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

Part 1 The Merger Formula

Joe Craig

10 November 2006

This book, running at over 840 pages and selling at €129 is an important one, which unfortunately, because of its price, will not receive the distribution it deserves. For these reasons we will present an extended review of its contents and later attempt to see what relevance it may have for socialists in Ireland today.  The blurb on the back explains very succinctly what it does.

“Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1903) has long been seen as the founding document of a ‘party of a new type’.  For some, it provided a model of the ‘vanguard party’ that was the essence of Bolshevism, for others it manifested Lenin’s elitist and manipulative attitude towards the workers.’

‘This substantial new commentary, based on contemporary Russian and German-language sources, provides hitherto unavailable contextual information that undermines these views and shows how Lenin’s argument rests squarely on an optimistic confidence in the workers’ revolutionary inclinations and on his admiration of German Social Democracy in particular.  Lenin’s outlook cannot be understood, Lih claims, outside the context of international Social Democracy, the disputes within Russian Social Democracy and the institutions of the revolutionary underground.’

“The commentary is accompanied by a complete new translation of What is to be Done? that focuses particularly on hard-to-translate key terms.  This study raises new and unsettling questions about the legacy of Marx, Bolshevism as a historical force, and the course of Soviet history, but, most of all, it will revolutionise the conventional interpretations of Lenin”


Let us begin with a look at what the conventional interpretation is.  The view among most academics who have studied Lenin is that he feared the spontaneous development of the workers’ movement, sought to divert it from its natural course by the intervention of non-workers, sought the creation of a new hyper-centralised ‘vanguard’ party that stifled democracy, and promoted conspiracy that signalled a radical departure from the teachings of Karl Marx even as he dishonestly pretended to uphold Marxist orthodoxy. 

As Lih notes, this interpretation rests almost wholly on not just one book, not just one chapter, not just two famous paragraphs but three words found in these paragraphs, ‘spontaneity’, ‘divert’ and ‘from without.’

These words refer to two common ideas: that by themselves workers would not develop socialism and that only intellectuals could bring socialist consciousness to them from without.  Lih sums up this as the ‘worry about the workers view.’  Along side this interpretation he ranks what he calls the ‘activist interpretation’ which includes works on Lenin by Tony Cliff, John Molyneux and Paul Le Blanc, i.e. by those who identify themselves with Lenin and Marxism.  However when it comes to ‘What is to be Done?’ Lih claims that the supporters of Lenin have more in common with the academic interpretation than they have differences.  Thus the latter say that Lenin’s formulations were perhaps one-sided, and therefore false, and that Lenin was ‘bending the stick.’  (Lih has some interesting remarks about this always very dubious idea that Lenin held contradictory ideas that changed with the political environment and that the Bolsheviks could be driven one way or another because of some superior genius within Lenin).  In summary the ‘friends of Lenin’ agree with the academic tradition that Lenin initiated a break with existing Marxist tradition and invented a new type of party organisation.  They say however that Lenin later revised some of his judgements and methods of organisation after learning lessons from the 1905 revolution.

Lih’s view is quite the opposite:

 “I reject all the central propositions of the textbook interpretation.  The keynote of Lenin’s outlook was not worry about workers but exhilaration about workers.  The formulations about spontaneity are not the heart of WITBD [What is to be Done?] but a tacked-on polemical sally…These formulations are confusing, unedifying and should be bracketed until all other evidence about Lenin’s outlook is considered.  WITBD was not a gloomy response to a crisis (however defined) but an exuberant response to an opportunity.  WITBD did not reject the Western model of a Social Democratic party but invoked this model at every turn.  Lenin certainly advocated a ‘vanguard party, for this was the common understanding of what Social Democracy was all about.  Lenin thus did not revert to the populist tradition in any way.  WITBD did not advocate hyper-centralism or an elite, conspiratorial party restricted to professional revolutionaries from the intelligentsia.  The positions advanced in WITBD were not the cause of the party split in 1904.  The centrality of political freedom in Lenin’s platform makes it impossible to draw a direct link between WITBD and Stalinism.” (Lenin Rediscovered – LR, p20)
Two questions might arise in readers’ minds at this point.  Why have so many got it wrong and why are we to believe only Lih has all of a sudden got it right?

