The myth of Lenin's elitism

WITH FEW exceptions, Western historians have presented the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin as an extreme elitist, if not an autocrat. This elitism, they argue, first emerged in a work he published in 1902, What Is to Be Done? (WITBD), which they present as the epitome of “Leninism”—the work in which Lenin “finally and explicitly forsook orthodox Marxism and identified himself as a Jacobin or a Blanquist.”1 Recycling the same two or three quotations, and using a framework established by Lenin’s contemporary Menshevik opponents, most historians conclude that Lenin’s unique contribution to Marxism, as expressed in WITBD, lies in his conception of revolutionary organization as a top-down, tightly centralist, and highly conspiratorial party of middle-class professional revolutionaries.2 The argument goes that Lenin’s elitism was based, to quote the right-wing historian Richard Pipes, on the fact that he “lost faith in the working class.”3

“[I]mplicit” in WITBD, writes Leopold H. Haimson, one of the founders of the Lenin-as-elitist orthodoxy, “was not merely a lack of faith in the capacity of the labor movement to grow to consciousness by its own resources, but also a basic distrust in the ability of any man to outgrow his ‘spontaneous’ elemental impulses, and to act in accord with the dictates of his ‘consciousness’ without the guidance, and the restraint, of the party and its organizations.”4 As historian Lars T. Lih summarizes, these arguments are based on the idea that Lenin “feared the ‘spontaneous’ development of the workers’ movement” so much that “he demanded that the workers’ movement be ‘diverted’ from its natural course and be directed ‘from without’ by non-workers, in fact, by bourgeois revolutionary intellectuals.”5

In his meticulously researched Lenin Rediscovered, Lih calls this ubiquitous analysis the “textbook interpretation”6 of WITBD, and it is repeated almost verbatim in text after text: “[T]he pamphlet [WITBD] declared a lack of faith in the capacity of the proletariat as a class ever to attain that degree of consciousness necessary for it to take a decisive part in the coming revolutionary events without outside leadership”7; basic to Lenin’s approach was a “distrust of the mass, a conviction that socialist consciousness was given to few”8; and so on.

A handful of historians make a different argument.9 Lih, for example, shows with painstaking detail in Lenin Rediscovered that it was actually Lenin’s opponents who underestimated the consciousness of the working class, and that Lenin’s writings in the Iskra period (1900–1903) are filled with arguments about how the socialist movement was lagging behind the workers’ movement. “No one, we think, has until now doubted that the strength of the present-day movement lies in the awakening of the masses (principally, the industrial proletariat),” Lenin writes in the second chapter, “and that its weakness lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders.”10 Neil Harding, in his excellent book Lenin’s Political Thought, makes a similar case to Lih’s:

It is argued that Lenin, during this period, “lost faith” in the spontaneous mass movement, despaired of it ever attaining socialist consciousness and concluded that the revolution would have to be engineered by a professional elite. This interpretation has the attraction of being simple and consistent with the Lenin-as-Jacobin interpretation; it raises, however, considerable, indeed insuperable, problems for any one who actually reads and attempts to make sense of Lenin’s writings.11

Countless passages written by Lenin in this period, which patently contradict the textbook version of Lenin’s views, are simply ignored by historians. To the extent that Lenin is quoted at all, he is quoted out of context. Yet, perhaps more than any other revolutionary, Lenin’s works must be read with an eye to the conditions in which they were written. Nigel Harris made the point many years ago:

Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? has been the target of numerous Western attacks, and many of them have not tried to understand what Lenin’s slight pamphlet was a reply to even though this would put his remarks in a different light. It is as if one day, seeing that it was raining as I prepared to go out, I said, “I must wear a macintosh,” and that by some mischance these words were recorded so that some future archivist exploring the mysterious sect of Macintoshists was able to assert authoritatively that “Harris was always in his life a profound believer in the virtues of the macintosh; for example, he said at one stage ‘I must wear a macintosh.’” The parallel is not exact, but the point is true. Western commentators have been as unscrupulous as Stalin in quoting Lenin out of context, devoid of the questions to which he was formulating an answer.12

The Iskra period
What was the context in which Lenin wrote WITBD?

The first phase of the social-democratic movement, in the early 1890s, had focused on recruiting handfuls of workers into clandestine study circles. The movement was by necessity underground because of the repressive nature of the autocracy. When the class struggle began to heat up in the mid-1890s, mostly among textile workers, social democrats, including Lenin, made a turn—generalized throughout the movement by the publication of the widely circulated tract On Agitation—toward agitation around workers’ immediate economic demands. At this stage, the circles remained entirely local in orientation, organized independently of each other, with no national organization or publications. Some of the younger social democrats in this period began to overestimate the importance of the economic struggle and to downplay the importance of organizing the working class for a political struggle against the autocracy. “When we took up agitation among the masses we were not always able to restrain ourselves from going to the other extreme,” Lenin subsequently explained. “The predominance of isolated work,” he added, “is naturally connected with the predominance of the economic struggle.”13

It was only a matter of time until efforts were made to put a theoretical finish on this trend. In 1899, a tract called the Credo was circulated in social-democratic circles. Written by E.D. Koskova, the document expressed sympathy with the reformist gradualism of Eduard Bernstein in Germany and argued that instead of fighting for revolution, Russian socialists should strive “to reform present-day society on democratic lines adapted to the present state of affairs, with the object of protecting the rights (all rights) of the laboring classes in the most effective and fullest way.”14

A classic statement of the economists’ view was expressed in the newspaper Rabochy Mysl: “What sort of struggle is it desirable for the workers to conduct? Isn’t the desirable struggle the only one which they are able to conduct in present circumstances?”15 This statement was nothing if not reminiscent of Bernstein’s statement that the movement was “everything” and the final goal “nothing.” No wonder Lenin and his co-thinkers considered economism the Russian variant of Bernstein’s revisionism.

