It’s worthy to point out that our comrades in Unity and Struggle have published a serious review of Lars Lih’s book on Lenin’s What is to be done. This review argues the strengths and weaknesses of Lenin’s, What is to be Done.
The article by Unity and Struggle begins by explaining how Lenin emphasized the importance of revolutionary theory, as vital for any revolutionary movement. This was a clear position Lenin openly advocated. What is to be done is often attacked, claiming it advocated socialist professionals to substitute themselves as the professionals to lead workers into victory. This bourgeois-anarchist critique of What is to be done ignores how Lenin advocated the development of workers as agents of revolutionary theory as a basis for such a movement. Lenin states, the workers “participate not qua workers, but qua theoreticians of socialism…they participate only insofar as they succeed to a greater or lesser extent in attaining a command of the knowledge of their century and in advancing that knowledge.” For workers to accumulate revolutionary knowledge, so they can lead revolutionary struggle is not a hierarchical centered perspective, but one that actually fosters a horizontal spirit of struggle. But the development of such theoretically developed revolutionary workers also forms the content for forming a revolutionary organization. The foundation of such an organization, a necessary body to coordinate struggle and train militants, was explained through an analogy of bricklaying work.
When bricklayers lay bricks in, various parts of an enormous, unprecedentedly large structure, is it “paper” work to use a line to help them find the correct place for the bricklaying; to indicate to them the ultimate goal of the common work; to enable them to use, not only every brick, but even every piece of brick which, cemented to the bricks laid before and after it, forms a finished, continuous line? And are we not now passing through precisely such a period in our Party life when we have bricks and bricklayers, but lack the guide line for all to see and follow?…If we had a crew of experienced bricklayers who had learned to work so well together that they could lay their bricks exactly as required without a guide line…But it is unfortunate that as yet we have no experienced bricklayers trained for teamwork, that bricks are often laid where they are not needed at all, that they are not laid according to the general line, but are so scattered that the enemy can shatter the structure as if it were made of sand and not of bricks.
This activity, the formation of revolutionary militants is what needs to be done today. The economist and those partisans of spontaneity abandoned the revolutionary political training of the workers, particularly the advanced workers. Today, we don’t even have the revolutionary organizational force to offer such training, even if we agreed that is work that should be done. The formation of a new revolutionary organization needs to be able to train workers in revolutionary organizing, by first theoretically training them in marxist theory, then carrying out political work that directly flows from such theory. The young anarchist protesters find such a proposal disgusting. Action is what is wanted. But in our recent period of “actions,” capital has been able to oppress workers and movements without any real resistance. Such action is laughed at by the American capitalist. This is why Unity and Struggle’s article concludes with, “Lenin believes, militants must become institutional bearers that reproduce a common approach based upon a common theory. As militants reproduce this common approach, following Lenin’s bricklaying analogy, the masonry line is no longer needed.” In short, the movement of a Leninist approach of forming revolutionary theory in political practice, is an egalitarian act far from being guilty of what the bourgeois-anarchist critique claim. It is the concentration of working class power, and necessary political project to seriously engage in the revolutionary transition of capitalism. A new generation must struggle, and engage Lenin’s works, that focus on building revolutionary organization, in order to have the basic perspective to build a revolutionary organization today for our historical moment.
The following essay was written awhile ago and sat around waiting to be fixed up. It can be read as a follow up to notes on Lars Lih’s important book, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context. Only recently the essay was finally fixed up enough to post here.
It is important to deal with Lenin’s concept of organization in WITBD. The point is not to elevate WITBD into a set of principles that can be abstractly and universally applied. Like any work, WITBD is a product of history. As Lih noted in the beginning of his book such an approach has been an evident enough problem in the history of “Leninism”. However, despite Lih’s attempt to downplay the importance of WITBD in subsequent bolshevik thinking about organization, Lenin’s work—including WITBD—continues to be a necessary reference point for rethinking the role of revolutionary groups and organizations in our own day. By restoring the detailed context of Lenin’s concept of organization and reestablishing its connection to Kautsky, Lih provides the basis to learn from and critique Lenin and Leninism. In doing so he makes WITBD alive again—a renewed and important departure point for thinking about revolutionary groups and organization.
As Lih argues, the importance of WITBD was found in its generalization of already existing practices in the Russian underground, codifying and synthesizing those practices into a broad whole. The generalizing character of WITBD is what continues to make it so valuable today.
