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Review –‘ Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context’
by Lars T Lih, Brill Publishers, Leiden & Boston

Part 3 The battle within Russian Social Democracy

Joe Craig

21 November 2006

What is to be Done? marshaled an array of arguments to combat the ideas of economism but the target, maintains Lih, was not so much the economists themselves as those in Social Democracy who inconsistently opposed them.  For Lenin this primarily meant the Social Democrat paper ‘Rabochee delo’.  The followers of the paper ‘Iskra’, which Lenin helped edit, regarded those of ‘Rabochee delo’ as being soft on opportunism; by opportunism meaning those such as the German Bernstein who revised Marx’s teachings in a reformist direction.

‘Iskra’ argued that the events of 1901 when workers went to the aid of protesting students showed how local committees of the Social Democratic Party had not understood the importance of politics and had not realized the potential of the workers.  As a result they had been left behind by the workers, making the protests much less effective than they could have been.  Worse, the danger existed that non-Social Democratic revolutionaries might take the opportunity to assume leadership of the workers’ struggles. The populist tradition for example had recently been refounded in the shape of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, formed in 1900.  ‘Rabochee delo’ on the other hand had argued that the workers’ response had shown that the worries of ‘Iskra’ about the influence of economism had been misplaced.

For ‘Iskra’ the response to the events had shown that economism, the more or less exclusive emphasis on economic struggle, had left the RSDWP unprepared.  It was therefore wrong of ‘Rabochee delo’ to take so relaxed a view of the struggle against economism and against opportunism in general.

For those involved at the time this would naturally have been an important question but for socialists looking back over a century later its importance is easily missed, as are the nuances of the debate.  The relatively narrow ground of the debate between ‘Iskra’ and ‘Rabochee delo’ is perhaps one more reason why understanding much of WITBD has been so elusive.  Another is that the debate was so convoluted even its participants, including Lenin, got mixed up! (LR, p. 292)  Lih approaches the debate by recording the opinions of observers at the time, observers who had no reason to be particularly sympathetic to ‘Iskra’ but who basically supported its view of the dispute.

Soft on opportunism?

One of these observers was a recent convert to Social Democracy L. Nadezhdin, who remained a rather marginal figure until his early death in 1905.  He emphasized the importance of fighting the revisionism typified by the German Eduard Bernstein who had argued that revolution was no longer a necessary part of socialism:  ‘It is a thousand times easier to bear the blows of governmental oppression than the propaganda of Bernsteinism, diligently nourished in the place where revolutionary struggle should be!  The whip brandished by the government does not destroy anything for long – on the contrary, it calls forth resistance.  The Bernsteinist propaganda of economic struggle pushes revolutionaries toward a swampy mire, and this mire sucks people down.’ (quoted in LR, p.289)

Unfortunately the view that the workers’ struggle was, at least for a period, inevitably non-political was held by some who on other questions held to classical Russian Erfurtianism, i.e. the merger of the worker movement and socialism and the importance of political freedom.  One such was Krichevskii who argued that workers advanced to political class awareness through a series of predictable stages from the lowest economic struggle to the highest political struggle that encompassed all aspects of society.  He did not deny that workers advanced at different speeds and that some may advance quicker than others, or that Social Democracy should not seek to intervene into the creation of workers’ class awareness, (‘consciousness’).   He did however argue that economism was not so much a different theory of how to advance the interests of the worker class as a reflection of workers at different stages of a natural development.  This meant that no strong opposition or struggle against it inside or outside the party was necessary.  Remember Marx’s words that ‘each step of actual movement is worth a dozen programmes.’ (quoted in LR p.295)

Unfortunately this meant a passive attitude to party work and implied that the economist view we met in part 2 of our review, that the most desirable struggle was that which existed – whatever its character, was correct or at the very least could not be objected to. Krichevskii’s advice to tailor one’s message to the audience could be carried so far as to be dishonest with different workers being told different things about what was important and about what they should do.  It also meant that everywhere the RSDWP started work for the first time it had to do so on economic issues only, despite objections from critics that rising political excitement made this advice extremely misjudged. (1)

This tendency to downgrade the intervention of Social Democracy as a party was also reflected in Krichevskii’s criticism of Iskra’s underestimation of the objective or ‘stikhiinyi’ element of political development and over-optimism about the possibility of purposive organisation.  It is this challenge to ‘Iskra’ on the question of stikhiinost that compelled Lenin to reply on a subject that is now referred to as ‘spontaneity’ versus ‘consciousness.’  His reply was not concerned so much with what the workers could do to improve the negative features of a stikhiinyi upsurge since he, as we have said, was optimistic on this score. His concern throughout WITBD is the lack of organisation and political development of the Social Democratic Party itself and its praktiki, or activists. 

