In 1900 Vladimir Lenin returned from government-imposed exile in snowy Siberia. The revolutionary movement that he found on his return had greatly grown in size, its ranks swelled by workers and peasants who were becoming dissatisfied with the conditions of life under Tsarist autocracy. While the fires of struggle burned, organization lagged behind. To Lenin’s complete shock, among the Russian Social Democrats (the term then used to describe all Marxists) both abroad in Europe and underground in Russia, fierce debates raged about if there even was a need for such organization.
One group in particular, the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad (URSDA), which had split with the party to which Lenin belonged, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), disagreed with Lenin’s push for organization. They argued in their publication Rabocheye Delo (Worker’s Cause) that the RSDLP and its publication Iskra (The Spark) were too focused on big ideas and organization when they really needed to be focusing on the ongoing “spontaneous” economic struggle of the Russian worker. They believed that the day-to-day “economic struggle” of workers, which in other countries was often represented by trade unions, should be the main focus of Marxists. Those that supported the arguments of Rabocheye Delo became known as economists for their focus on “pure economic struggle’ above all else.
Frustrated by these arguments, Lenin put pen to paper and produced What Is To Be Done? , a book that made him extremely well known within the movement. As first and foremost a response to the “burning questions” in the movement of his day, What Is To Be Done ? is one of Lenin’s most difficult texts for modern readers and misunderstood by many. In the book Lenin unmasks the economists of his time, showing that their errors were rooted in worship of the “spontaneous” struggles of the workers. He points out that this mistake lead them to neglect political issues beyond the factory walls and fail to raise the consciousness of workers.
In order to explain the failures of their economists and their worship of spontaneity, Lenin explains different forms of consciousness found among working class people. In this way, What Is To Be Done? remains one of the best texts for modern Marxists to study the development of consciousness among working class people. First and foremost, Lenin differentiates between “trade union consciousness” and true class consciousness. Workers who have achieved trade union consciousness, understand that there is a class struggle between them and their boss and fight for a better deal in the sale of their labor. On the other hand, full class consciousness is only achieved when workers come to the realization that they must destroy capitalism and end their exploitation altogether. In Lenin’s mind workers never come to this conclusion “spontaneously” and instead he points out that class consciousness comes to the workers from “without’. This has been interpreted by some as an elitist invocation of the idea that intellectuals must bring the idea of socialism to the working class. In making this argument they often point to a section of the text where Lenin points out that socialism as an idea originated among the bourgeois intelligentsia. However, Lenin’s actual point is that workers achieve class consciousness only by engaging in the general political struggle of all of society, (Against autocracy, against oppression, etc.) not merely from their day to day struggle against their own boss. In doing so they see how their struggle fits into a much broader international conflict between the ruling class and the working class, and come to see the need for the working class to organize and take power in its own name.
While the text is directed exclusively at issues in Lenin’s own time in place, it still has deep relevance for modern socialists. While Rabocheye Delo is now nothing more than a memory, many in the modern socialist movement still follow in their footsteps, arguing that we should focus almost exclusively on the day to day struggles of workers, and dismissing broader political questions as “not class questions.” Lenin’s words in What Is To Be Done? remain a powerful reminder that these “external” political issues are actually one of the most important theaters for the political development of the working class. The excerpts chosen here present some of the most important insights from the text for modern militants.
What Is To Be Done?
by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Section 1. From Dogmatism to Freedom of Criticism
Criticism in Russia
The chief distinguishing feature of Russia in regard to the point we are examining is that the very beginning of the spontaneous working-class movement, on the one hand, and of the turn of progressive public opinion towards Marxism, on the other, was marked by the combination of manifestly heterogeneous elements under a common flag to fight the common enemy (the obsolete social and political world outlook). We refer to the heyday of “legal Marxism”…. In a country ruled by an autocracy, with a completely enslaved press, in a period of desperate political reaction in which even the tiniest outgrowth of political discontent and protest is persecuted, the theory of revolutionary Marxism suddenly forces its way into the censored literature and, though expounded in Aesopian language1, is understood by all the “interested”.
1. Aesopian Language is a manner of communicating that is seen as innocent to outsiders but conveys a hidden meaning to an underground movement. Lenin is saying that the Marxists of this time had to hide their true points “between the lines” of government approved publications.
