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ON LENIN'S "WHAT IS TO BE DONE?"

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by T.S.Tsonchev

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The Montreal Review, September 2010

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Stalin and Lenin

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I will limit the scope of this essay showing only the basic ideas in Lenin's "seminal" text "What is to be done?" The pamphlet was written in 1901 and published in 1902 (before the revolution in Russia in 1905 and before the October 1917 Bolshevik conquest of power). There is an academic dispute on the question of which ideas this pamphlet reflected best - Lenin's own original views on the future and organization of the Russian social-democratic movement or the views of the revolutionary circle around the newspaper Iskra. I am disposed to accept the latter version. "What is to be done?" was, in my opinion, the general outlook of many of Lenin's comrades, but Lenin was the man with the energy and articulation that made this view not only a popular blueprint for revolution, but also for real political action. Since its publication, the pamphlet has been often discussed and quoted. Some historians saw in it the birth of Bolshevism, others, such as Lars T. Lih (See "Lenin and The Great Awakening" in "Lenin Reloaded," Duke University Press, 2007), argued that this was not a "breakthrough" document, but just a part of a massive "socialist awakening" in Russia. Perhaps, the truth is somewhere in the middle - "What is to be done?" is an early document, reflecting the formation, within the framework of Russian social democracy, of a radical movement that will later swell into a one-party state system.

First, in "What is to be done?" Lenin tries to lay out the founding principles of a strong socialist movement in Russia. "Our Party is only in process of formation," he says. There is danger of "diversion" from the "correct path," and this danger will be averted through the mixture of three things - the development of advanced revolutionary theory, critical examination of the experience of the social-democratic movements at home and abroad, and creation of a vanguard of revolutionary "fighters" guided by the revolutionary theory.

Second (that follows from the first proposition), Lenin argues that the observation of the historical experience of the working classes shows that the workers cannot develop class consciousness by their own efforts. Without the help of educated intelligentsia, workers would stay permanently on the level of "trade-union consciousness."

Third, the revolutionary movement in Russia can survive and endure, writes Lenin, only through strict organization. Such an organization can be achieved only through creation of professional revolutionaries. They will be familiar with the revolutionary theory, they will put it into practice, and they will learn how to combat the political police in the autocratic state.

Forth (and perhaps most important), Lenin pleads for the widening of Social-Democratic ambitions. Social-Democrats must not confine their efforts only to an economic struggle, but must be active in the education of the working masses. Lenin does not want patchwork reforms; he pleads for revolution, for a change of the entire political system. Although not a new idea, it was the crucial appeal in "What is to be done?" This is the point from which the moderate Western type socialism departs from the growing radicalism in the Russian social-democratic movement. Here comes the separation of "Bolsheviks" ("majority" of radical socialists) and "Mensheviks" ("minority" of moderate social reformers) in Russia. (In reality, the Bolsheviks were the minority for long time.) Lenin wished and was aware of the necessity of this division in "What is to be done?" He writes: "... he who resembles a trade-union secretary... is not a revolutionary, but a wretched amateur!"

It is amazing how this pragmatic approach to building a strong militant organization was married with the total lack of discrimination to the fact that such an organization will rest on terror and coercion - actions that destroy societies, not build them anew. In "What is to be done?" Lenin's pragmatism is coupled with sheer naivity. He writes that the projected "vanguard" will not "do the thinking for all," but its ranks and membership will increase with the time. He believes that the unchecked power of the social-democratic (later Bolshevik or communist) elite will rest on "comradeship" and "mutual confidence." This is an irony, because the suspicion and the killings of Party members were the most visible features of the future communist regime. How perverse Lenin's thinking was, how blind he was for the organization he was creating, is seen in the words: "They [the revolutionaries] have a lively sense of their responsibility, knowing as they do from experience that an organization of real revolutionaries will stop at nothing to rid itself of an unworthy member..."

I think, this last quotation is a good end of the essay. Perhaps, the significance of "What is to be done?" is in the fact that what was proposed in this pamphlet was really done.

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