On Lenin's Stickbending

Thanks to Paul D’Amato for his article “The myth of Lenin’s elitism” in the July–August ISR, and in par?ticular his defense and analysis of Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (WITBD).

I believe there is an important and unsatisfactory way of attempting to explain Lenin’s purportedly elitist formulations in WITBD within today’s socialist movement, which is to claim that Lenin is simply “bending the stick.” This formulation seems to have been at least largely introduced by Tony Cliff of the British Socialist Workers Party in his important book Building the Party. In Building the Party, Cliff writes, “At every stage of the struggle Lenin would look for what he regarded as the key link in the chain of development. He would then repeatedly emphasize the importance of this link, to which all others must be subordinated. After the event, he would say: ‘We overdid it. We bent the stick too far,’ by which he did not mean that he had been wrong to do so.”

It is not clear that the “quote” Cliff uses above is an actual quotation. Later in the same book Cliff writes, “Lenin’s ‘bending of the stick’ right over to mechanical over-emphasis on organization in What Is to Be Done? was, nevertheless, quite useful operationally, whereas, over a period of some four to five years, the Marxists in Russia had aroused a desire in the working class for confrontation at the factory level, the step now necessary was to arouse, at least in the politically conscious section of the masses, a passion for political action.”

I would argue that, on this question, it is Cliff who has the mechanical formulation and that “bending the stick” was not Lenin’s method of argument and should not be a model for socialists today. Moreover, reading WITBD through a “bending of the stick” prism creates two related problems: It allows the reader to dismiss out of hand rather than reckon with the actual argument Lenin is making, and it thus inhibits the reader’s ability to see the dialectical approach Lenin takes to the question of party building.

There is no mention of “bending the stick”—which is apparently a reference to a woodworking technique where a piece of wood is bent too far in one direction so that it will end up straight—within WITBD. (Lenin does, however, describe the need to seize the key link of the chain—a more useful metaphor.) At the 1903 Congress, it is Martov—who in this same series of meetings becomes the leader of the Menshevik faction of the Russian party—who says that Lenin “made a confession to us” that “‘the stick had been bent in one direction, and so we bent it the other way.’” Depending on which translation you use, Lenin may have also used the metaphor in the 1903 debates, saying—either “We all know that the economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and that is what I did,” or, “We all now know that the ‘economists’ have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction—and that is what I have done.” In his 1907 introduction to the reprint of WITBD—written after the 1905 revolution—Lenin seems to make no mention of “stick bending,” but rather defends the essence of his pamphlet from detractors who chide him for an unhealthy obsession with organization—from the comfort of their by-then-well-established organization.

Why does any of this matter? What is crystal clear is that Lenin wanted both contemporary and future readers to consider WITBD within the context of the material conditions in which it was written. In this sense, while I agree with Paul that “it cannot be said that the Iskra period represents Lenin's first and last word on party organization,” I also think that such a “first and last word” does not exist. Until his death, Lenin wrote polemics - conducted not by means of lurching from one hyperbolic formulation to the next - but through what were intended to be specific, honest and reasoned arguments written for specific audiences at specific moments in the struggle. This does not mean that Lenin never exaggerated (we all do it). What it does mean is that exaggeration was not Lenin's method, and that he did not purposefully “bend” the truth, even if to do so would be “quite useful operationally.”

I would suggest that WITBD can be considered a “founding document” of Bolshevism, not because it contains a finalized blueprint to be copied and pasted over every situation every revolutionary-minded individual might find themselves in at every point in history (although there are plenty of historical parallels to draw), but because, for one thing, WITBD very clearly reveals Lenin's dialectical materialist approach to the question of party building. I think this dialectical approach is what Paul refers to when he quotes Moira Donald writing that that “Lenin succeeded in elevating the question of party organization to the plane of Marxist theory… .” Taken in context, this “elevation” is particularly revealed in one of the most abused sections of the WITBD, which Paul also highlights:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.

On its face, this isolated quotation can be painted as elitist. However, considered in context, even by reading the pages immediately following, it becomes clear that Lenin is making a profoundly anti-elitist argument. He is not describing what he wants to be true. He is describing what was true and what he wanted to change. Socialist theoreticians had up to that time been too disconnected from the working class movement —in part because the working class was only just beginning to move, and in part because to be a “theoretician” required a level of education and freedom unavailable to the vast majority of a population which until some forty years previously had been mired in actual serfdom. Now that Russia was experiencing the “spontaneous awakening of the working masses,” coinciding with the development of “a revolutionary [educated] youth, armed with Social-Democratic theory” who were “straining towards the workers,” what was needed was a national organization to create serious and dynamic connections between these too disparate strains of Russian life - for the betterment of them both.

Lenin's formulation in this section of WITBD was not an exaggeration, nor was it simply a throw-away line borrowed from the soon-to-be “renegade” Kautsky. Lenin's argument here is entirely consistent with his other pre- and post-WITBD articles, including On Strikes. Rooted in a material analysis of Russian society, Lenin argues for an organization which can unify the “spontaneous” mass movements and organize the existing and developing leadership within those movements into an organization of theoreticians and agitators “in which all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals … must be effaced.” These remain goals worthy of any socialist organizing today.

Ben Dalbey


Issue #96

Spring 2015

Race, surveillance, and empire

Issue contents

Top story



  • Crimes of war

    Bill Roberts reviews Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse
  • Expanding the LGBTQ agenda

    Keegan O'Brien reviews Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie and Kay Whitlock
  • Subliminal racism repackaged

    Paul Pryse reviews Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López