The government had accustomed itself to regarding only the theory of the (revolutionary) Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will)2 as dangerous, without, as is usual, observing its internal evolution, and rejoicing at any criticism levelled against it. Quite a considerable time elapsed (by our Russian standards) before the government realised what had happened and the unwieldy army of censors and gendarmes3 discovered the new enemy and flung itself upon him. Meanwhile, Marxist books were published one after another, Marxist journals and newspapers were founded, nearly everyone became a Marxist, Marxists were flattered, Marxists were courted, and the book publishers rejoiced at the extraordinary, ready sale of Marxist literature…
2. Narodnaya Volya which emerged from the Narodnik movement (Populists) were a left wing Russian group dedicated to the overthrow of the Tsar. They were mainly known for fighting for the overthrow of the monarchy through individual terrorism which they believed would spur the peasant masses into revolution. Early Russian Marxism spent a good deal of its time polemicizing against this flawed approach.
3. Military Police
We can now speak calmly of this period as of an event of the past. It is no secret that the brief period in which Marxism blossomed on the surface of our literature was called forth by an alliance between people of extreme and of very moderate views. In point of fact, the latter were bourgeois democrats; this conclusion suggested itself to some even when the “alliance” was still intact… Only those who are not sure of themselves can fear to enter into temporary alliances even with unreliable people; not a single political party could exist without such alliances. The combination with the legal Marxists was in its way the first really political alliance entered into by Russian Social-Democrats.4 Thanks to this alliance, an astonishingly rapid victory was obtained over Narodism,5 and Marxist ideas (even though in a vulgarised form) became very widespread. Moreover, the alliance was not concluded altogether without “conditions”…
4. In this era “Social-Democrat” was used synonymously with “Marxist” and had not acquired its modern association with reformism
5. Narodism, the ideology of the Narodniks and Narodnaya Volya: see footnote 2.
The rupture, of course, did not occur because the “allies” proved to be bourgeois democrats. On the contrary, the representatives of the latter trend are natural and desirable allies of Social-Democracy insofar as its democratic tasks, brought to the fore by the prevailing situation in Russia, are concerned. But an essential condition for such an alliance must be the full opportunity for the socialists to reveal to the working class that its interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the bourgeoisie. However, the Bernsteinian6 and “critical” trend, to which the majority of the legal Marxists turned, deprived the socialists of this opportunity and demoralised the socialist consciousness by vulgarising Marxism, by advocating the theory of the blunting of social contradictions, by declaring the idea of the social revolution and of the dictatorship of the proletariat to be absurd, by reducing the working-class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade-unionism and to a “realistic” struggle for petty, gradual reforms. This was synonymous with bourgeois democracy’s denial of socialism’s right to independence and, consequently, of its right to existence; in practice it meant a striving to convert the nascent working-class movement into an appendage of the liberals.
6. Eduard Bernstein was an influential member of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). He was critical of the official Marxist politics of the SPD and instead advocated for a turn away from revolution and to reformism. His followers were often called the opportunist tendency in Marxism because they abandoned the struggle for both the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism under the slogan “the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing”
Naturally, under such circumstances the rupture was necessary. But the “peculiar” feature of Russia manifested itself in the fact that this rupture simply meant the elimination of the Social-Democrats from the most accessible and widespread “legal” literature. The “ex-Marxists”, who took up the flag of “criticism” and who obtained almost a monopoly to “demolish Marxism, entrenched themselves in this literature. Catchwords like “Against orthodoxy” and “Long live freedom of criticism” (now repeated by Rabocheye Dyelo 7[The Worker’s Cause]) forthwith became the vogue, and the fact that neither the censor nor the gendarmes could resist this vogue is apparent from the publication of three Russian editions of the work of … Bernstein… A task now devolved upon the Social Democrats that was difficult in itself and was made incredibly more difficult by purely external obstacles – the task of combating the new trend. This trend did not confine itself to the sphere of literature. The turn towards “criticism” was accompanied by an infatuation for Economism among Social-Democratic practical workers.
7. Rabocheye Dyelo was the publication of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad, published in Paris. It argued that the economic struggle of the proletariat should be the primary interest of Russian Marxists.
