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  ‘What is to be Done?’: Trade Unionism and Revolution

John McAnulty

15th April 2005

At first sight, ‘What is to be Done?’ resembles a caricature of what non-Leninists see as Leninism. It is dense, difficult, full of savage polemic and references to obscure groups that no longer exist.

A closer reading repays the effort. In actual fact what V I Lenin was attempting, one of the major themes of his life, was to take the central ideas of Marxism and apply them to the everyday ongoing struggle of the classes in his own country at a particular time in history.

The central idea in this case is one outlined by Frederick Engels. Engels explains that the theory of Marxism is not simply an outgrowth of the struggle of the working class. It comes from outside the working class, from a layer of the intelligentsia applying the theories and methods of science developed by bourgeois society to society itself.

From a Marxist perspective, class struggle occurs spontaneously, simply as a result of the working class being the working class and the capitalists being the capitalists. In the course of that struggle a range of consciousness is available to the workers, based on their experience of life under capitalism, but interpreted and explained through existing theories and ideas already present in that society. It follows that none of these theories and interpretations of the world exceed the bounds of capitalist society. Many ideas that workers commonly hold are direct reflection of reactionary beliefs current at the time. As Marx said elsewhere, the ruling ideas in society are generally the ideas of the ruling class.

The most advanced form available spontaneously to workers is what Lenin called trade union consciousness. Masses of workers involved in struggles spontaneously come together and demand that wages (that is, the cost of labour as a commodity) should be maximised and that capitalist society should be reformed so that the conditions of labour be ameliorated by, for example, the provision of public services such as health and education. Trade union consciousness tends to lead to a narrow focus on these issues and avoid wider questions of political restrictions on the working class and the power of the state. In fact the reformist consciousness reflected in the parties, some arising directly from trade unionism, compels the reformists to support capitalism – the classic case being the collapse of Social Democracy at the beginning of the First World War, as each Social Democratic party supported ‘its’ capitalists against the others.

A revolutionary consciousness, on the other hand, is based on a scientific and theoretical critique of capitalist society involving a global response, which analyses all aspects of capitalist society and the way in which that society constricts all of humanity. It sets out the contradictions and points of attack within capitalism and prepares the revolutionary overthrow of society and the establishment of a transitional society where the workers rule through their own state which brings about the abolition of private property.

Three planks to revolution

Lenin quotes Karl Kautsky in seeing three planks to the advance of a working class revolution. The first was the economic, industrial struggle to set the cost of labour as high as possible. The second was the political party which if left to develop spontaneously would lead to a parliamentary and reformist perspective. The third Lenin called theoretical. He claimed for this strand equality with the other strands. Without the constant analysis and restatement of the contradictions of capitalist society as it constantly changed, the economic and political movement would never be able to rise above spontaneously generated ideas and overthrow the capitalist society.

One of these ideas, indeed the central target of ‘What is to be Done?’, is economism. Economism gave a special, central place to the industrial struggles around economic demands and to trade union struggles generally. By patronising what the workers already valued, the economists almost automatically handed over political leadership of the working class to the bourgeoisie, dismissing broader political questions as not of importance to the workers. This did not mean the economists were explicitly anti-political, indeed they spoke of making the economic struggle political but they saw politics developing along the lines of least resistance and the wider up-front political questions were for them of much less concern.

Closely allied to economism was reformist consciousness. The reformists argued that the immediate demands of workers could be advanced and satisfied under capitalism by gradually reforming it. Of course, if the capitalists were to be given time to reform then the reformists had to, in the interim, support the capitalists and oppose revolutionary solutions.

Opportunism saw what workers valued and supported immediately at any given point in time as being an opportunity, offering a shortcut to building a movement. In order to be at one with the workers and seize the opportunity it was necessary to suppress issues that the workers did not at that time understand or support. The political party had to remain silent about any long-term working-class programme and ‘lead’ the workers by always tailing at their rear.

Individual terrorists seemed to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum from reformists and economists, but Lenin saw them as emerging from the same stable. Each group patronised the working class and put aside the arduous task of organising the workers or advancing a working class programme. The militarists either believed that they could substitute for the entire working class or that their ‘propaganda of the deed’ was really what was needed to galvanise workers and force them into activity that would then spontaneously solve all the necessary questions of strategy and tactics.

In order to counter these spontaneous tendencies within the working class and the opposition organisations the third strand, the theoretical, had to be consciously built. This would involve an organisation of ‘professional’ revolutionaries organised around a revolutionary programme. The task of that programme would be to bring all the issues of class struggle and capitalist exploitation and alienation to the working class and also to bring the programme of the working class to all the other social layers in struggle against capitalist rule.