Lenin’s response to the publication of the Credo, which he wrote while he was in Siberian exile (he had been arrested in 1895 and was released in the summer of 1900), was swift. His article, signed by seventeen other exiled socialists, argued, “The assertion that the Russian working class ‘has not yet put forward political aims’ simply reveals ignorance of the Russian revolutionary movement.” Lenin wrote:

Apparently, the program of the authors of the Credo inclines to the idea that the working class, following “the line of least resistance,” should confine itself to the economic struggle, while the “liberal opposition elements” fight, with the “participation” of the Marxists, for “legal forms.” The application of such a program would be tantamount to the political suicide of Russian Social-Democracy, it would greatly retard and debase the Russian working-class movement and the Russian revolutionary movement….16

If the working-class struggle is restricted to economic battles, it will, Lenin argued, simply become the tail of other parties and lose its independent role in the struggle against autocracy.

Not long after the emergence of economism, social struggles began to take on a more political character, which gave urgency to the ideological conflict over economic versus political struggle. The student movement picked up steam, as did government repression against it. Workers joined some of the student demonstrations. They also began organizing May Day protests, including one that led to a general strike in Kharkov in 1900. In Petersburg in May 1901, workers of the Obukhov defense works engaged in running street battles with the police and Cossacks, then barricaded themselves inside the plant. Thirty thousand students participated in the general strike in the winter of 1901–02. In Moscow, a demonstration called to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the ending of serfdom brought out thousands of workers who clashed with Cossacks. A November 1902 railway strike in Rostov on Don turned into a citywide general strike.17

After his release from Siberia, Lenin, along with Julius Martov, Alexander Petrosov, and the old-guard exiled founders of Russian Marxism—Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, and Pavel Axelrod—began publication of a newspaper, Iskra, around which they hoped to rally all the scattered Russian social-democratic committees, not just organizationally but politically—that is, around a rejection of economism. “Our principal and fundamental task,” Lenin wrote in the first issue of Iskra, “is to facilitate the political development and the political organization of the working class. Those who push this task into the background, who refuse to subordinate to it all the special tasks and particular methods of struggle, are following a false path and causing serious harm to the movement.” Lenin poured scorn on those who wanted to “treat the workers to ‘politics’ only at exceptional moments in their lives, only on festive occasions,” when the goal was to raise the struggle for “partial concessions” to the level of “a systematic, implacable struggle of a revolutionary, working-class party against the autocracy.”18

Lenin put his case forward in various Iskra articles, culminating in WITBD. What were his main points?

  • First, he polemicizes against forces in the movement who downplay the importance of political and theoretical clarity as people who are really defending “eclecticism and lack of principle”19; in particular, those who attempt to import reformism, or fail to criticize it, in the movement under the guise of “freedom of criticism.” Specifically, he attacks the newspaper Rabochaya Dyelo and its editor, Krichevsky, for arguing that “the socialist movement in its entirety, in all of its diverse forms…including the most pronounced Bernsteinians, stands on the basis of the class interests of the proletariat and its class struggle for political and economic emancipation.”20
  • Second, he attacks the economists, represented chiefly by the newspaper Rabochaya Mysl, who wanted to limit the working class to purely economic struggles, and thereby “convert the nascent working-class movement into an appendage of the liberals.”21 He criticizes those who, by applauding the economic struggle of the working class (who “worship spontaneity”), drag along at the tail of the movement rather than lead it forward. Rabochaya Mysl, for example, comes in for particular criticism for arguing that the only desirable struggle for workers is that “which they are actually waging at the present time.”22
  • Against the economists, who have downplayed thereadiness of the working class to accept political agitation and adopt political demands, he argues that “the strength of the present-day movement lies in the awakening of the masses (principally, the industrial proletariat) and that its weakness lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders.”23
  • Lenin also makes a number of practical proposals to overcome the scattered, parochial, and primitive state of the socialist movement. The immediate task, he argued, was to organize a national organization, based on core committees of professional revolutionaries, around a central “All-Russian” newspaper which could act as, in Lenin’s words, a collective organizer, propagandist, and agitator to “raise revolutionary organization, discipline, and the technique of underground work to the highest degree of perfection.”24 Only a centralized political party, with a strong political center, can build a working-class organization capable of fulfilling its task of acting as the “vanguard” of the fight against absolutism.