Lih gives a number of responses to the first of these questions.  The first is that the emphasis on such few words about spontaneity and consciousness led many astray, and this misinterpretation was aided by the savage criticism of Lenin’s polemical opponents at the time, including Luxemburg and Trotsky.  Secondly the context in which Lenin argued has been ignored or discounted when it seemed to conflict with the received wisdom.  The quote from Lenin himself, which prefaces the book, could hardly be more apt: 

‘The basic mistake made by people who polemicise with What is to be Done? at the present time is that they tear this production completely out of specific historical context, out of a specific and by now long-past period in the development of our party.’ (Lenin 1907) 
This context included German Social Democracy, which academics may not have knowledge of and which activists might also dismiss because of antipathy to Kautsky as a result of his later betrayals. The third problem might be called a lack of imagination – an inability or unwillingness to appreciate that much of what Lenin said was common currency in the Social Democratic (i.e. Marxist) movement.  It may also be partly a result of reading very little else of what Lenin wrote at the time.  To all this must be added the distortions of cold war scholarship and Stalinist censorship and revisionism which has marked such a discontinuity in the Marxist movement so that a shared historical understanding has suffered some considerable loss.

At least part of the answer to the second question: Why are we to believe only Lih has all of a sudden got it right? is that Lih does not name his book ‘Lenin Discovered’ but ‘Lenin Rediscovered.’  He maintains that he is by no means the first to understand the real Lenin but that this has been very much a minority view and has been buried by the weight of the textbook interpretation.  He quotes the American journalist W.H.Chamberlain, author of a classic study of the Russian revolution, who wrote in 1930 that ‘boundless hatred for the capitalist system and its upholders, boundless faith in the right and the ability of the working class to dominate a new social order – these were certainly the two dominant passions of Lenin’s strong and simple character.’ (quoted in LR, p.31)

Lih also argues that even if we examine the controversial passages in WITBD we misunderstand them if we are not alive to the meanings of the words used.  Some of these have been translated in such a way as to confuse or even to draw readers to the opposite of what Lenin’s real views were.  Pages and pages of Lih’s book therefore are devoted to explaining why and how the word stikhiinyi, when translated as spontaneity, distorts his views; how konspiratsiia does not mean ‘conspiracy’; tred-iunionizm does not mean ‘trade unionism’ and revoliutsioner po professii should not be translated as ‘professional revolutionary.’  Much of this argumentation is subtle and involved and will not be covered in this review.

In broader terms Lih would maintain that his interpretation can be seen to be true since it overwhelmingly fits the evidence of both Lenin’s other writings and his practice in the party at the time. As confirmation he notes that WITBD did not occupy the Bolsheviks as it has others, certainly something very puzzling if the book was the certificate of the party’s birth and of its novel nature.  His interpretation generates none of the contradictions which call for ‘stick-bending’ to explain.  No doubt Lih’s book will generate debate and we must look forward to the other lessons this may throw up confirming or qualifying his analysis.


The first part of the book explains the common understanding of European Social Democracy about the role it played and what that of the workers was, an understanding shared by Russian Social Democracy and WITBD.  It explains how this was translated into Russian conditions by the paper ‘Iskra’.  Without all this it is impossible to understand what is being said in the book.

Central to Lenin’s world view is the formula that Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement.  This he takes from Karl Kautsky, codified in the ‘Erfurt Programme’ of German Social Democracy, which Kautsky in turn took from the ‘Communist Manifesto’ of Marx and Engels.  This orthodox view, ‘a good news interpretation’ of the self-perceived role of Marxism, was regarded as a glorious mission by the socialist movement.  It was charged with emotional fervour, expressed in rich and powerful rhetoric and fought for with devotion and determination.  Lih labels it the ‘Erfurtian’ view after the programme of the leading organisation of European Social Democracy, commonly regarded as continuing the life-time work of Marx and Engels.  It is ironic that those who seek to drive a wedge between Marx and Lenin could hardly be faced with someone with a greater knowledge of Marx’s writings or more devoted to what was contained within them.

Thus his mission to merge socialism and the worker movement is the continuation and elaboration of the theoretical and practical work of Marx:

‘One element of success the workers possess –numbers; but numbers weigh only in the balance, if united by combination and led by knowledge.’ (Marx, Inaugural Address First International, 1864 quoted in LR, p.42)
According to both Karl Kautsky and Lenin this merger narrative was first expressed by Engels in the ‘Condition of the Working Class in England’, published in 1845.  In a tribute to Engels after his death Kautsky said that ‘the worker movement must be the power to bring socialism into birth, socialism must be the goal the worker movement sets before itself.’ (LR, p.44)

Lenin summed up Engels’ argument as follows:

‘All that socialists had to understand was which social force, owing to its position in contemporary society, has a deep interest in the realisation of socialism – and then communicate to that force an awareness of its interests and historical task.  The proletariat is such a social force . . . The political movement of the worker class inevitably leads the workers to the awareness that there is no escape outside of socialism.  On the other hand, socialism only becomes a force when it becomes the aim of the political struggle of the worker class.’ (quoted in LR, p.44)
This political struggle has as its aim the taking of political power by the working class and implies that the aim of all insight and organisation will be a nation-wide, class-based and therefore independent political party.  Marx sketches the development of such a party in Part 1 of the Communist Manifesto.  One theme in this sketch is of particular importance for understanding Lenin’s rhetoric in WITBD: the parallel Marx draws between the nationalisation of the economy and the nationalisation of political organisations.