The notoriety deservedly acquired by the Credo8 was due precisely to the frankness with which it formulated this connection and blurted out the fundamental political tendency of Economism – let the workers carry on the economic struggle (it would be more correct to say the trade unionist struggle, because the latter also embraces specifically working class politics) and let the Marxist intelligentsia merge with the liberals for the political “struggle.” Thus, trade-unionist work “among the people” meant fulfilling the first part of this task, while legal criticism meant fulfilling the second…
8. The Credo was an 1899 pamphlet written by E.D. Koshkova which called for Russian Marxists to work for a gradual reform of the Tsarist state into a democracy. Koshkova also denounced the idea of an independent worker’s party as foreign to Russia and therefore undesirable.
…[T]he majority of the Economists look with sincere resentment (as by the very nature of Economism they must) upon all theoretical controversies, factional disagreements, broad political questions, plans for organising revolutionaries, etc. “Leave all that to the people abroad!”9 said a fairly consistent Economist to me one day, thereby expressing a very widespread (and again purely trade-unionist) view; our concern is the working-class movement, the workers, organisations here, in our localities; all the rest is merely the invention of doctrinaires, “the overrating of ideology”…
9. Lenin is describing a point of view that advocated leaving serious political work to the Russian revolutionary groups in exile in Europe, while groups within Russia focus solely on “economic” issues.
The question now arises: such being the peculiar features of Russian “criticism” and Russian Bernsteinism, what should have been the task of those who sought to oppose opportunism10 in deeds and not merely in words? First, they should have made efforts to resume the theoretical work that had barely begun in the period of legal Marxism and that fell anew on the shoulders of the comrades working underground. Without such work the successful growth of the movement was impossible. Secondly, they should have actively combated the legal “criticism” that was perverting people’s minds on a considerable scale. Thirdly, they should have actively opposed confusion and vacillation in the practical movement, exposing and repudiating every conscious or unconscious attempt to degrade our programme and our tactics. That Rabocheye Dyelo did none of these things is well known…
10. Opportunism is a political error which leads militants to abandon their principles in favor of “pragmatic” gains and alliances even with enemies of the working class. It can be described as politics that engage in the struggle of the working class while giving up on actually winning that struggle. See footnote 6.
Section 2: From the Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats
The Beginning of the Spontaneous Upsurge
…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. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. In the period under discussion, the middle (eighteen)nineties, this doctrine not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipation of Labour group,11 but had already won over to its side the majority of the revolutionary youth in Russia.
11. The Emancipation of Labor Group was the first Marxist group in Russia.
Hence, we had both the spontaneous awakening of the working masses, their awakening to conscious life and conscious struggle, and a revolutionary youth, armed with Social-Democratic theory and straining towards the workers. In this connection it is particularly important to state the oft-forgotten (and comparatively little-known) fact that, although the early Social-Democrats of that period zealously carried on economic agitation, they did not regard this as their sole task. On the contrary, from the very beginning they set for Russian Social-Democracy the most far-reaching historical tasks, in general, and the task of overthrowing the autocracy, in particular…The failure of the [organizations and newspapers of the time] merely showed that the Social-Democrats of that period were unable to meet the immediate requirements of the time owing to their lack of revolutionary experience and practical training…Once the tasks were correctly defined, once the energy existed for repeated attempts to fulfil them, temporary failures represented only part misfortune…
But what was only part misfortune became full misfortune when this consciousness began to grow dim… when there appeared people—and even Social -Democratic organs—that were prepared to regard shortcomings as virtues, that even tried to invent a theoretical basis for their slavish cringing before spontaneity. It is time to draw conclusions from this trend, the content of which is incorrectly and too narrowly characterised as Economism.
Bowing to Spontaneity: Rabochaya Mysl
The founding of Rabochaya Mysl 12 (Worker’s Thought) brought Economism to the light of day, but not at one stroke. We must picture to ourselves concretely the conditions for activity and the short-lived character of the majority of the Russian study circles… in order to understand how much there was of the fortuitous in the successes and failures of the new trend in various towns, and the length of time during which neither the advocates nor the opponents of the “new” could make up their minds… as to whether this really expressed a distinct trend or merely the lack of training of certain individuals. …It is well worth dwelling on [the] leading article [from the first issue of Rabochaya Mysl] because it brings out in bold relief the entire spirit of Rabochaya Mysl and Economism generally.
12. Rabochaya Mysl (Worker’s Thought) was an early Russian Marxist journal published abroad, most known for being the main publication of Economism.