The Marxist Party

Lenin’s theory of the party was dominated by what he saw as an organisational dilemma of the working class that was really a question of politics. Advances by the working class tended to occur suddenly in mass upsurges which could lead to advances in methods of struggle and innovations in practice. When the Marxists saw it as their task simply to respond to these spontaneous upsurges without seeking to provide political leadership, it led to amateurish organisation and a narrow focus of understanding. When this amateurishness and lack of understanding were elevated to the status of theory, moved from an unfortunate reality to a desirable goal, then the struggle ran the risk of being degraded. It could split into dogmatism – an inflexible defence of existing ideas, into individual terror where the revolutionaries substituted for the class; or into economism where existing understanding was elevated to theory and the movement could spiral backwards, constantly ‘leading’ from behind and advancing what could already be easily understood.

A classic defence of economism at the time was the statement that you couldn’t have a secret mass strike. Lenin’s response was that, in the conditions of Tsarist Russia, you could very easily do so. The capitalist state could ensure that even mass events were never fully reported to the class as a whole and only a network of dedicated revolutionaries could maintain the separate channels of communication necessary to ensure that resistance to capitalist rule did not become invisible. Lenin did not argue that a mass strike could be organised by the tiny forces of Marxism, these struggles would emerge from the workers themselves. The booklet he was writing was all about what Marxists should do about it. In the situation of strikes this meant learning the lessons and disseminating them as widely as possible through a necessarily secret and centralised organisation. 

The revolution needed mass organisations with loose structures to reflect all the currents within the working class and to make repression more difficult. At the same time it needed a small centralised party of professional revolutionaries. The task of that party was to enable activists to stand aside from the struggle for existence, to allow activists to be trained and to develop a division of labour where activists could overcome amateurishness and develop professional skills in all the facets of revolution. While full-time activists were important ‘professional’ did not just mean these Marxists but workers who were prepared to sacrifice what little free time they had for the socialist cause. The task of the party was to draw in intellectuals and commit them to the programme of the working class while at the same time transforming working-class activists into worker/intellectuals able to advance the full programme of their class.

‘The Leninist theory of organisation’

What becomes clear in ‘What is to be done’ is that a static ‘Leninist theory of organisation’ derived solely from the booklet ‘What is to be Done?’ is a myth. Lenin did not prescribe a particular method for constructing a party, but rather a whole series of methods, allied with underlying conceptions about working class organisation and politics and what this meant.  For example Lenin always regarded the programme as the party and in ‘What is to be Done?’ he laid particular emphasis on a party paper as the scaffolding for the party. 

Lenin is often portrayed as anti-democratic, usually by people who ignore the environment in which he had to work. In ‘What is to be Done?’ he argues against amateurish definitions of democracy from a wholly democratic perspective. He argues very strongly against an organisational formalism with lots of rules and structures and in favour of a democratic internal life but only when the prerequisites for it are at hand, allowing full publicity and debate – absent in the conditions of Russia at the time. The revolutionary organisation must have a private, internal element to its structure to avoid being crushed by repression. It guarantees a democratic life because its leaders are forged in struggle (not a very convincing argument today). In the end the democracy of an organisation is supported by the political consciousness of a cadre resting on the critical methods of Marxism. There are no final guarantees against decay and collapse. True then as it is today.

Many of the arguments taken by others as presenting a ‘Leninist’ theory of organisation were later repudiated by Lenin as particular tactics dictated by autocratic repression. When repression lifted he was the first to argue for more open organisation. The Bolshevik Party was to a much greater extent than any other organisation a movement of working-class activists, where intellectuals were expected to commit fully to the working class and serve its interests. There is as much to learn from many of Lenin’s later comments about working-class politics and the role of the party as in ‘What is to be Done?’. What the latter was concentrated on and is still very relevant today is an analysis and critique of economism. The survival, indeed flourishing of this particular distortion of Marxism shows the deep roots of this type of politics and the importance of making a study of the booklet as one important step that can be taken today to combat it.

What is present in ‘What is to be Done?’ but not resolved, is the tension between theory and practice. The theory of Marxism has a relative autonomy from the class struggle, and this allows revolutionary organisation to survive in periods when the class has been defeated and pushed back. However the theory is not independent of class struggle. It must be presented to workers in a new way at each new stage of struggle, analysing the new currents in economy and society, and it must learn from struggles and the way in which working class organisation finds new ways to move forward.

Anyone reading Lenin today would be convinced that he is still alive. His argument is not with the working class, but with the fact that inevitable weaknesses in an oppressed class are often elevated to virtues and into programme. The watchword then was ‘freedom of criticism’ but, as Lenin pointed out, the exponents of this watchword did not want to debate or to criticise. They simply wanted to be free from the restrictions imposed by Marxist theory so that they could lead the class in bowing down to bourgeois ideology. Today’s demands for unity without policy or programme, for unity without socialism, for a ‘pluralist’ movement where everyone agrees not to agree, would quickly have aroused his derision, as it should ours.


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