A second element of Krichevskii’s argument also provided an opportunity for ‘Iskra’ supporters to damn him.  He accused ‘Iskra’ of not acknowledging ‘that all currents within international Social Democracy – ‘including the most extreme Bernsteinians – genuinely represent proletarian class interests,’ (LR p.312)  This included not only Bernstein but the French socialist Millerand who had become a minister in a government that included General Gallifet, ‘the butcher of the Paris Commune.’  It was around the ‘rights’ of revisionism to question the fundamentals of the Social Democratic programme that the first chapter in WITBD was devoted.

Lenin dismissed what he saw as contempt for theory expressed in Krichevskii’s quote from Marx and Rabochee delo’s dislike for Iskra’s polemics.  To Lenin, for Krichevskii to repeat Marx’s remarks about the unimportance of programmes ‘in an era of theoretical disarray is the same as crying “Many happy returns of the day!” to a funeral procession.’  ‘The role of an advanced fighter can only be fulfilled by a party guided by an advanced theory.’ (quoted in LR, p.570)  The economists’ dismissal of theoretical disputes and factional disagreements on top of simultaneously calling for ‘freedom of criticism’, i.e. freedom for revisionism, reflected the limited programme that they wanted Social Democracy and the worker movement to fight for.  ‘Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.  It is impossible to emphasise this thought too much at a time when along with fashionable preaching of opportunism people are carried away with the narrowest possible forms of practical activity.’(Lenin WITBD, in LR, p.696)  Russian Social Democracy’s need for theory was an expression of the movements’ international character, its only recent birth and the nature of the tasks facing it as a Marxist party in Russia.

Marx’s words in fact came in a letter in which he criticised unprincipled unity and made strong criticisms of the Gotha programme, hardly the actions of someone who thought programmes unimportant.  Marx advised that agreement on unity to achieve practical aims was necessary, but this did not require and should not be attempted, at the expense of principles.  Lenin in WITBD included a long quotation from Englels in which the latter explained the importance of theory to the worker movement and how much this reflected to the benefit of German workers and the to the detriment of the untheoretical English movement.

A second critic of ‘Iskra’ did not accuse it of sticking rigidly and in a doctrinaire fashion to a plan but accused it of not having a plan at all.  Lih characterises the debate that followed as going ‘overboard’ ‘even compared to previous polemics’ and argues that historians have made a mistake in treating the polemics of each side as an accurate portrait of the other. Lenin wrote WITBD in order to clarify the differences.  He thus had to respond to Rabochee delo’s charges that ‘Iskra’ was dogmatic with regard to ‘non-existent’ heresies, was rigid and frigid, paid too much attention to non-proletarian classes and was undemocratic.  The structure of WITBD was thus determined by this need.

Lenin thus used WITBD to argue that these charges betrayed dangerous indulgence of views incompatible with revolutionary Social Democracy, underestimated the importance of Social Democratic leadership, the importance of this leadership encompassing all the exploited and oppressed and of those concerned with political freedom, and finally that Iskra had shown through its action that it had not at all behaved undemocratically in seeking to advance its views on how the party should be organized. The final purpose of the book was to explain what this organisation should consist of.  What the book was not about, and no one thought it was about, was intelligentsia control over workers.  WITBD was therefore a shot fired in the struggle between two Social Democratic papers, ‘Iskra’ and ‘Rabochee delo’, over leadership of the party, which ‘Iskra’ won because, according to Lih, it had a plan and ‘Rabochee delo’ didn’t. While Lenin’s approach could hold out a promise of improving things Krichevskii’s argument led nowhere.