There are a number of ways in which WITBD is misrepresented, so that what he presented as proposals adapted to peculiar conditions of the time are interpreted as Lenin’s finished and permanent views on the questions involved. For example, Lenin’s emphasis on better conspiratorial methods at this time is presented as being a unique hallmark of “Leninism.” This is incorrect. The conditions of tsarist police repression required that all left-wing parties operate clandestinely. Lenin’s emphasis at the time on developing full-time revolutionaries well-trained in evading the police was a response to the decentralized and “primitive” character of the socialist movement in Russia—which did not yet function as a coherent national movement, let alone a national political party. Lenin wanted to end this state of affairs by training a cadre of full-timers who were expert at evading police detection and arrest. This was an urgent question. The average life of a local revolutionary committee before police broke it up was two months, only to be reformed by people who often had little or no knowledge of the committee that existed before them. The movement lacked continuity and cohesion.

It is argued that Lenin wanted to form an organization consisting solely of professional revolutionaries. This is also incorrect. Lenin’s idea was that the party should have an illegal, underground apparatus consisting at its core of committees of full-time revolutionaries, but around it would be layers of party members who were not. “It should not be imagined that Party organizations must consist solely of professional revolutionaries,” Lenin remarked at the 1903 Party Congress. “We need the most diverse organizations of all types, ranks and shades, beginning with extremely limited and secret and ending with very broad, free, loose Organization.25 Hal Draper argues that by “professional revolutionary” Lenin in any case did not even mean a full-time party functionary, but merely “a party activist who devoted most (preferably all) of his spare time to revolutionary work.”26

Lenin also never conceived of the underground party committees as consisting only of intellectuals. “[T]he spontaneously awakening masses will also produce increasing numbers of ‘professional revolutionaries’ from their own ranks (that is, if we do not take it into our heads to advise the workers to keep on marking time.)”27 A few years later, in 1904, Lenin wrote to a worker, “We should particularly see to it that as many workers as possible become fully class-conscious and professional revolutionaries and members of the committee…. The committees should…include, as far as possible, all the principal leaders of the working-class movement from among the workers themselves.”28

If we skip ahead to 1905, the official line on Lenin becomes even more untenable. There we find him castigating the Bolshevik “committeemen”—that is, the full-timers, caught flat-footed by the revolutionary ferment—for their conservative resistance to bringing workers into the party committees. In a speech at the party’s Third Congress, held in April 1905, he argued, “In my writings for the press I have long urged that as many workers as possible should be placed on the committees. The period since the second congress has been marked by inadequate attention to this duty—such is the impression I have received from my talks with comrades engaged in practical party work…. The inertness of the committeemen will have to be overcome.”29

Months later, after things had shifted in a more favorable direction, Lenin argued: “At the Third Congress of the party I suggested that there be about eight workers to every two intellectuals in the party committees. How obsolete that suggestion seems today! Now we must wish for the party organizations to have one social-democratic intellectual to several hundred social-democratic workers.”30

Draper acknowledges that Lenin was sometimes misinterpreted by his contemporaries because he emphasized one side of an argument and not another to drive a point home; emphasizing, for example, the need for tight-knit organization of full-timers in 1902, and for opening up the party to mass recruitment and new leadership in 1905. “An objective scholar writing today with the advantage of a longer perspective and fuller documentation should be expected, however, to set forth and weigh Lenin’s repeated attempts to clarify and modify (qualify and recast) his views. What is typical about contemporary Leninology is that it ignores Lenin’s clarifications in favor of a purely demonological exegesis.”31

The idea that Lenin always favored undemocratic forms of organization is also false. WITBD argues that under conditions of political freedom, Russian socialists would favor democratic forms of party organization. “[W]e Bolsheviks,” he argued in 1905, when the party did indeed adopt democratic methods, “have always recognized that in new conditions, when political liberties were acquired, it would be essential to adopt the elective principle.”32 Lenin merely argued that under current (1902) conditions open democratic forms would “facilitate the work of the police in carrying out large-scale raids.”33 Historian Moira Donald writes astutely that

There is no evidence to justify the assertion that Lenin during this so-called formative period of Bolshevism rejected the democratic element in the Marxist tradition. Throughout What Is to Be Done? Lenin stresses the importance of both the democratic model and the struggle for democracy in Russia. However, he argued that given the contemporary political climate in Russia it was not always possible for the individual or the party to act according to the ideal; that undemocratic conditions imposed restraints, even on those committed to democratic goals.34

Both Donald and Lih make an important point against the Lenin detractors who try to portray WITBD as a departure from the orthodox Marxism of the times—a line of argument in keeping with the mistaken idea that WITBD represents Leninism’s founding document. They both show convincingly that Lenin considered his views to be the adaptation of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) model to Russian conditions. “Far from rejecting the model of German Social Democracy at the time,” writes Donald,

Lenin remained a faithful disciple of the SPD, searching constantly for parallels between the history of that party and his own…. Indeed, if any criticism can be leveled at Lenin with regard to his view of the German party during these years, it is that for an orthodox Marxist and a revolutionary he had rather too rosy a view of the SPD, and, in particular, that he underestimated the influence of Bernstein within the party.35

The famous passages in WITBD
Lenin’s conception of the party, his critics argue, derived from Lenin’s belief, as we have already noted, that the working class “spontaneously” cannot achieve socialist consciousness without the guidance of bourgeois intellectuals. A corollary to this is that Lenin somehow “opposed” conscious leadership to “spontaneous” movements. Two passages in WITBD in particular are cited to bolster this claim:

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 labor legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.36

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.37

Lenin borrowed the first passage from an essay by the leading German Marxist Karl Kautsky, an essay he also quotes directly,38 having just finished reading Kautsky’s article when he was preparing WITBD. Practically every historian when they get to this point in the narrative considers these passages to be Lenin’s major theoretical break in WITDB, where he expresses his “lack of faith” in the working class. None of them, however, seem to understand the irony of the fact that Lenin’s alleged “break” from orthodoxy derives from an impeccably orthodox source, that is, from the chief theoretical spokesman of Second International orthodoxy. They get around this sticky problem by simply ignoring it.39

Taken by itself and out of context, these statements could be read as elitist: workers cannot achieve socialist consciousness without the guidance of bourgeois intellectuals. But Lenin never again uses these formulations (and had not used them before). In spite of that, it has been elevated to Lenin’s most definitive statement on class-consciousness and class struggle.

On one level, Lenin’s paraphrasing of Kautsky merely states a factual point that was certainly true for Russia. A delegate to the Third Congress in 1903, Gorin, explained during the debate over WITBD,

What we have said relates to a fact, and does not express any social philosophy or conception of history. We have simply said that that Russian Social Democracy was first of all merely an imported doctrine, which antedated the rise of the labor movement in Russia. But Russian Social-Democracy did not fall from heaven. Having arisen as a populist doctrine along with other Russian revolutionary doctrines, it assumed Social-Democratic form under the pressure of the West-European labor movement and West-European scientific socialism, and only later did Russian Social-Democracy link itself practically with the Russian labor movement.40

Virtually every revolutionary acknowledged as a fact that Marxism in Russia first attracted the intelligentsia, who then set about introducing socialist ideas to the Russian working class. It never occurred to any of them, least of all Lenin, that this temporary state of affairs should become permanent—that is, that intellectuals should lead the working class. In one of his first lengthy political writings, “What the friends of the people are and how they fight the social democrats,” written in 1894, Lenin writes, “There can be no sectarianism when the task is that of promoting the organization of the proletariat, and when, therefore, the role of the ‘intelligentsia’ is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary.”41

Moreover, as Hal Draper points out in his essay on WITBD, Lenin qualifies, if not completely negates, Kautsky’s analysis in an important footnote:

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.42

Lenin’s whole thrust is to argue that the working class is ready to absorb socialist theory enthusiastically, and is only prevented by intellectuals who wish to restrict the working class to purely economic issues. Later in the same book, Lenin qualifies the point still further, arguing that in fact the working class does indeed gravitate toward socialist consciousness, but that it does not do so in an ideological vacuum:

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…. 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.43

Workers do spontaneously gravitate toward socialism; but they are influenced even more by bourgeois ideology. It is precisely this contradiction that necessitates the organization of a political party of the class. Revolution is not automatic unless it is organized and fought for; those sections of the class that do spontaneously gravitate toward socialist politics before others must be organized together to exercise more influence over their fellow workers who are still influenced more by bourgeois ideology.

Later still, Lenin redefines what he means by bringing class consciousness to the working class “from without.” Now Lenin moves away from the Kautsky formulation—that socialism is first introduced from outside the working class by intellectuals—to say that socialist consciousness can only develop among workers if their horizons are raised beyond the relations of worker to employer inside the workplace:

The economic struggle merely “impels” the workers to realize the government’s attitude towards the working class. Consequently, however much we may try to “lend the economic struggle itself a political character,” we shall never be able to develop the political consciousness of the workers (to the level of Social-Democratic political consciousness) by keeping within the framework of the economic struggle, for that framework is too narrow…

Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes.44

To paraphrase another passage in WITBD, working-class consciousness can only be fully socialist consciousness if the working class is trained to respond to all forms of oppression and tyranny, no matter what class or group is affected, including those that fall outside the sphere of the workplace: attacks on students; pogroms against Jews; suppression of language rights; oppression of national minorities and women; and so on.45 Without such consciousness, the working class can never lead the political struggle against tsarism and for socialism. This, of course, did not mean that Lenin believed that the class struggle between workers and the bosses did not impel workers toward socialist consciousness. He had written only a few years previously, in “On strikes,” (after he had already begun to attack economism) precisely that “every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the worker’s mind, thoughts of the struggle of the entire working class for emancipation from the oppression of capital.”46

After the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution, Lenin’s arguments against any vestiges of conservatism in the party prompted him to put even more emphasis on the way struggle was moving workers toward socialist consciousness. Even then, however, Lenin stresses the dialectical relationship between the role of conscious leaders and the “spontaneous” strivings of workers toward socialism. “The working-class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.”47

It was not Lenin but the economists who argued that workers were not yet “ready” for political struggle or agitation. In 1899, for example, the Kiev committee wrote that they did “not believe it possible at the present time to turn to the mass of the workers and call on them to take political action, in other words, it does not believe it possible to carry on political agitation, because the Russian workers have not, in the mass, attained the maturity for political struggle.” Lenin responded in the following way: “The Russian workers have, in the mass, not only attained maturity for political struggle, but they have on many occasions demonstrated it by engaging in acts of political struggle, often even spontaneously.”48

When these arguments of Lenin’s are combined with Lenin’s later argument in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (his 1904 assessment of the 1903 party split) on the uneven consciousness of the working class (“Precisely because there are differences in degree of consciousness and degree of activity, a distinction must be made in degree of proximity to the Party”49), the argument looks like this: The working class strives toward socialist consciousness, but the influence of ruling, bourgeois ideas acts as a powerful, counteracting influence; this results in different degrees of consciousness, and consequently, necessitates the role of a party of the most class-conscious workers to raise the level of consciousness of the class as a whole. Anyone who denigrates this role aids the bourgeoisie in its efforts to confuse and divide the working-class, thereby reducing it to a supporting rather than a leading role in the struggle against the autocracy. The “vanguard” was not a body standing above or outside the class, but constituted its most conscious and organized part.