The Need for Revolutionary Theory
The first principle that Lenin elaborates is the necessity of revolutionary theory. Lenin writes, “[w]ithout a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” (696). A revolutionary theory is necessary to understand the system as a whole from the standpoint of the working class and the oppressed, and their necessary struggle for liberation. According to Lenin, only the revolutionary organization can develop such theory and put it in practical relationship with a workers movement through a program and tactics of struggle. For Lenin in such a role the organization articulates the relationship of the class in motion between its historical tasks and its concrete existence. Finally, not only is the elaboration of theory necessary so is its defense against reformists, or what today would be called progressives
The specific tasks that correspond to the construction of theory and its defense only become clearer when Lenin gives an account of the history of the workers movement in Russia. He argues that the strikes of the mid-1890s signaled an important leap in the form of activity by Russian workers. For the first time they demonstrated “the awakening of the antagonism between workers and owners” which was expressed in the form of collective action and specific demands on the capitalists (702). However, Lenin cautions, these struggles remained “a tred-iunionist struggle” and were “not yet a Social-Democratic one” because “there did not exist among these workers—nor could it have existed at that time—an awareness of the irreconcilable opposition of their interests to the entire political and social order” (701-702). In other words, for Lenin revolutionary theory grasps the totality of relations of capitalism and therefore the standpoint of abolishing the system itself. Trade unionism, on the other hand, is form that corresponds to workers as workers. As a result, Lenin implies, trade unionism without revolutionary theory and its organization leads to a focus solely on distribution of the surplus in the form of the wage.
This gives a better sense of Lenin’s insistence on the importance of theory and theoretical struggle. When Lenin defends his position against charges of “dogmatism”, formalism and sectarianism he is doing so against an economist trend that at worst collapses, and at best separates, the theory of the logic of class struggle from its historical expressions. Unable to find the relation of revolutionary organization to practical struggle, the economists, according to Lenin, dispense with the tasks of an independent theory of the historical tasks of the workers and cede this ground to the reformists. In this case revolutionary theory is replaced by a philosophical empiricism that, in the end, takes as its starting point the workers as wage, but not as living labor.
Implicitly Lenin helps in understanding that both philosophically and methodologically, economism and revisionism reproduce the standpoint of the wage de-linked from living labor. WITBD suggests that this problem arises when revolutionaries abandon the tasks of theory. Without the development of an independent theory of the class and the oppressed there is no basis by which to understand and put into practice the relationship between the wage and living labor.
Various theories of the bourgeoisie have no concept of living labor, equating labor with labor power, which receives the wage. A communist perspective sees living labor as an essence that takes the form of a commodity in capitalist society and corresponds to a certain value given in the wage. For Marx the struggle against capital is the consequence of living labor seeking to emancipate itself from its form as labor power; that is, as a particular class. The former is “logical” movement of the class in its essence as living labor. We cannot “see” this movement directly because it exists abstractly in capitalist society. Its movement only takes shape, or we “see” it in particular historical and concrete forms of existence. Labor power is one concrete, historical form of the existence of living labor in capitalist society, which we most commonly experience in receiving a wage.
WITBD is useful as a sounding board to think more deeply about how revolutionary organization articulates the dialectical relation between the content and forms of struggle. The organization contributes to synthesizing and generalizing their relation, further developing the strategy and tactics of the class in contradictory motion between its abstract (living labor) and concrete (labor power/wage) sides or movements.
The problem with economism, according to Lenin, is the sole focus on trade unionism. The union expresses labor as wage-labor, but on its own not as living labor. In our own day we can add NGOs, which focus solely on the more democratic distribution of the surplus, but not on its production. Lenin argues that by abandoning the tasks of theory, economism ceded this ground to revisionism just at the time when it threatened to empty Marx’s thought of its revolutionary content. In Lenin’s words, revisionism was that idea that marxism “must transform itself from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reform” (682). In WITBD, Lenin draws out the inner relation between economism and revisionism, outlining in general the political implications with utmost clarity. Economism as a practical orientation, with its deterministic conception of class struggle and the development of capitalism, inevitably supported revisionism by abandoning political leadership to the liberals.
