Friday, 1 January 2010

Lenin's 'What is to be done?'

To open a new year, here is the first in a short series of posts about that much-maligned thing known as Leninism. I'm starting by returning to the source, to Lenin's 1902 book 'Chto Delat' ('What is to be done?'). This has unjustly been used to support the caricature of Leninist organisation as authoritarian, when Lenin's own writings (and practices) in fact point in a radically different direction.

The particular issue I want to summarise here is the relationship between economics and politics, between workers' 'spontaneous' struggles and on-going political organisation of revolutionaries. Lenin refers to strikes by Russian workers in the 1890s, a significant step forward compared to earlier outbreaks of unrest when the Russian working class was much less developed and less organised. He is aware of their strengths and limitations:

'Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social Democratic struggles... In this sense, the strikes of the nineties, despite the enormous progress they represented as compared with the 'revolts', remained a purely elemental movement.'

By 'Social Democratic' he doesn't mean reformist currents like the Labour Party - this is the modern and Western European meaning. He meant Marxist and revolutionary. Lenin is suggesting here that purely economic resistance, while welcome, is nonetheless politically limited. It doesn't necessarily equal political generalisation or a challenge to the system.

Lenin argues that revolutionaries have to support, and seek to spread, strikes and other outbreaks of struggle, but must also move beyond simply connecting with spontaneous struggles. He writes: 'the fundamental error committed by the 'new trend' in Russian Social-Democracy is its bowing to spontaneity and its failure to understand that the spontaneity of the masses demands a high degree of consciousness from us Social-Democrats.' Simply 'bowing to spontaneity' is a kind of tailism; it doesn't enable Marxists to take initiative, shape the broader political conditions or raise the political level.

Lenin expresses something profound about the relationship between fighting for partial economic reforms and the larger political struggle to change society: 'Revolutionary Social-Democracy has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities. But it utilises 'economic' agitation for the purpose of presenting to the government, not only demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) the demand that it cease to be an autocratic government.'

Rosa Luxemburg is credited with saying that revolutionaries make the most determined reformists - Lenin is making essentially the same point. Mobilising for reforms increases the confidence and combativity of all those involved, and begins to raise questions about broader political issues. Lenin writes: 'In order to become a Social-Democrat, the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond'. There is, warns Lenin, the constant danger of being content to 'train spontaneously in the wake of the 'drab everyday struggle', in the narrow confines of factory life'.

Finally, this has implications for what, concretely, a Marxist ought to be doing. What, according to Lenin, does it mean to be a revolutionary? His answer: 'the Social-Democrat's ideal should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression... who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.' That, I would tentatively suggest, still applies today.


  1. For a critique of the SWP's position on What is to be done, you can read