…Instead of sounding the call to go forward towards the consolidation of the revolutionary organisation and the expansion of political activity, the call was issued for a retreat to the purely trade union struggle. It was announced that “the economic basis of the movement is eclipsed by the effort never to forget the political ideal”, and that the watchword for the working-class movement was “Struggle for economic conditions” (!) or, better still, “The workers for the workers”. It was declared that strike funds “are more valuable to the movement than a hundred other Organisations” Catchwords like “We must concentrate, not on the ’cream’ of the workers, but on the ’average’, mass worker”; “Politics always obediently follows economics”, etc., etc., became the fashion, exercising an irresistible influence upon the masses of the youth who were attracted to the movement but who, in the majority of cases, were acquainted only with such fragments of Marxism as were expounded in legally appearing publications…
Political consciousness was completely overwhelmed by spontaneity — the spontaneity of the “Social-Democrats” who repeated Mr. V. V.’s “ideas”, the spontaneity of those workers who were carried away by the arguments that a kopek added to a ruble was worth more than any socialism or politics… It is important at this point to note three circumstances that will be useful to our further analysis of contemporary differences:
13. V. V. was a pseudonym for V. Vorontsov, a prominent economist and Narodnik and a critic of early Russian Marxism.
In the first place, the overwhelming of political consciousness by spontaneity, to which we referred above, also took place spontaneously. This may sound like a pun, but, alas, it is the bitter truth. It did not take place as a result of an open struggle between two diametrically opposed points of view, in which one triumphed over the other; it occurred because of the fact that an increasing number of “old” revolutionaries were “torn away” by the gendarmes14 and increasing numbers of “young” “V. V.s of Russian Social Democracy”15 appeared on the scene…
14. Military Police
15. By comparing the Economists to a Nardonik like V. V., Lenin is insulting them and calling them poor Marxists.
Secondly, in the very first literary expression of Economism we observe the exceedingly curious phenomenon — highly characteristic for an understanding of all the differences prevailing among present day Social Democrats — that the adherents of the “labour movement pure and simple”, worshippers of the closest “organic” contacts (Rabocheye Dyelo’s term) with the proletarian struggle, opponents of any non-worker intelligentsia (even a socialist intelligentsia), are compelled, in order to defend their positions, to resort to the arguments of the bourgeois “pure trade-unionists”. This shows that from the very outset Rabochaya Mysl began — unconsciously — to implement the programme of the Credo. This shows (something Rabocheye Dyelo cannot grasp) that all worship of the spontaneity of the working class movement, all belittling of the role of “the conscious element”, of the role of Social-Democracy, means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers. All those who talk about “overrating the importance of ideology”, about exaggerating the role of the conscious element, etc., imagine that the labour movement pure and simple can elaborate, and will elaborate, an independent ideology for itself, if only the workers “wrest their fate from the hands of the leaders”. But this is a profound mistake.
…Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement,16 The only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a “third” ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology. There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology, to its development along the lines of the Credo programme; for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism… Trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, 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.
16. 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. —Lenin
…But why, the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.17 And the younger the socialist movement in any given country, the more vigorously it must struggle against all attempts to entrench non-socialist ideology, and the more resolutely the workers must be warned against the bad counsellors who shout against “overrating the conscious element”, etc. The authors of the Economist letter, in unison with Rabocheye Dyelo, inveigh against the intolerance that is characteristic of the infancy of the movement. To this we reply: Yes, our movement is indeed in its infancy, and in order that it may grow up faster, it must become imbued with intolerance against those who retard its growth by their subservience to spontaneity. Nothing is so ridiculous and harmful as pretending that we are “old hands” who have long ago experienced all the decisive stages of the struggle.
17. 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, provided, however, this theory does not itself yield to spontaneity, provided it subordinates spontaneity to itself. Usually this is taken for granted, but it is precisely this which Rabocheye Dyelo forgets or distorts. 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. —Lenin
Thirdly, the first issue of Rabochaya Mysl shows that the term “Economism” (which, of course, we do not propose to abandon, since, in one way or another, this designation has already established itself) does not adequately convey the real character of the new trend. Rabochaya Mysl does not altogether repudiate the political struggle; the rules for a workers’ mutual benefit fund published in its first issue contain a reference to combating the government. Rabochaya Mysl believes, however, that “politics always obediently follows economics” (Rabocheye Dyelo varies this thesis when it asserts in its programme that “in Russia more than in any other country, the economic struggle is inseparable from the political struggle”). If by politics is meant Social-Democratic politics, then the theses of Rabochaya Mysl and Rabocheye Dyelo are utterly incorrect. The economic struggle of the workers is very often connected (although not inseparably) with bourgeois politics, clerical politics, etc., as we have seen. Rabocheye Dyelo’s theses are correct, if by politics is meant trade union politics, viz., the common striving of all workers to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their condition gives rise, but which do not abolish that condition, i.e., which do not remove the subjection of labour to capital. That striving indeed is common to the English trade-unionists, who are hostile to socialism, to the Catholic workers, to the “Zubatov” workers,18 etc. There is politics and politics. Thus, we see that Rabochaya Mysl does not so much deny the political struggle, as it bows to its spontaneity, to its unconsciousness. While fully recognising the political struggle (better: the political desires and demands of the workers), which arises spontaneously from the working-class movement itself, it absolutely refuses independently to work out a specifically Social-Democratic politics corresponding to the general tasks of socialism and to present-day conditions in Russia.