Lenin opposed the slogan “freedom of criticism” because behind it he saw a policy of regroupment and party formation with economistic and revisionist trends in Russian marxism. This leads to one final observation. For Lenin, upholding the importance of theoretical struggle could hardly be “dogmatism” since he assessed his period as “an era of theoretical disarray” that was therefore reproducing “the narrowest possible forms of practical activity” (696). As will be discussed later, the target of this critique was not simply the character of organizing the Russian marxists were involved in, but also the reproduction of militants. The two, for Lenin, have a dialectical relationship.
Before turning to that issue, it is important to briefly touch on Lenin’s concept of theory in a broader sense.
Knowledge and Consciousness
We do not have to accept Lenin’s orthodox marxist theory of knowledge and consciousness in order to adopt the principle importance he places on revolutionary theory. It is possible to separate such a need, which arises from capitalist society in general, from Lenin’s specific conception of this reality. Once again, WITBD remains important to the extent it helps illuminate the general terrain of the need for revolutionary theory and organization. Nevertheless, it is critical to examine the understanding of the origins of communist theory in WITBD.
In chapter two of WITBD, Lenin provides a long quote from Kautsky in order to illustrate the relationship between revolutionary theory and the workers’ movement. Kautsky writes that in capitalist society “economic development and class struggle” do not “immediately generate the awareness” of the necessity of socialism. Therefore, Kautsky goes on to argue, “socialist awareness”—the awareness that the capitalist system is the source of class exploitation—is not “the necessary immediate result of the proletarian class struggle” (709). Nineteenth century England was a case in point. It had the largest and most well organized trade union movement in the world, and yet, arguably, it was the place where socialism had made the fewest inroads among the working class.
Kautsky disagreed with a deterministic conception of the emergence of “socialist awareness”. Rather than accept that this awareness emerges automatically or spontaneously with the development of capital and the proletariat, Kautsky puts forward an alternative view. Quoted by Lenin, Kautsky writes, “socialism and class struggle emerge side by side and not one from the other—they arise with different preconditions. Modern socialist awareness can emerge only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge” (709). Given the separation between the two, Kautsky argues that “[t]he carrier of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: modern socialism emerges in the heads of individual members of this stratum and then is communicated by them to proletarians…socialist awareness is something brought in to the class struggle of the proletariat from without” (709-710). Kautsky concludes that a merger between the socialist intelligentsia and the workers movement in the form of a party is necessary to achieve revolution. The relationship between theory and the class struggle can only be articulated and find its form in the socialist party. Lenin does not question Kautsky’s formulation in WITBD, raising questions about his conception of revolutionary organization.
The problem with Kautsky’s formulation is that it does not really overcome the limitations of trade unionism from a communist perspective, leading to a faulty conception of revolutionary organization.
In focusing on the terms of the sale of labor, trade unionism alone leaves undisturbed the commodified form or social relations of labor. Unlike communism, trade unionism abstracts the wage from the totality of relations that constitute capitalist society. Most importantly it separates the categories of labor power and labor. It thereby fetishizes the wage, grasping labor one-sidedly in terms of labor power, but not as living self-activity.
It may seem that Kautsky is critical of the limitations of trade unionism since he thinks that a revolution is the necessary outcome of the struggle of the proletariat. Therefore socialists must be organized together in a revolutionary party with the workers movement. He argues that the struggle for better wages and working conditions is not enough. Instead, the workers must also struggle as producers who must inevitably overthrow the capital relation to address the needs of living labor. However, the workers’ struggle as producers, as living labor, is obscure to the proletariat and to grasp this relation entails a systematic knowledge of capitalism as a whole. Since such knowledge appears to have initially arose from middle class intellectuals it logically follows that it can only fuse with the workers from the “outside”.
What Kautsky has done is remove the dialectical relationship of the wage and living labor within the proletariat and transposed it as a duality between two classes—the workers and the bourgeois intellectuals—each with their own “preconditions”. Communism, then, is not the content and forms of struggle of the proletariat that express its contradictory existence as commodity and living labor. Nor is communism the categories of thought that emerge from the struggle of the proletariat, which become generalized and synthesized by revolutionary thinkers and “organic intellectuals” in dialectical tension with the fetishized forms of consciousness. Instead, for Kautsky, socialist theory arises from the study of capitalist society—including the proletariat—as an object. The resulting knowledge is external to and imparted as an idea to the proletariat.