These ideas about the relation between party and class were not unique to Lenin, but were also held by others. “The entire working class is one thing,” wrote Plekhanov in 1901, “and the Social Democratic Party is another, for it forms only a column drawn from the working-class—and at first a very small column…. I think that the political struggle must immediately be started by our Party which represents the advance guard of the proletariat, its most conscious and revolutionary stratum.”50 In the 1903 debate at the Second Congress, the delegate Karsky rose to defend WITBD from criticism51 with this formulation:

Comrade Akimov considers the Party must not be placed above the working class. This way of posting the question seems to me both incorrect and out of place. From out of the working class there emerges a militant, conscious force, the Party, which is the bearer and promoter of socialist ideals, and, as such, the Party cannot but stand higher than “the working class,” since the conscious part of this class is the leader of the unconscious or inadequately conscious part.52

Loss of faith in the working class
What Lenin’s arguments in WITBD clearly did not represent was Lenin’s “loss of faith” in the working class. Quite the contrary, Lenin was attempting to argue against those socialists who belittled the conscious role of organized socialists precisely at the time when the working class movement was beginning to stir and more and more workers were gravitating to socialist ideas. Lenin’s purpose in making this argument was to insist on the party’s role in accelerating and advancing the political consciousness of the working class rather than merely tailing behind it—hence his arguments against “worshipping spontaneity” were not arguments against spontaneity, but against thinking that all socialists had to do was applaud it. The key question at the time, as Lenin framed it, was that the advance of the working class movement was outstripping the growth and cohesion of revolutionary organizations. Lenin therefore hammered away at “the lag of the leaders (‘ideologists,’ revolutionaries, Social-Democrats) behind the spontaneous upsurge of the masses.”53

As for Lenin’s statement about the need to “divert” the workers’ movement from its spontaneous path, Lih makes a very convincing argument that this was more a rhetorical turn of phrase based on a response to formulations made by Lenin’s opponents.54 In 1901, Lenin wrote an article, “A talk with defenders of economism,” in which he reproduced in full a letter critical of Iskra on a number of counts. The letter’s thrust was that Iskra exaggerated the role of socialist leadership and organization, and underplayed the role of material factors:

At the same time, Iskra gives too little consideration to the material elements and the material environment of the movement, whose interaction creates a definite type of labor movement and determines its path, the path from which the ideologists, despite all their efforts, are incapable of diverting it, even if they are inspired by the finest theories and programs.55

Lenin attacked this as being a completely passive, deterministic formulation; in his judgment it underestimated the role of conscious organization in determining the shape of the workers’ movement. He wrote, “To say, however, that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction and in the determination of the path.”56 To Iskra’s opponents who made the argument that socialists could not “divert” the workers’ movement from its “natural” path, Lenin responded: Yes, we can and must “divert” it, because the organized socialists are not simply passive onlookers observing something over which they have no influence, but are one of the determining elements shaping that path.

In this same article, Lenin makes clear that his argument about the current tasks of Social Democrats flows not from a rejection of the “spontaneous” struggle, but from an appreciation that the workers’ movement has advanced by leaps and bounds while the Social Democrats have lagged behind:

It is a fact that the spontaneous awakening of the masses of the workers and (due to their influence) of other social strata has been taking place with astonishing rapidity during the past few years. The “material elements” of the movement have grown enormously even as compared with 1898, but the conscious leaders (the Social-Democrats) lag behind this growth.57

Worse, argued Lenin, there were now people in the ­socialist movement who wanted to theoretically justify this lag:

But since the end of 1897, particularly since the autumn of 1898, there have come forward in the Russian Social-Democratic movement individuals and periodicals that not only close their eyes to this drawback, but that have declared it to be a special virtue, that have elevated the worship of, and servility towards, spontaneity to the dignity of a theory and are preaching that Social-Democrats must not march ahead of the movement, but should drag along at the tail-end.58

As we can see, it is pure mythmaking to say that Lenin looked with suspicion and hostility upon spontaneous struggles of the working class. The alleged proof is that Lenin calls upon socialists to “combat spontaneity.” But Lenin uses this formulation merely as a rhetorical device against the economists who are, he argues, worshipping the “spontaneous” struggle of the working class instead of trying to lead it further. What he means is that the socialists must combat spontaneist theories in the movement, that is, the idea that workers will spontaneously evolve toward socialism without socialist leadership.