At the centre of all Lenin’s arguments with the various figures who populate WITBD is optimism about the readiness of workers to become prepared for revolution and the key role of the purposive worker in this process.  In traditional translations this is described as the conscious worker with the right kind of consciousness.  Lih translates the key terms as the purposive worker with the right kind of awareness.  ‘The simplest way to put the relationship [between them] is that ‘awareness’ is knowledge that guides action while ‘purposiveness’ is action guided by knowledge.’ (LR p. 338)  ‘Workers can therefore be purposive long before they have socialist awareness . . as Lenin put it in 1899, “Strikes are carried out successfully only where the workers are already sufficiently purposive, where they are able to select the time for strikes, are able to put forth demands, have ties with the socialists so that they can get hold of leaflets and brochures.”  In contrast, awareness is a matter of doctrine, of the teaching of scientific socialism.  Of course the idea of a mission contained in these teachings is not just intellectual – it is profoundly emotional and has manifold implications for action.  Nevertheless, Social-Democratic awareness is basically a matter of mental outlook.  Thus, roughly speaking, purposiveness is a quality of the worker movement and awareness is a quality of socialism.  The merger narrative is, therefore, also the story of awareness and purposiveness coming together so that Social Democracy and ‘purposive workers’ become synonymous.’  (LR, p338-339)

The purposive worker was sometimes called an ‘advanced worker’, ‘intelligentnyi worker’ or worker revolutionary.  Lih quotes from the memoir of one such worker, Kanatchikov, to illustrate what it felt like to be such a person: ‘Sufficiently fortified by now by my awareness that I was ‘adult, independent’, and, what is more ‘purposive’, I bravely entered into combat with ‘human injustice’.  I stood up for the abused and the oppressed, enlightened and persuaded the ‘non-purposive’, and argued passionately with my opponents, defending my ideals…’ (quoted in LR, p.339)

It was through these purposive workers that Lenin believed the programme of Social Democracy would reach the worker class.  For Lenin they were the ‘genuine heroes’ who showed a ‘passionate drive toward knowledge and toward socialism’ and who he wanted to reassure would achieve the great goals that they fought for, despite disappointment, despair, prison and exile.  These were the people who would lead the Russian revolution.  These were people who would win the confidence of the masses, assist their enlightenment and organisation, and who had worked out for themselves socialist theories.  This was the origin of the confidence that lay behind Lenin’s criticisms of the limitations placed on the worker movement and Social Democracy by the economists. (LR, p.344-345)

This confidence also lay behind his arguments with what he called ‘economists in a broad sense.’  This type appeared to arise from a letter written by a group of Social Democrats in 1901, known as the ‘Joint Letter’, which seemed to collate many of the objections made against ‘Iskra’.

‘The argument of the joint letter can be paraphrased as follows: Iskra’s basic fault is its overestimation of the impact of Social-Democratic leadership.  Material conditions determine outcomes, not the efforts of ideologues, no matter how inspired.  This basic fault reveals itself in a number of ways.  Iskra is too hard on the praktiki of the last few years.  Leading an economic struggle was the best that could be done, given the material elements of the time.  Because Iskra puts undue stress on theoretical rectitude, it conducts polemics in an uncomradely way that creates unnecessary conflict.’ (LR, p 347)  ‘Iskra’ had given the workers too difficult a task in the objective of overthrowing the autocracy and its hopes for help from other classes led it to abandon the class point of view.

Lenin’s reply was basically that leadership itself is part of the ‘material elements’ and that the worker movement’s development of recent years had left the praktiki of Social Democracy behind.  The attempt to justify this shortcoming was unforgivable and was ‘economism in a broad sense.’  The task of raising the narod (people) as a whole was one Social Democracy must take up or others would.  Lih describes this as an empirical dispute rather than theoretical one and the elements of empirical judgment are easy to see.  Are Russian workers going to be ready to fight Tsarism?  Are the RSDWP praktiki falling behind?  What are the effects of ‘Iskra’ polemics?  The judgment on Lenin here is a historical question.

There is however a general methodological question that underlies the differences beyond those of economism.  The failure to factor into political strategy the actions of the revolutionaries themselves is one important means by which these revolutionaries can cease to play the role they claim and become a brake on political development.  Lenin is right.  When revolutionaries have reached sufficient size and weight, their analysis of what exists, what can be done and what potential there is for initiative cannot exclude the impact of their own actions.

The Joint Letter gave rise to one of the controversial passages of WITBD.  In claiming that ‘Iskra’ could not effect the course of the worker movement it argued this position in the following manner:  ‘All the efforts of ideologues [i.e. Iskra] – even though inspired by the best possible theories and programmes – cannot cause the movement to stray from this path.’ (LR p. 352)  Lenin attempted to argue against this assault on the role of Social Democracy and purposive workers by making his point in the same terms as the objection to it in order to make it more vivid and striking.  He said, yes, the task of Social Democracy is precisely to ‘divert’ the worker movement from this path (the one determined by material elements when these elements exclude Social Democracy itself).