Kautsky’s formulation of the emergence of socialism and the party reinstates a philosophical dualism in its understanding of capital, the working class and the oppressed. However, Marx critiqued such dualism in the “Theses on Feuerbach”, where he argued for a dialectical, or inner unity of subject and object. Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, that he “does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity,” certainly stands for Kautsky. For Marx the proletariat is a creator of the social world, but behind Kautsky’s sociology of classes in his account of the rise of socialist theory lies a theory of knowledge in which the knowing subject, in this case the dissident middle class intellectuals, observes its object in the proletariat.
In following Kautsky uncritically, then, Lenin leaves unclear the exact relationship between theory and the workers’ struggle. Consequently, Lenin’s formulations of the revolutionary organization seem to arise from the same dualism that characterizes Kautsky’s thought. In WITBD, Lenin explicitly restates the social democratic, Kautskyian narrative on the emergence of theory and its relationship to the class:
We stated that there could not have been a Social-Democratic awareness [at that time] among the workers. It could have been brought in only from outside. The history of all countries bears witness that exclusively with its own forces the worker class is in a condition to work out only a tred-iunionist awareness….The doctrine of socialism grew out of those philosophic, historical, and economic theories that were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intelligentsia…..the theoretical doctrine of Social Democracy arose completely independently from the stikhiinyi growth of the worker movement, arose as a natural and inevitable development of thought among the revolutionary-socialist intelligentsia. (702)
It is easy to draw the conclusion from such passages in WITBD that the practical outcome of the kind of organization Lenin envisioned is one run by dissident intellectuals who in effect lead the workers. However, Lenin attempts to clarify this issue. He argues that workers must significantly lead the party and that they must also develop revolutionary theory. He writes that workers do develop revolutionary theory, however, “they participate not qua workers, but qua theoreticians of socialism…they participate only insofar as they succeed to a greater or lesser extent in attaining a command of the knowledge of their century and in advancing that knowledge” (710). Further, as we will see, the organization Lenin envisions is composed of the advanced workers.
However, Lenin’s view of the origins of theory stands. As he emphatically states: “there can be no question of an ideology standing by itself and worked out by the worker masses in the very course of their movement” and that the party must fight with the bourgeois for hegemony over the workers in their choice between “bourgeois or socialist ideology” (710). It might be argued that Lenin simply means the workers do not have sufficient free time to attain and produce this theory. Yet, given his Kautskyian framework, such a simple interpretation is not adequate. If the categories of communist theory do not proceed from the “course of their movement,” then the party is conceived as a knowing subject whose form is imposed on the content of proletarian activity.
Party and Class
The result of a dualistic understanding of the relationship between knowledge and consciousness should be clear: it leads to an external conception of revolutionary organization whose origins lie outside the class. Nevertheless, what remains valuable about WITBD is that it upholds the problem of the relationship between organization and class by refusing to collapse the two together.
Although WITBD does not clearly theorize the inner relation between party and class it remains alive to the gap or discontinuities between revolutionary organization and class. WITBD suggests that this problem arises from the conditions of capitalist society itself and, it can be added in particular, the relationship between labor power and living labor, and between the division of labor and the totality of labor and capital.
Of course, Kautsky and Lenin’s theory of knowledge reproduces the one-sideness of trade unionism by simply posing alongside it another form of organization, which is the revolutionary party. The party absorbs the movement of the working class, embodied in trade unions, because it is founded on a theory of the totality of capital and labor and not just one moment of their process—that of the wage. Kautsky conceives of the terms of their fusion in a linear way, the party gradually coming to embrace the whole of the working class.
Despite their faulty conception of revolutionary organization, the merit of Kautsky and Lenin is that they pose the question of the unevenness within the class, albeit in different ways. While Kautksy conceives of the party as the representative of the whole class, Lenin thinks of the party as the organization first and foremost of a particular layer or sector in the class—that of the advanced workers. Nevertheless, both are focused on the discontinuities between the class and the totality of capital as a whole. However, Lenin’s thinking in particular is very useful. Unlike Kautsky who, living under late 19th century German capitalism, developed a linear and static understanding of revolutionary organization, Lenin was faced with the overwhelming reality of uneven social development in early 20th century Russia. As a result, Lenin’s concept of organization is more conducive to thinking about this matter.
Revolutionary organization is one of the necessary mediations of the gap between labor as living activity and wage. Existing as the wage, labor becomes abstracted through the separation from the means of production and the divison of labor from its activity and, consequently, from the totality of labors as a whole; that is, not only other workers, but the relationship between the production and reproduction of labor. As labor power, labor struggles to reappropriate itself as a whole. Therefore, as living labor, which exists abstractly, labor seeks to make itself concrete by the appropriation of their environment. Revolutionary theory and the revolutionary organization is made concrete through a program, embodied in strategy and tactics, expressing the internal antagonism with the working class and the oppressed. As such the revolutionary organization is a necessary part in realizing and maintaining the continuity between the abstract and concrete moments of the class.