18. Zubatov Workers was a name for members of so-called “police socialist” organizations. Created by Russian police Colonel Sergey Zubatov, these pro-government workers and socialist organizations sought to divert social organization of the masses away from political conflict with the Tsarist state by promoting organization along reformist lines. Despite the fact that Zubatov’s organizations were controlled by the state, they drew on Russian workers with legitimate grievances. As they became more difficult to control, Zubatov was banished to Vladimir. He committed suicide after hearing the news of the Tsar’s abdication in 1917.
And so, we have become convinced that 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. The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political and organisational work of Social-Democracy.
The spontaneous upsurge of the masses in Russia proceeded (and continues) with such rapidity that the young Social Democrats proved unprepared to meet these gigantic tasks. This unpreparedness is our common misfortune, the misfortune of all Russian Social-Democrats. The upsurge of the masses proceeded and spread with uninterrupted continuity; it not only continued in the places where it began, but spread to new localities and to new strata of the population (under the influence of the working class movement, there was a renewed ferment among the student youth, among the intellectuals generally, and even among the peasantry). Revolutionaries, however, lagged behind this upsurge, both in their “theories” and in their activity; they failed to establish a constant and continuous organisation capable of leading the whole movement.
Section 3: Trade-Unionist Politics and Social-Democratic Politics
Political Agitation And Its Restriction By the Economists
Everyone knows that the economic struggle19 of the Russian workers underwent widespread development and consolidation simultaneously with the production of “literature” exposing economic (factory and occupational) conditions. The “leaflets” were devoted mainly to the exposure of the factory system, and very soon a veritable passion for exposures was roused among the workers. As soon as the workers realised that the Social-Democratic study circles desired to, and could, supply them with a new kind of leaflet that told the whole truth about their miserable existence, about their unbearably hard toil, and their lack of rights, they began to send in, actually flood us with, correspondence from the factories and workshops… Even among the most backward workers, a veritable passion arose to “get into print” — a noble passion for this rudimentary form of war against the whole of the present social system which is based upon robbery and oppression. And in the overwhelming majority of cases these “leaflets” were in truth a declaration of war, because the exposures served greatly to agitate the workers; they evoked among them common demands for the removal of the most glaring outrages and roused in them a readiness to support the demands with strikes. Finally, the employers themselves were compelled to recognise the significance of these leaflets as a declaration of war, so much so that in a large number of cases they did not even wait for the outbreak of hostilities. As is always the case, the mere publication of these exposures made them effective, and they acquired the significance of a strong moral influence. On more than one occasion, the mere appearance of a leaflet proved sufficient to secure the satisfaction of all or part of the demands put forward. In a word, economic (factory) exposures were and remain an important lever in the economic struggle. And they will continue to retain this significance as long as there is capitalism, which makes it necessary for the workers to defend themselves. Even in the most advanced countries of Europe it can still be seen that the exposure of abuses in some backward trade, or in some forgotten branch of domestic industry, serves as a starting-point for the awakening of class-consciousness, for the beginning of a trade union struggle, and for the spread of socialism.
