceful, and the more numerous and resolute is the social class that declares war in order to get a real war underway. Political indictments are therefore already in and of themselves one of the most powerful means of disintegrating the enemy system — a means of drawing away from the enemy his accidental or temporary friends, a means of sowing enmity and distrust among those who are permanent participants in the autocratic power. — V. L. 

[10] The Workers’ Cause [Rabocheye Delo] was an 1899-1902 political newspaper, published from exile. Its “tactics-as-process” basically matched today’s “less planning, more action.” — R. D. 

[11] Workers’ Thought [Rabochaya Mysl] was an “economist” newspaper published 1897-1902, a kind of more-literary predecessor to The Worker’s Cause. — R. D. 

[12] See G. V. Plekhanov, On the Tasks of the Socialists in the Struggle with Famine in Russia (1892): “[T]he propagandist conveys many ideas to a single person or to a few people, whereas the agitator conveys only one or a few ideas, but he conveys them to a whole mass of people.” [web] — A. M. 

[13] Eduard Bernstein was a leader of the German Social-Democratic Party (SDP). Revolutionaries like Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg harshly attacked his infamous slogan romanticizing the “grey ongoing struggle”: “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” — A. M. 

[14] We decided to leave this one untranslated, but I think of “redneck,” given its prismatic positive-negative connotation. [web] — R. D. 

[15] The Spark [Iskra] was a political newspaper published in exile, from 1900 to 1903, managed by Lenin. It was the most successful of the underground newspapers at the time. As Mao Zedong would put it much later, in 1930: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” [web] — R. D. 

[16] Communist Manifesto (1848). 

[17] See “Infiltration, Incompetence, and Philosophy” by Roderic Day (2023). [web] — A. M. 

[18] “The Germans” work here as an aspirational model, since they were the definitive vanguard in terms of organized political worker activity at the time, positively contrasted to the “economistic” English and the “political” French. — R. D. 

[19] See also Marx’s angry disagreement with Weitling in 1846: “Ignorance has never yet helped anybody!” [web] — A. M. 

[20] Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The History of Trade Unionism (1894). — R. D. 

[21] V. I. Lenin, Where to Begin? (1901). [web] — R. D. 

[22] Andrei Zhelyabov (b. 1851-1881) was a Russian revolutionary who hailed from the intelligentsia, and August Bebel (b. 1840-1913) was a German working man who grew into a first-class Socialist politician in Germany. — R. D. 

[23] Dmitry Pisarev (b. 1840-1868) was an important and prestigious Russian literary and revolutionary figure. — R. D.