Revolutionary organization is a partial means—though not the only means in this historical period—by which labor in its particular moments struggles to grasp itself as a whole. The organization develops the “scientific knowledge” of the working class. It is “scientific” knowledge because it constantly investigates and maps the relation between the logical, abstract development of capital and labor and its concrete historical manifestations. But this means nothing if knowledge is not actualized as real movement. Lenin’s conception of organization attempts to make actual the link between the logical and the historical through program, strategy and tactics, which the revolutionary organization helps synthesize as they arise from the workers struggle.
WITBD does not clearly state the relation between party and class briefly noted here. Significantly, it tends toward a Kautskyite conception of this process as an external, rather than internal, activity of the class. Nevertheless, WITBD upholds the problem of the relation between organization and class. Specifically, it grapples with how revolutionary organization articulates the relationship between the historical tasks of the working class and its daily existence, or its abstract and concrete sides.
Revolutionary Organization as Plan
Another key contribution of WITBD is its conception of revolutionary organization as “plan”.
The stress Lenin placed on the active link between the logical and historical movement of the class—its abstract and concrete moments—was meant to combat the dominant deterministic and static conception of the workers’ movement in the Russian marxist milieu of the time. As Lars Lih emphasizes, this context puts in a more complicated light Lenin’s constant attack on “any kow-towing before the stikhiinost of the worker movement, any disparagement of the role of the ‘purposive element’” (708). For Lenin it was critical to fight against the view that “the desirable struggle is one that is possible and the possible struggle is the one that is going on at a given minute. This tendency is, in fact, unbounded opportunism that passively adapts itself to stikhiinost” (717). Here, once again, Lenin is upholding the logical tasks of the class, which remain abstract and, at all times, a potential within its concrete activity.
In WITBD, Lenin argued that what was missing in Russian revolutionary circles was an organizational framework that could fuse with the advanced workers and thereby develop the “purposive element” in their activity and struggle. Regardless of the fact that Lenin tended to think of the “purposive element” in terms of the logical content of the class struggle abstracted from its concrete historical forms, the distinction he raises between the “purposive element’ and spontaneous highlighted the set of practices he thought integral to a Russian revolutionary organization. The debate in WITBD about these practices centered on Lenin’s understanding of the relationship between the mass movement and the circles of revolutionaries scattered throughout Russia.
Lenin argued, “the strength of the present-day movement is the awakening of the masses (and principally the industrial proletariat), while its weakness is the inadequate purposiveness and initiative of the revolutionaries and leader/guides” (700). In contrast to the largest upsurge in the mass movement since the mid 1890s, Lenin insisted that it was the marxist revolutionaries who “suffer precisely from a lack of sufficient initiative and energy” (718). As a result, “revolutionaries fell behind this upsurge both in their ‘theories’ and in their activity—they did not succeed in creating an uninterrupted and continuous organisation with gathering momentum that was capable of guiding the entire movement” (721). The mass upsurge, Lenin proposed, offered an opportunity, not to be missed, to clarify the relationship between organization and class:
There can be no disputing that the mass movement is indeed the most important phenomenon. But the question is: what do we mean when we say that this mass movement ‘determines tasks’? There are two possibilities: either in the sense of kow-towing before the stikhiinost of this movement, that is, reducing the role of Social Democracy down to a simple servicing of the worker movement as such [ ]; or in the sense that the mass movement puts before us new theoretical, political, organisational tasks, much more complicated than those found satisfactory in the period before the emergence of the mass movement. (715)
In order to catch up with the class, to be more “purposive,” revolutionaries had to be more centralized, disciplined and professional. WITBD was aimed at what Lenin considered disorganized and “amateurish” practices that represented a historical limit on the activity of Russian marxists. These practices were inevitable in the mid-1890s when Russian marxists were beginning to conduct broader agitation, moving from propaganda and study circles. Yet at the turn of the century the historical development of both the broader movement and the revolutionary circles made possible and, indeed, necessitated a new form of organization. Lenin was concerned primarily by the division of labor within the marxist milieu and the limitations it imposed. Lenin had in mind things like redundant labor, such as printing many local papers, a stubborn localism that resulted in lack of communication, sharing of experience, uneven national development of militants and political perspectives, as well as the constant arrest of trained organizers.