19. To avoid misunderstanding, we must point out that here, and throughout this pamphlet, by economic struggle, we imply (in keeping with the accepted usage among us) the “practical economic struggle”, which Engels, in the passage quoted above, described as “resistance to the capitalists”, and which in free countries is known as the organised-labour syndical, or trade union struggle.—Lenin
The overwhelming majority of Russian Social-Democrats have of late been almost entirely absorbed by this work of organising the exposure of factory conditions. Suffice it to recall Rabochaya Mysl to see the extent to which they have been absorbed by it — so much so, indeed, that they have lost sight of the fact that this, taken by itself, is in essence still not Social-Democratic work, but merely trade union work. As a matter of fact, the exposures merely dealt with the relations between the workers in a given trade and their employers, and all they achieved was that the sellers of labour power learned to sell their “commodity” on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal. These exposures could have served (if properly utilised by an organisation of revolutionaries) as a beginning and a component part of Social-Democratic activity; but they could also have led (and, given a worshipful attitude towards spontaneity, were bound to lead) to a “purely trade union” struggle and to a non-Social-Democratic working-class movement. Social-Democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich. Social-Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organised political force. Hence, it follows that not only must Social-Democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness…
The question arises, what should political education consist in? Can it be confined to the propaganda of working-class hostility to the autocracy? Of course not. It is not enough to explain to the workers that they are politically oppressed (any more than it is to explain to them that their interests are antagonistic to the interests of the employers). Agitation must be conducted with regard to every concrete example of this oppression (as we have begun to carry on agitation round concrete examples of economic oppression). Inasmuch as this oppression affects the most diverse classes of society, inasmuch as it manifests itself in the most varied spheres of life and activity — vocational, civic, personal, family, religious, scientific, etc., etc. — is it not evident that we shall not be fulfilling our task of developing the political consciousness of the workers if we do not undertake the organisation of the political exposure of the autocracy in all its aspects? In order to carry on agitation round concrete instances of oppression, these instances must be exposed (as it is necessary to expose factory abuses in order to carry on economic agitation).
One might think this to be clear enough. It turns out, however, that it is only in words that “all” are agreed on the need to develop political consciousness, in all its aspects. It turns out that Rabocheye Dyelo, for example, far from tackling the task of organising (or making a start in organising) comprehensive political exposure, is even trying to drag Iskra, which has undertaken this task, away from it. Listen to the following [quotes from Rabocheye Dyelo]:
- “The political struggle of the working class is merely [it is certainly not ‘merely’] the most developed, wide, and effective form of economic struggle”.
- “The Social-Democrats are now confronted with the task of lending the economic struggle itself, as far as possible, a political character”.
- “The economic struggle is the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into active political struggle”.
As the reader will observe, all these theses permeate Rabocheye Dyelo… and all of them evidently express a single view regarding political agitation and struggle. Let us examine this view from the standpoint of the opinion prevailing among all Economists, that political agitation must follow economic agitation.
Is it true that, in general, the economic struggle “is the most widely applicable means” of drawing the masses into the political struggle? It is entirely untrue. Any and every manifestation of police tyranny and autocratic outrage, not only in connection with the economic struggle, is not one whit less “widely applicable” as a means of “drawing in” the masses… The very opposite is true. Of the sum total of cases in which the workers suffer (either on their own account or on account of those closely connected with them) from tyranny, violence, and the lack of rights, undoubtedly only a small minority represent cases of police tyranny in the trade union struggle as such. Why then should we, beforehand, restrict the scope of political agitation by declaring only one of the means to be “the most widely applicable”, when Social-Democrats must have, in addition, other, generally speaking, no less “widely applicable” means?
…What concrete, real meaning attaches to Martynov’s20 words when he sets before Social-Democracy the task of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”? The economic struggle is the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour-power, for better living and working conditions. This struggle is necessarily a trade union struggle, because working conditions differ greatly in different trades, and, consequently, the struggle to improve them can only be conducted on the basis of trade organisations. Lending “the economic struggle itself a political character” means, therefore, striving to secure satisfaction of these trade demands, the improvement of working conditions in each separate trade by means of “legislative and administrative measures”. This is precisely what all workers’ trade unions do and always have done…
20. Aleksandr Martynov was a member of Narodnaya Volya (see footnote #2) who in 1902 became a writer for Robocheye Dyelo and then later a Menshevik. After the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist degeneration of the Bolsheviks he joined the Communist Party as a supporter of Stalin in his struggle against Trotsky.