The problem is that the workers’ resistance to capitalism has been separated from those who seek social control of the economy.  Initially, in fact, many who sought this control were hostile to workers, who were regarded as scaring away the philanthropic rich on whom their ideal community projects depended.  Kautsky outlined how this separation was to be overcome:

‘In order for the socialist and the worker movements to become reconciled and to become fused into a single movement, socialism had to break out of the utopian way of thinking.  This was the world-historical deed of Marx and Engels.  In the Communist Manifesto of 1847 they laid the scientific foundations of a new modern socialism, or, as we say today, of Social Democracy.  By so doing, they gave socialism solidity and turned what had hitherto been a beautiful dream of well-meaning enthusiasts into an earnest object of struggle and [also] showed this to be the necessary consequence of economic development.  To the fighting proletariat they gave a clear awareness of its historical task and they placed it in a condition to speed to its great goal as quickly and with as few sacrifices as possible.’

‘The socialists no longer have the task of freely inventing a new society but rather of uncovering its elements in existing society.  No more do they have to bring salvation from its misery to the proletariat from above, but rather they have to support its class struggle through increasing its insight and promoting its economic and political organisations and in so doing bring about as quickly and as painlessly as possible the day when the proletariat will be able to save itself.  The task of Social Democracy is to make the class struggle of the proletariat aware of its aim and capable of choosing the best means to attain this aim.’ (quoted in LR, p.85)
An important role of the Marxist movement was therefore to fight against those who wished to maintain the separation of socialism from the worker movement.  This included pure and simple trade unionism which ignored the political cause of the worker movement.  This is an important target of the polemics in WITBD and is the definition of ‘tred-iunionizm’ which Lenin calls the submission of the working class to bourgeois ideology.  (He is therefore not saying that socialists should oppose trade unionism which is how one passage of WITBD has traditionally been translated.)  The need to fight the separation of socialism from the workers is the meaning of the polemics against economism in the book.  A second target was the terrorists who also ignored the necessity of merging the worker movement with socialism.

To achieve this merger the socialists and the worker movement needed political freedom.  This was why this demand was at the absolute centre of the Russian Social Democratic programme.  Without the freedom to organise, especially to have a socialist press, the mission of achieving this merger was crippled.  It was, as Engels first put it, the ‘light and air’ of the worker party, a metaphor that made it into the first official programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Worker Party (RSDWP): ‘political freedom is as necessary for the Russian proletariat as fresh air is for healthy breathing.  It is the fundamental condition for its free development and for its successful struggle both for partial improvements and final liberation.’ (quoted in LR, p.90)

In this task Social Democracy took on itself not only the leadership of the working class:  ‘Social democracy cannot defend exclusively the interests of the proletariat.  Its historical mission is to precipitate social revolution in every domain in which it can act, and to take in its hands the cause of all the exploited and all the oppressed.’ (Karl Kautsky, quoted in LR, p. 96)

None of this, the fight for political freedom or for the interests of all those exploited and oppressed, was in any way meant to minimise the importance of the final aim and goal of the movement – socialism.  Rather they made it all the more important.  In fact it was an article of faith for all Social Democrats that it was the final goal which framed all that they did.  The privations, sacrifices and struggles were all made bearable, all had meaning, because they were steps and contributions to the glorious goal of socialism.  It was the inspiration to fight against seemingly hopeless odds, giving workers strength to make their contribution, however small, to the Social Democratic Party.

Lih sums up the arguments to which Lenin and the vast majority of the RSDWP subscribed: ‘The merger formula – ‘Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement’ – pulls all Kautsky’s various arguments together.  The expanding circle of awareness, the original and nearly fatal separation of socialism and the worker movement, the two-front polemical war against those who refuse the great Marxian synthesis, political freedom as light and air for the proletariat, the strength that comes from an inspiring final goal, the need for disciplined, modern parties of nation-wide scope, the aspiration to become a Volkspartei, the need to carry out the democratic tasks that the bourgeois is too scared to undertake, and finally, Social Democracy’s own exalted sense of mission – all these flow from the merger narrative.’ (LR, p.102)

Lih quotes extensively from socialist leaders of the period, left and right, to show the common currency of this narrative – the merger of socialism and the worker movement – which obviously assumed their, at least initial, separation. This is what Lih calls the ‘good news’ world-historical mission of Social Democracy, to bring socialism to willing workers, and which sets the context for Lenin’s book on how Russian Social Democracy can carry out this mission.  In the next part of our review we look at how Lenin perceived this task.


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