The emphasis on “purposive” as a conceptual link between the logical and the historical opened the way for thinking about the role of organization in a much more dialectical way than the economists. Lenin uses an illuminating metaphor to illustrate his point:
when bricklayers lay bricks in, various parts of an enormous, unprecedentedly large structure, is it “paper” work to use a line to help them find the correct place for the bricklaying; to indicate to them the ultimate goal of the common work; to enable them to use, not only every brick, but even every piece of brick which, cemented to the bricks laid before and after it, forms a finished, continuous line? And are we not now passing through precisely such a period in our Party life when we have bricks and bricklayers, but lack the guide line for all to see and follow?…If we had a crew of experienced bricklayers who had learned to work so well together that they could lay their bricks exactly as required without a guide line…But it is unfortunate that as yet we have no experienced bricklayers trained for teamwork, that bricks are often laid where they are not needed at all, that they are not laid according to the general line, but are so scattered that the enemy can shatter the structure as if it were made of sand and not of bricks. (822)
He concludes: “for the building of revolutionary organisations…we cannot even imagine the possibility of erecting the building we require without scaffolding”. Once again, Lenin is making a historical argument. There are plenty of militants, Lenin is saying, a consequence of the developments of the 1890s, but no systematic work has been carried out to unite them around common perspectives and organizational ties.
The central vehicle for centralization was the production and distribution of a national newspaper that would act as “a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, [ ] also a collective organiser.” The paper and its network of distribution would act as a “scaffolding erected round a building under construction; it marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders” (823). The production of a national paper would provide a centralized framework for theoretical development as well as social analysis. The process of its distribution would act as a centralizing force, helping to develop a theoretical and methodological evenness to the locally functioning collectives and nodes of militants among the advanced workers in the unions and elsewhere.
Lenin adopted the phrase “tactics as plan” as a way to distinguish his proposal for building a revolutionary organization. He contrasted the idea of a “plan” with the notion of “tactics-as-process”, which the economists had taken up, a concept that set out an alternative understanding of the relationship between revolutionaries and the mass movement. “Tactics-as-process” encapsulated the idea that strategy and tactics, including the development of the marxist groupings, had to proceed from the historical development of workers’ activity. The economists argued that the idea of “tactics as plan” conceived of strategy and tactics formalistically, imposing them on the local groups and the movement as a whole. The economists, in Lenin’s words, held to the notion that “tactics-as-plan contradicts the basic spirit of Marxism” and that strategy and tactics are “a process of growth of party tasks that grow together with the Party” (717).
Lenin maintained, however, that the concept of “tactics-as-plan” expressed a more accurate assessment of the development of the local marxist groups and the new upsurge in the movement. “Tactics-as-process”, Lenin countered, was “nothing but a lowering of the initiative and energy of purposive activists” (717). The growing initiative and political content of the workers movement needed to forms of organization on the part of revolutionaries. The localism, uneven development, and poor division of labor had to be overcome as a new period of tasks emerged from the mass movement.
At stake in the debate between Lenin and the economists was the understanding of the historical development of the Russian workers. The economist trends in Russian marxism, Lenin believed, were premised on a reformist view of the development of socialism, significantly influenced by the revisionism of Bernstein. For Lenin the Russian workers, despite their relatively small number, could lead a successful revolution against the czarist regime and that, though only a democratic revolution, the proletariat would be a leading element. It was therefore imperative that tactics remain not simply in the realm of the economic organization of the workers, but also their political organization.
In WITBD, Lenin argues that the revolutionary party must, at least initially, be the organization of the advanced worker. The tasks of revolutionary organization has to be derived from the activity of the advanced workers and not the “average” worker. Revolutionaries had to fuse with the advanced workers, skilled workers in some of the most developed factories in the world, in “a party guided by an advanced theory” (697). Setting aside the specific early 20th century Russian context, and despite Lenin’s intention that he was adapting Social Democracy to Russian conditions, WITBD does represent a break with the orthodox Social Democratic conception of the party. As formulated by Kautsky the orthodox idea of the growth of the party consists of a linear aggregation of the class. The party’s continuity is located in the growth of the institutions of “workers reformism”—expanded franchise in the parliament and the growth of trade unions. In WITBD revolutionary organization emerges from a specific section of the class.