Thus, the pompous phrase about “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”, which sounds so “terrifically” profound and revolutionary, serves as a screen to conceal what is in fact the traditional striving to degrade Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade union politics. Under the guise of rectifying the one sidedness of Iskra… we are presented with the struggle for economic reforms as if it were something entirely new. In point of fact, the phrase “lending the economic struggle itself a political character” means nothing more than the struggle for economic reforms. Martynov himself might have come to this simple conclusion, had he pondered over the significance of his own words. “Our Party,” he says, training his heaviest guns on Iskra, “could and should have presented concrete demands to the government for legislative and administrative measures against economic exploitation, unemployment, famine, etc.”. Concrete demands for measures — does not this mean demands for social reforms?
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. Moreover, it considers it its duty to present this demand to the government on the basis, not of the economic struggle alone, but of all manifestations in general of public and political life. In a word, it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism.
Political Exposures And “Training In Revolutionary Activity”
In advancing against Iskra his theory of “raising the activity of the working masses”, Martynov actually betrayed an urge to belittle that activity, for he declared the very economic struggle before which all economists grovel to be the preferable, particularly important, and “most widely applicable” means of rousing this activity and its broadest field. This error is characteristic, precisely in that it is by no means peculiar to Martynov. In reality, it is possible to “raise the activity of the working masses” only when this activity is not restricted to “political agitation on an economic basis”. A basic condition for the necessary expansion of political agitation is the organisation of comprehensive political exposure. In no way except by means of such exposures can the masses be trained in political consciousness and revolutionary activity. Hence, activity of this kind is one of the most important functions of international Social-Democracy as a whole, for even political freedom does not in any way eliminate exposures; it merely shifts somewhat their sphere of direction. Thus, the German party is especially strengthening its positions and spreading its influence, thanks particularly to the untiring energy with which it is conducting its campaign of political exposure. Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected — unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats; for the self-knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a fully clear theoretical understanding — or rather, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical, understanding — of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political life. For this reason the conception of the economic struggle as the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into the political movement, which our Economists preach, is so extremely harmful and reactionary in its practical significance. 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; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grasp the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real “inner workings”; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected. But this “clear picture” cannot be obtained from any book. It can be obtained only from living examples and from exposures that follow close upon what is going on about us at a given moment; upon what is being discussed, in whispers perhaps, by each one in his own way; upon what finds expression in such and such events, in such and such statistics, in such and such court sentences, etc., etc. These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity.
Why do the Russian workers still manifest little revolutionary activity in response to the brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.? Is it because the “economic struggle” does not “stimulate” them to this, because such activity does not “promise palpable results”, because it produces little that is “positive”? To adopt such an opinion, we repeat, is merely to direct the charge where it does not belong, to blame the working masses for one’s own philistinism (or Bernsteinism). We must blame ourselves, our lagging behind the mass movement, for still being unable to organise sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life… As yet we have done very little, almost nothing, to bring before the working masses prompt exposures on all possible issues. Many of us as yet do not recognise this as our bounden duty but trail spontaneously in the wake of the “drab everyday struggle”, in the narrow confines of factory life. Under such circumstances to say that “Iskra displays a tendency to minimise the significance of the forward march of the drab everyday struggle in comparison with the propaganda of brilliant and complete ideas”, means to drag the Party back, to defend and glorify our unpreparedness and backwardness…
The Working Class As Vanguard Fighter For Democracy
We have seen that the conduct of the broadest political agitation and, consequently, of all-sided political exposures is an absolutely necessary and a paramount task of our activity, if this activity is to be truly Social-Democratic. However, we arrived at this conclusion solely on the grounds of the pressing needs of the working class for political knowledge and political training…In order to explain the point more concretely we shall approach the subject from an aspect that is “nearest” to the Economist, namely, from the practical aspect. “Everyone agrees” that it is necessary to develop the political consciousness of the working class. The question is, how that is to be done and what is required to do it. The economic struggle merely “impels” the workers to realise 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. The Martynov formula has some value for us, not because it illustrates Martynov’s aptitude for confusing things, but because it pointedly expresses the basic error that all the Economists commit, namely, their conviction that it is possible to develop the class political consciousness of the workers from within, so to speak, from their economic struggle, i.e., by making this struggle the exclusive (or, at least, the main) starting-point, by making it the exclusive (or, at least, the main) basis.
