Above all, due to the grave obstacles it must overcome, the party of the working class must be a party of disciplined, professional revolutionaries…nothing short of this can succeed in acquiring and defending people’s power…In 1902, Lenin published his long pamphlet What Is To Be Done, his first systematic development of his views on the nature of the revolutionary party. That writing is widely regarded today as one of the most influential political documents of the twentieth century. The following is a look at the main ideas contained in this famous pamphlet, published in Irving Howe’s collection of writings on socialism/communism. I am obliged to remind readers that in Lenin’s time of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the words “social democracy” corresponded to what became socialism/communism.
Lenin begins this section of What Is To Be Done with the statement that on the grounds of the pressing needs of the working class for political knowledge and political training, “the organization of wide political agitation and consequently of all-sided political exposures are an absolutely necessary and paramount task of activity, if that activity is to be truly social democratic.” (Bold italics ours).
But, as was Lenin’s dialectic style, he immediately adds that this kind of organization is insufficient in that it ignores the general tasks of social democracy as a whole. First, he approaches the subject from what he calls the “economist or practical” aspect. “Everyone agrees that it is necessary to develop the political consciousness of the working class,” he writes, before posing the question as to how that is to be accomplished? Seen only from the economic point of view, workers are concerned merely with the economic relations between the government and the working class, devoid of a political character. Therefore, he says, if we confine ourselves to the economic struggle, we will never develop the political consciousness of the workers.
“The workers,” he continues, “can acquire political consciousness only from outside the sphere of worker-employers relations. The sphere from which it is possible to obtain this (political) knowledge is the sphere between all classes and the state—the sphere of interrelations between all classes. Therefore, the way for workers to acquire political knowledge is for social democrats “to go among all classes of the population, and dispatch units of their army in all directions.”
SIDEBAR: The wages of “economism”
Why trade unionism—in Lenin’s view—rooted in “economism”, can only lead to endless economic struggles between workers and employers, without ever raising the workers’s consciousness about their ability to conquer state power.
“It cannot be too strongly insisted that this is not enough to constitute social democracy.…The social democrat’s ideal (leader) should not be a trade union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; he must be able to group all these manifestions into a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; he must be able to take advantage of every petty event in order to explain …his social democratic demands to all, in order to explain to everyone the world historical significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Before continuing with Lenin and What Is To Be Done, I have to mention my own reactions at this point: it seems we are speaking also of America and Europe, of applying a historical situation to our own contemporary situation. And I must remind readers that the Leninist category “proletariat” is alive today and in the USA includes both the diminishing workers class and the rapidly growing and ever poorer former affluent middle class, so that Lenin’s encouragement to reach out to all classes rings super modern.
At the point we left off, Lenin asserts the following five points concerning the heart of Leninism:
- no movement can be durable without a stable organization of leaders to maintain continuity;
- the more widely the masses are drawn into the struggle and form the basis of the movement, the more necessary is it to have such an organization and the more stable must it be…;
- the organization must consist chiefly of persons engaged in revolution as a profession;
- in a country with a despotic government, the more we restrict the membership of this organization to persons who are engaged in revolution as a profession and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult it will be to catch the organization;
- and the wider will be the circle of men and women of the working class or of other classes of society able to join the movement and perform active work ….
At this point, Lenin raises the question whether it is possible to have a mass organization when strict secrecy is essential? He agrees that we can never guarantee the degree of secrecy required but he believes that the concentration of secret functions in the hands of a small number of professional revolutionaries does not mean that they will think for all and that the masses will have no active part in the movement. On the contrary, Lenin affirms optimistically, more and more professional revolutionaries should emerge from the masses … after years of training and experience. Lenin speaks of the reading and dissemination of “illegal literature” that will not diminish because a dozen professional revolutionaries concentrate the secret work in their hand, but it will increase tenfold. On the contrary, Lenin believed, the professional revolutionaries will be no less trained than the police. They will see to organizational matters like the construction of the organization territorially, appointing leaders in districts and towns and factories and institutions, at the same time expanding contacts with other organization such as trade unions, workers circles and circles for the whole population.
“We must have as large a number possible of such (associated) organizations having the widest possible variety of functions, but it is absurd and dangerous to confuse these with organizations of revolutionists, to erase the line of demarcation between them, to dim still more the already hazy appreciation by the masses that to serve the mass movement we must have people who will devote themselves exclusively to social-democratic activities, and that others must train themselves … to become professional revolutionaries….
In this short section of his famous work, Lenin lays out clearly and lucidly his revolutionary tactics for the execution of one of history’s greatest revolutions, which had worldwide effects comparable to those of the Great French Revolution a century and a half earlier. In sum, Lenin visualized a workers vanguard led by a small group of professional revolutionaries who dedicated their lives to overthrowing an oppressive state and its ideology by use of and collaboration with the many diverse classes of society and instituting a new classless order. Because of his early death at age 54 we cannot know, we can only speculate as to what kind of a state leader Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, or Lenin, would have become. I personally have come to believe that whatever the circumstances of the succession to Lenin, Stalin did become the right leader for a Russia riddled by civil war, political divisions and anarchy, foreign interventions, an ignorant population, poverty, a nascent industry at a standstill and agriculture in chaos, and the hostility of the surrounding capitalist world with Socialist Russia in their sights. Though the power of the contemporary capitalist state might penetrate deeper into society and into the mentality of the population than in Lenin’s time via cradle to the grave brainwash, also modern technology offers much to the opposition to capitalist hegemony, both nationally and internationally.
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