Again, setting aside the fact that Lenin’s concept arose from the development of capitalism in Russia, in a general sense it emphasized the discontinuities in the development of social struggle rather than its linear, continuous and even development guaranteed by parliamentary and trade union gains. By counterposing “plan” to “process”, Lenin was not foregoing an historical understanding of the development of organization. WITBD does not advocate an empty formalism to be imposed on the movement of the workers. As WITBD repeatedly emphasizes, the concept of “plan” was suggested by the actual development of the worker and popular struggle in Russia itself and, specifically, its most politically developed section in the advanced skilled workers.
In WITBD, Lenin responds to the charge that Iskra underestimated the spontaneous element of the workers; that it spent too much time on fetishizing leadership and not enough on worker militancy. Lenin countered that the problem is not militancy, which was growing, but the effective organization of that militancy around a common program, strategy and tactics. Revolutionaries were falling behind the political tasks that were being raised by the new qualitative leaps of the popular and workers’ struggle. Such a problem on the part of revolutionaries represented a historical limit in their development that had to be overcome.
According to the economists the leadership of political struggle by the workers was not possible. Lenin insisted that the economists had abandoned the political training of the workers, particularly the advanced workers. Speaking in the voice of these of these workers, Lenin writes that “we” do not want to be “fed on the thin gruel of “economic” politics alone; we want to know everything that others know, we want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every single political event. In order that we may do this, the intellectuals must talk to us less of what we already know and tell us more about what we do not yet know and what we can never learn from our factory and “economic” experience, namely, political knowledge” (741). WITBD was written to drive the point home that the Russian working class was already fighting a political struggle against the czarist regime.
Revolutionaries had so far failed to take the political development of these workers serious enough. Revolutionaries are confronted with “the pressing needs of the working class for political knowledge and political training.” While no Russian marxist disputed that theoretically “it is necessary to develop the political consciousness of the working class”, Lenin answered that the economists did not elaborate the urgent necessity and practical aspects of this problem, in other words, “how that is to be done and what is required to do it” (745). Such training was critical because it was the advanced workers who were emerging as the organic leadership of the class and the popular masses as a whole.
The further development of revolutionary organization depends on the “scaffolding” created that lays a new organizational foundations for the fusion of the revolutionaries and the militants of the advanced workers. This organizational scaffolding would give shape to the practical relations between the two. For Lenin this was critical because the political training of the advance workers would contribute to deepening and expanding the capability of the mass movement as a whole since it was they who would lead it.
Finally, implicit in the concept of organization as “plan” is the emphasis on the discontinuous development of struggle. WITBD argues that organization as plan is necessary to build the possibility of “continuous organisation” (721). Since struggle is not continuous, Lenin seems to argue, its high points—and the militants that emerge from those moments—have a tendency to dissipate back into the latent possibilities of the class. The accumulation of these experiences over time achieves a unity in the organization.
What is key for Lenin is that this explicit unity is drawn together by the “plan”—as the analogy of the masonry line indicates—making possible a common reproduction of militants, who, in their practices, carrying out a common theory, set of tasks and methods, and thereby help maintain continuity of struggle. Of course, that struggle qualitatively changes, presenting new objective conditions at each step. Nevertheless, militants organized together help sustain and nuture the political content of the network of contacts that function as leading elements with the struggle, even as it passes through its quantitative phases. These militants, again, cannot be equated with the class as a whole. Instead, Lenin believes, militants must become institutional bearers that reproduce a common approach based upon a common theory. As militants reproduce this common approach, following Lenin’s bricklaying analogy, the masonry line is no longer needed. The building stands on its own foundation and the scaffolding is removed.
Despite the necessary critique of WITBD, in particular its social democratic marxism, it remains one important document in coming to grips with how revolutionary organization partially mediates the relationship between the logical and historical movement of the class, developed in its theory, embodied in a program, and actualized in strategy and tactics. In the end, WITBD helps us grapple with the fact that all organization, including revolutionary organization, is a positive constitution of content and not simply its negation. Just because in capitalism the refication of form is inevitable does not mean we can do without it. To do so would be to deny the objective movement of capital and labor itself, which, afterall, is both a constantly moving content and its particular moments, or specific forms of appearance.
V.I. Lenin, “What is to be Done?”, trans. Lars T. Lih in Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context (Haymarket: Chicago, 2008).