It seems that we are now passing through a period in which our working-class movement is once more about to engage with irresistible force in the sharp conflicts that terrify the government and the propertied classes and bring joy and encouragement to socialists.59

[T]he principal source that sustains revolutionary Social-Democracy is the spirit of protest among the working class which, in view of the violence and oppression surrounding the workers, is bound to manifest itself from time to time in the form of desperate outbursts. These outbursts arouse to conscious life the widest sections of the workers, oppressed by poverty and ignorance, and stimulate in them a noble hatred for the oppressors and enemies of liberty.60

Lenin “rejoices” at the outbursts of working-class struggle because they will bring about the awakening of the working class; clearly he does not erect a wall between the two, but sees “spontaneity” in dialectical relationship with consciousness and organization; the two nourish and interact with each other.

Many more passages from this period, written prior to WITBD, show that Lenin was neither hostile to “spontaneous” struggle (he welcomed every leap forward of the class struggle) nor doubtful about workers’ capacity for class-consciousness. In fact, he is positively brimming with confidence in the Russian working class. “The awakening of the Russian working class,” he wrote in 1897, “its spontaneous striving for knowledge, organization, socialism, for the struggle against its exploiters and oppressors becomes more widespread, more strikingly apparent every day.”61 And he wrote in 1899, “There is to be observed among the working youth an impassioned, uncontrollable enthusiasm for the ideas of democracy and socialism.”62 Lenin is only concerned that this enthusiasm and passion is not frittered away, but organized into an effective, centralized force; a well-organized party with a professional underground apparatus that is hard for the police to uproot. Again he writes in the same year:

Not a single class in history has achieved power without producing its political leaders, its prominent representatives able to organize a movement and lead it. And the Russian working class has already shown that it can produce such men and women. The struggle which has developed so widely during the past five or six years has revealed the great potential revolutionary power of the working class; it has shown that the most ruthless government persecution does not diminish, but, on the contrary, increases the number of workers who strive towards socialism, towards political consciousness, and towards the political struggle.63

Many of Lenin’s ideas in this period reflect the thinking of orthodox Marxists of the time; including those of Kautsky. Lenin’s concept of the hegemony of the working class in the coming revolution against absolutism was developed by the Russian Marxist movement’s founders Plekhanov and Axelrod. It fell to Lenin merely to consistently apply that theory in practice.64

But despite Lenin’s strong identification with Kautsky and German social democracy, there was something different about Lenin’s writings in the Iskra period compared to his European socialist contemporaries. What was unique was the way in which Lenin explored the organizational implications of political questions—something Luxemburg and Trotsky did only much later. As Donald points out, his approach was innovative.

Lenin devoted attention to, and discussed as a problem of theory, questions which had not been previously regarded as worthy of attention from Marxist theorists…. What Is to Be Done? merged Marxist theory and Social Democratic practice in a way that was only intended for Russian conditions…. Lenin succeeded in elevating the question of party organization to the plane of Marxist theory in a way which was not understood by Kautsky or by other contemporary theoreticians…. The importance of this development was not appreciated until certain elements in Lenin’s organization framework became points of controversy in the conflicts which split the party at its Second Congress in 1903.65

Lenin’s basic approach to the period from when he first became a Marxist in the early 1890s leading up to the 1905 Revolution is summed up in one of his earliest published articles, written in 1894:

The political activity of the Social-Democrats lies in promoting the development and organization of the working-class movement in Russia, in transforming this movement from its present state of sporadic attempts at protest, “riots” and strikes devoid of a guiding idea, into an organized struggle of the WHOLE Russian working CLASS directed against the bourgeois regime and working for the expropriation of the expropriators and the abolition of the social system based on the oppression of the working people. Underlying these activities is the common conviction of Marxists that the Russian worker is the sole and natural representative of Russia’s entire working and exploited population.66

WITBD does not represent a break from these views but a sharp polemical defense of them—a defense he makes in very specific circumstances, against very specific opponents. Lenin himself confirms that WITBD, which historians wrongly present as some mythical finished Leninism, contained polemical exaggerations fitted to a particular fight. During the 1903 Second Congress, he argued against criticisms leveled at the famous passages in WITBD, saying, “Obviously, an episode in the struggle against economism has here been confused with a principled presentation of a major theoretical question.”67

In 1907, in an introduction to a reprint of his writings, which included a slightly abridged version of WITBD (the party subsequently never republished it again until many years after 1917), Lenin made a similar argument. “The basic mistake made by those who now criticize What Is to Be Done?,” he wrote in retrospect, “is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party.”68 Those who now say that the pamphlet exaggerated the importance of building an organization of professional revolutionaries, he says, fail to understand that it was an argument that at the time had to be fought for and won: “[T]oday the idea of an organization of professional revolutionaries has already scored a complete victory. That victory would have been impossible if this idea had not been pushed to the forefront at the time, if we had not ‘exaggerated’ so as to drive it home to people who were trying to prevent it from being realized.”69 Of course, he added, the emphasis on building an organization of professional revolutionaries was meaningless “apart from its connection with the ‘genuine revolutionary class that is spontaneously rising to struggle.’”70