We can see how this can be interpreted as Lenin wishing to foist (his) socialism onto the (natural) self-determining struggles of the workers, with all the un-democratic implications that opponents of Lenin can heap on this foundation.  When we see, however, the context of Lenin’s polemic we see that he argued in defence of the high level of class struggle being shown by the workers, who just needed application of the merger formula to make a big difference; against those who said the worker movement was not ready for broad political struggle.  To repeat, the merger formula was not the unnatural diversion of the worker movement but the coming together of the natural resistance of workers with socialist politics and party that explained the ultimate purpose of this resistance.  Lenin’s complaint, once again, was not that the workers or their stikhiinyi struggle were the problem, that they were taking the wrong direction, but that the praktiki of the Social Democratic Party were the problem and that they were taking the wrong direction.

Lenin’s optimistic reading of the development of the Russian working class was confirmed by one close observer of the revolutionary movement at the time, Boris Savinkov, who noted the effect of the purposive workers on a middle layer of workers who themselves were intensely interested in politics and who in turn influenced the mass, which had mostly been concerned with their economic interests.  This led him to correctly predict the mass struggle of all St. Petersburg workers for their economic and political liberation in the near future.  For him the economist tendency reflected the demands and mood of the least politically developed workers.  The economist method was one opposed to that of seeking to penetrate the least developed workers through activity directed at the most advanced.  (Lenin depicts Savinkov as himself an economist but Lih describes this as inexcusable.)


Another target of WITBD was terrorism, a word now so loaded and debased that it is impossible to review debates on its meaning, or views on its utility, without inviting the reader to first jettison modern preconceptions.  Thus when Russians talked about individual terror they meant not action by individuals against large groups, but action by large groups against individuals, such as police chiefs, other bureaucrats or even the Tsar himself, as in 1881.  ‘All Russian revolutionaries around the turn of the century, very much including the Iskra-ites, honoured and respected, indeed hero-worshipped, the earlier terrorist revolutionaries.  As a political tactic, however, terror fell into disrepute for the simple reason: it had not worked.’ (LR, p.372)  At the turn of the century the tactic underwent something of a reconsideration. ‘Rabochee delo’, typically, was ‘wishy-washy' while Nadezhdin was more forthright in arguing for its utility.

He argued that terror could be a galvanizing factor, but not for the workers, who were already in movement, but for the revolutionary intelligentsia and society as a whole.  Nadezhdin thus argued that terror could play a temporary, instigating role, bringing together the workers and the revolutionaries in a much quicker manner than the spread of awareness championed by ‘Iskra’.  Nadezhdin’s terror was thus not so much based on inspiring fear as instigating political movement, breaking the ice and intensifying the revolutionary movement.  Behind his call lay an emphasis on action as opposed to ‘the word’ of ‘Iskra’.

The section in WITBD that polemicises against these views is called ‘What do economism and terrorism have in common’ and draws parallels between the economists’ ‘kow-towing’ towards the stikhiinost of the workers (stikhiinost in this context meaning isolation – isolation from Social Democracy) and the terrorists’ ‘kow-towing’ towards the stikhiinost of the intelligenty who have lost faith in the political development of the workers.  They substitute terror or excitative acts for the indispensable work of spreading the awareness of socialism by revolutionary Social Democracy.  Thus like the economists they further the division that the merger formula seeks to overcome.

In this way Lenin once again rejected the native populist tradition in favour of the traditions of Marxism.  In the next part of this review we see what this meant for his understanding of the practical organisation of Russian Social Democracy.


(1) At this point it is worth examining the objection that some anti-Leninists have to the idea of a ‘vanguard’ party.  In fact this is not a Leninist notion but a Marxist one.  It simply reflects the fact that workers are attracted to political activity and class awareness at different times, at different levels and at different speed.  It reflects the obvious fact that the working class is divided into various strata with varying levels of class awareness or consciousness.  It reflects the fact that Marxists have to base themselves on the most advanced sections of the class – the vanguard.  The vanguard party is thus not separate from the class but a part of the class – the most class aware section.  It is through this section that Marxism reaches less advanced workers.  This therefore answers questions about who Marxists should be aiming their message at and at what level it should be pitched. There is nothing substitutionist about it at all.  In fact the idea that a party can be organised in any other way is to assume that all workers at all places will come to socialism, all at the same time and with no differences between them.  This is simply nonsense.


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