…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. For that reason, the reply to the question as to what must be done to bring political knowledge to the workers cannot be merely the answer with which, in the majority of cases, the practical workers, especially those inclined towards Economism, mostly content themselves, namely: “To go among the workers.” To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions…
Let us take the type of Social-Democratic study circle that has become most widespread in the past few years and examine its work. It has “contacts with the workers” and rests content with this, issuing leaflets in which abuses in the factories, the government’s partiality towards the capitalists, and the tyranny of the police are strongly condemned. At workers’ meetings the discussions never, or rarely ever, go beyond the limits of these subjects. Extremely rare are the lectures and discussions held on the history of the revolutionary movement, on questions of the government’s home and foreign policy, on questions of the economic evolution of Russia and of Europe, on the position of the various classes in modern society, etc. As to systematically acquiring and extending contact with other classes of society, no one even dreams of that. In fact, the ideal leader, as the majority of the members of such circles picture him, is something far more in the nature of a trade union secretary than a socialist political leader. For the secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket (i. e., to warn all and sundry that a strike is proceeding at a certain factory), explains the partiality of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes, etc., etc. In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government”. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that 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, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat…
Let us return, however, to our theses. We said that a Social Democrat, if he really believes it necessary to develop comprehensively the political consciousness of the proletariat, must “go among all classes of the population”. This gives rise to the questions: how is this to be done? have we enough forces to do this? is there a basis for such work among all the other classes? will this not mean a retreat, or lead to a retreat, from the class point of view? Let us deal with these questions.
We must “go among all classes of the population” as theoreticians, as propagandists, as agitators, and as organisers… The principal thing, of course, is propaganda and agitation among all strata of the people…for he is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice that “the Communists support every revolutionary movement”, that we are obliged for that reason to expound and emphasise general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing our socialist convictions. He is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question.
“But everyone agrees with this!” the impatient reader will exclaim, and the new instructions adopted by the last conference of the Union Abroad for the Editorial Board of Rabocheye Dyelo definitely say: “All events of social and political life that affect the proletariat either directly as a special class or as the vanguard of all the revolutionary forces in the struggle for freedom should serve as subjects for political propaganda and agitation”. Yes, these are very true and very good words, and we would be fully satisfied if Rabocheye Dyelo understood them and if it refrained from saying in the next breath things that contradict them. For it is not enough to call ourselves the “vanguard”, the advanced contingent; we must act in such a way that all the other contingents recognise and are obliged to admit that we are marching in the vanguard. And we ask the reader: Are the representatives of the other “contingents” such fools as to take our word for it when we say that we are the “vanguard”?
…[I]f “we” desire to be front-rank democrats, we must make it our concern to direct the thoughts of those who are dissatisfied only with conditions at the university, or in the Zemstvo,21 etc., to the idea that the entire political system is worthless. We must take upon ourselves the task of organising an all-round political struggle under the leadership of our Party in such a manner as to make it possible for all oppositional strata to render their fullest support to the struggle and to our Party. We must train our Social-Democratic practical workers to become political leaders, able to guide all the manifestations of this all-round struggle, able at the right time to “dictate a positive programme of action” for the aroused students, the discontented Zemstvo people, the incensed religious sects, the offended elementary schoolteachers, etc., etc.
21. The Zemstvos were peasant councils set up by the tsars for the self-administration of peasants after the abolition of serfdom.
Yes, we have indeed lost all “patience” “waiting” for the blessed time, long promised us by diverse “conciliators”, when the Economists will have stopped charging the workers with their own backwardness and justifying their own lack of energy with allegations that the workers lack strength. We ask our Economists: What do they mean by “the gathering of working class strength for the struggle”? Is it not evident that this means the political training of the workers, so that all the aspects of our vile autocracy are revealed to them? And is it not clear that precisely for this work we need “allies in the ranks of the liberals and intellectuals”, who are prepared to join us in the exposure of the political attack on the Zemstvos, on the teachers, on the statisticians, on the students, etc.? Is this surprisingly “intricate mechanism” really so difficult to understand? Has not P. B. Axelrod22 constantly repeated since 1897 that “the task before the Russian Social-Democrats of acquiring adherents and direct and indirect allies among the non-proletarian classes will be solved principally and primarily by the character of the propagandist activities conducted among the proletariat itself”? But the Martynovs and the other Economists continue to imagine that “by economic struggle against the employers and the government” the workers must first gather strength (for trade-unionist politics) and then “go over” — we presume from trade-unionist “training for activity” to Social-Democratic activity!
22. P.B. Axelrod was one of the great thinkers of early Russian Marxism and one of the founders of the Emancipation of Labor Group (See footnote #11).
What Is To Be Done? can be found in full here, courtesy of the Marxist Internet Archive.
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