At the same time, Lenin admits that the immaturity of the movement meant that the debate among the exiled Social Democrats was sometimes “destructive,” and had “many unattractive features.”71 He also acknowledges that he did not always use the best formulations in WITBD. After breaking with Lenin in 1904, Plekhanov declared that he differed with Lenin on the relationship between “spontaneity and political consciousness.” Lenin brushes this criticism aside, saying that it is “based on phrases torn out of context, on particular expressions which I had not quite adroitly or precisely formulated, adding that there was, however, general agreement among the Iskra editors over the “general content and the whole spirit of my pamphlet What Is to Be Done?72

And as if to answer those who later came along and attempted to transform this pamphlet into the founding document of Leninism, he writes:

Nor at the Second Congress did I have any intention of elevating my own formulations, as given in What Is to Be Done?, to “programmatic” level, constituting special principles. On the contrary, the expression I used—and it has since been frequently quoted—was that the Economists had gone to one extreme. What Is to Be Done?, I said, straightens out what had been twisted by the Economists... The meaning of these words is clear enough: What Is to Be Done? is a controversial correction of Economist distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light.73

Lenin was fundamentally anti-elitist—not in the sense of anarchists who simply deny the necessity of leadership in struggle, but in the sense of grasping that leadership is a product of the uneven development of consciousness and activity in the working class, and that its task is to raise the level of consciousness and initiative of all workers. The late British Marxist Duncan Hallas wrote:

It is clear that any substantial revolutionary socialist party is necessarily, in one sense, a “vanguard.”

But there is no substance in the argument that the concept is elitist. The essence of elitism is the assertion that the observable differences in abilities, consciousness and experience are rooted in unalterable genetic or social conditions and that the mass of the people are incapable of self-government now or in the future. Rejection of the elitist position implies that the observed differences are wholly or partly attributable to causes that can be changed. It does not mean denial of the differences themselves.... 74

Almost every analysis of Lenin takes WITBD and considers it to be not only the “founding document” of Leninism, but the finished and final form of Lenin’s thought. This is true not only of Cold War Western historians but also of the Stalinist hagiographical version of Lenin. Yet Lenin’s ideas must be seen in their development and also in their proper context. Lenin’s arguments at any particular moment were geared in a very practical way to what he considered to be the most important “link in the chain”—the thing that had to be done now in order to reach the next task for the movement. More than that, however, Lenin’s ideas evolved: he learned from the struggle and his Marxism was shaped by it.

Lenin’s views on the state, on the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution, on the peasant question, on imperialism, and on the party, all shifted and changed based on lessons learned directly from the course of struggle and from developments in international capitalism and the international socialist movement. While it can be said that his more mature conceptions of the relationship of the party and class were expressed in embryo in the period we are discussing here, it cannot be said that the Iskra period represents Lenin’s first and last word on party organization. This, however, should not detract from the very lasting and valuable contributions that Lenin made to Marxism in this period. Too often socialists write off the Iskra period, and particularly WITBD, when what is necessary is to distinguish what was historically contingent and what is more generally relevant for Marxists everywhere. It is in this light that What Is to Be Done? should be revisited and reread by socialists.

  1. Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions (New York: Humanities Press, 1983), 135. Harding’s book, which is actually critical of the “Lenin as elitist” thesis, is one of the best academic books on Lenin’s theory and practice. Unfortunately it is out of print.
  2. “The academic historians who laid the basis of the textbook interpretation constituted the first generation in postwar Soviet studies: Leopold Haimson, Alfred G. Meyer, Adam Ulam, Leonard Schapiro, John Keep, Samuel Baron, Allan Wildman, Israel Getzler, Abraham Ascher, Richard Pipes, Jonathan Frankel.” Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 14. Lih also performs a useful exegesis of the genesis of this “Lenin as elitist” formula in his article, “How a founding document was found, or one hundred years of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4, no. 1 (2003): 5–49.
  3. Richard Pipes interviewed on PBS, “Heaven on Earth: The rise and fall of socialism,” June 2005,
  4. Leopold H. Haimson, The Russian Marxists and the Origins of ­Bolshevism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 138–39. (First published 1955 by Harvard University Press). Haimson attributes Lenin’s “deep-seated fear” of the “unrestrained expression” of “human passions” to the fact that he was “fearful of his own emotions.” Most of these historians also describe Lenin as weak theoretically but tactically brilliant, a man who opportunistically adapted theory after the fact to justify whatever step he wished to take. See Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, 1.
  5. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 15. Lih has made his own translation of WITBD at the end of his book. He notes that the Russian world stikhiinost is translated as “spontaneous,” whereas “elemental” is a better translation. This makes it clear that when Lenin talked about “spontaneity,” he was not referring to struggles without conscious leadership, but struggles with a rudimentary level of organization and consciousness.
  6. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 13.
  7. Abraham Ascher, Pavel Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1972), 177–79.
  8. Samuel H. Baron quoted in Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 34.
  9. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered; Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought; Moira Donald, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russia Marxists, 1900–1924 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
  10. V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (WITBD) in Collected Works (CW), Vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 373.
  11. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, 156–57.
  12. Nigel Harris, Beliefs in Society (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1968), 54.
  13. Lenin, “Urgent tasks of our movement,” CW, Vol. 4, 367.
  14. Quoted in Lenin, “A protest by Russian social democrats,” CW, Vol.4, 173–74.
  15. Quoted in Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, 150.
  16. Ibid., 178–79.
  17. Tony Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 82–84.
  18. Lenin, “The urgent tasks of our movement,” CW, Vol. 4, 369.
  19. WITBD, 369.
  20. Ibid., 356.
  21. Ibid., 363
  22. Ibid., 367.
  23. What Is to Be Done?, chapter 2, first paragraph,
  24. Lenin, “An urgent question,” CW, Vol. 4, 222.
  25. Lenin, “First speech in the discussion on party rules,” CW, Vol. 6, 498.
  26. Hal Draper, “The myth of Lenin’s concept of the party, or, What they did to What Is To Be Done?,�draper/�1990/myth/myth.htm.
  27. Lenin, WITBD, 451.
  28. Lenin, “Letter to a comrade on our organizational tasks,” CW, Vol. 6, 235.
  29. Lenin, “Speech on the question of the relations between workers and intellectuals within the social-democratic organization,” CW, Vol. 8, 407.
  30. Lenin, “The reorganization of the party,” CW, Vol. 10, 36.
  31. Draper, “The myth of Lenin’s concept of the party, or what they did to What Is to Be Done?
  32. Lenin, “The reorganization of the party,” 30.
  33. Lenin, WITBD, 479.
  34. Donald, Marxism and Revolution, 35.
  35. Ibid., 27. In WITDB, Lenin makes explicit reference to the idea that the Russians are, in their own way, attempting to implement the SPD’s Erfurt program.
  36. Lenin, WITBD, 375.
  37. Ibid., 384–85.
  38. See Ibid., 383–84.
  39. What is also ignored or skirted around is the fact that virtually none of Lenin’s supporters at the time, including those who broke with him in 1903, seems to have discovered Lenin’s profound break. “Axelrod’s failure to repudiate these elitist views publicly in 1902 are not easy to explain,” writes Abraham Ascher. He gets around this uncomfortable fact with pure speculation: “But probably the most important reason for Axelrod’s failure to speak more forcefully was his fear of destroying the unity” of the Iskra group. Ascher, Pavel Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism, 178–79.
  40. Brian Pierce, 1903: Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Tran. and annotated (London: New Park, 1978), 166.
  41. Lenin, “What the friends of the people are and how they fight the social-democrats,” CW, Vol. 1, 298.
  42. Ibid., 384.
  43. Ibid., 386.
  44. Lenin, WITBD, 422.
  45. See ibid., 423.
  46. Lenin, “On strikes,” CW, Vol. 4, 315.
  47. Lenin, “The reorganization of the party,” 32.
  48. Lenin, “Apropos of the Profession de Foi,CW, Vol. 4, 289.
  49. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, CW, Vol. 7, 258.
  50. Quoted in Jonathan Frankel, ed., Vladimir Akimov on the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 47.
  51. The criticism came from A.S. Martynov, who later became a Menshevik. He cites the famous “from without” passage to show that Lenin had departed from orthodoxy. This critique, which none of the Iskra supporters at the time agreed with, became the foundation of the Lenin-as-elitist analysis.
  52. 1903: Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, 162–63.
  53. Lenin, WITBD, 446.
  54. See Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 346–53.
  55. Lenin, “A talk with defenders of economism,” CW, Vol. 5, 313. My emphasis.
  56. Ibid., 316.
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid., 317.
  59. Lenin, “Another massacre,” CW, Vol. 5, 25.
  60. Ibid., 25–26.
  61. Lenin, “The tasks of the Russian social democrats,” 346.
  62. Lenin, “An urgent question,” 223.
  63. Lenin, “Urgent tasks of our movement,” 370.
  64. “The revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as the revolutionary movement of the workers. There is not and cannot be any other way out for us!” George Plekhanov, “Speech at the ­International Workers’ Socialist Congress in Paris,” July 14–21, 1889,�speech.html. I say consistently because Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod were also both ambivalent about the role of the bourgeoisie in the coming revolution, and some of their earliest formulations also gave fuel to the later development of the Menshevik conception that since Russia’s revolution was bourgeois, the working class must restrict its demands so as to preserve its alliance with that class. Plekhanov, for example, in his earliest published Marxist work, wrote that the workers’ party must put forward democratic demands that do not “scare anybody with the yet remote ‘red specter.’” Liberals would join forces with the social democrats, he argued, because “they would cease to meet in revolutionary publications the assurance that the overthrow of absolutism would be the signal for the social revolution in Russia.” Hence, for Plekhanov, the hegemony of the working class could only be secured by it acting in a “mature” manner, i.e., by suppressing its own aspirations in the interests of not frightening the bourgeoisie. Plekhanov, “Socialism and the political struggle,” Selected Philosophical Writings (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 101.
  65. Donald, Marxism and Revolution, 39.
  66. Ibid., 298–99.
  67. Ibid., 168.
  68. Lenin, “Preface to the collection Twelve Years,CW, Vol. 13, 101.
  69. Ibid., 102.
  70. Ibid., 104.
  71. Ibid.
  72. Ibid., 107. My emphasis.

Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

Top story




  • Slavery, capitalism,
 and imperialism

    Sandy Boyer reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson; and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
  • The roots of the deep state

    Joe Cleffie reviews Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Formation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 by Adam Zamoyski
  • Revolutionary parliamentarism?

    Todd Chretien reviews Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz