Marxist Theory

Lenin and Democracy

Review article


Lenin and Democracy: Recovering Truth From Mythology


Kunal Chattopadhyay


Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In context.
Historical Materialism Book series. Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2006. pp. xx+ 867. 125 Euro.

Lars T. Lih has written one of the most significant studies straddling Marxist political theory and socialist, especially Russian socialist history. The Russian Revolution of 1917 posed the most serious challenge till now to international capitalism. The rise of the soviets and factory committees put forward the possibility of a democratic system that far surpassed anything that existed in most capitalist countries then, or later.  Studies of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, likewise, have suggested that it was an extraordinary party, with tremendous levels of rank and file initiative and internal democracy combined with a deep revolutionary commitment.  This has however not deterred self-styled sovietologists and Marxologists from saying that Bolshevism was fundamentally authoritarian, and that it led ineluctably to Stalinism.

The flip side of the coin of course is the existence, even now, in India, of self-proclaimed communists or Leninists who claim that despite some petty mistakes here and there, Stalin was not one of history’s major tyrants and a counter-revolutionary who destroyed the revolution, but a continuator of Leninism. Since both Stalinists and anti-communists often draw a straight line from Lenin’s What Is To Be done? to the coming of the one-party state, three moments need to be discussed when such claims are made. One is of course the coming of the one-party state. Did it happen because of a pre-existing Bolshevik ideology and commitment? Leonard Schapiro, for example, in his The Origins of Communist Autocracy, wrote that he was writing the “story of how a group of determined men seized power for themselves in Russia in 1917, and kept others from sharing it.”  Even leftists in times of retreat accept variants of this. Though attempts have been repeatedly made to present the picture of October as a democratic revolution, and also a picture of the civil war and imperialist intervention that forced the regime into a siege mentality, preconceived hostility has resulted in a textbook approach that denies the role of the civil war, or of White Terror. A second moment, indeed, the “original sin” of Leninism, is presented by numerous Authorities. This is the very foundation of Leninism. According to what Lars Lih calls the textbook version, this version sees What Is To Be Done (hereafter WITBD) as the central Bolshevik text, and reads the message of the book as one according to which Lenin was suspicious about working class movements (identified with “spontaneity”) and wanted to impose tight party control on the movement. The academic backing is provided by the following pieces of evidence: the contemporary criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, the critical comments by Vladimir Akimov, a delegate to the Second Party Congress who wrote an obscure piece revived in the late 1960s, and certain passages of WITBD.

Why was this obfuscation necessary? Or, to put it differently, if what Lih claims and the present reviewer agrees with, that Lenin was a democratic revolutionary, and that WITBD was not as central to the evolution of his politics as so many scholars claim it to have been, and finally that his message in WITBD was very different from how he has been interpreted, then what prevented these scholars from recognizing this simple truth?  The answer is directly political. For the international bourgeoisie, Lenin was and remains a principal political enemy, while for Stalinists, garbling Lenin remains as essential today as when Stalin wrote the Foundations of Leninism.

Bourgeois ideology functions to create coherence within the ruling class itself, and to mobilize the petty bourgeoisie and related layers. Finally, it also seeks to integrate the working class and the other exploited. The realities of life, however, force working people to stand up against the rulers very often. As a result, bourgeois ideology is only partially successful in its ability to make people believe that liberal capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. The hungry people, or the peasants who have lost land in West Bengal, for example, are unlikely to believe that talk about cutting subsidies is good while it is revealed that the West Bengal government has promised to subsidize the tatas in numerous ways. Accordingly, bourgeois ideology also functions to make people believe that there is no alternative. Even if capitalism is bad, there is no alternative worth fighting for. It therefore becomes necessary to pretend that there are no differences between Marx and Lenin on one hand, and Stalin and Pol Pol on the other. This campaign is of course done in different ways, depending on the level involved. In the so-called free pres, this is done in the most aggressive manner, with little attention to such minor isues as historical truth. A newspaper printing false or doctored statements about how bad the Bolsheviks were from the beginning would be under no compulsion to publish rebuttals.  But in the academic world, of course, certain apparent norms have to be observed. Radical scholars would (do) find themselves politely marginalized, not selected for jobs or funding, dismissed with the argument that their views show nothing new.

Radical left positions are marginalized, not just in India, but practically everywhere. This requires no conspiracy, no instructions from imperialist headquarters. Those who have money and power would naturally prefer views close to their own. Scholars wishing to get research funding, and promotion, would find certain avenues easier. They will adopt courses, more or less sincerely, that will make them fit in with what seems the mainstream position. In the United States, where the classic anti-Leninist positions were developed, the Cold War certainly assisted the orientation. And anti-Leninism served not only the extreme right wing, but also a range of others – including Social Democrats, anarchists, as well as Stalinists (for the latter, the linking of Lenin and Stalin by bourgeois academics was useful in asserting that even bourgeois academia admitted that the Great Stalin was the legitimate heir of Lenin). Nor did the emergence of new leftist currents help much. Perry Anderson’s remark, in Considerations on Western Marxism, about the inverse relationship between the political fortunes of the left and the academic situation, could help us in understanding this. Studying the Russian Revolution seriously, scrutinizing documents, relating text and context, was seldom high up in the list of academics on the left, barring the few Trotskyists. From Althusserians to postmodernists, the fashionable left currents shared the views about Lenin mentioned above, sometimes approvingly, sometimes disapprovingly, but never actually studying Lenin in context. So the Trotskyists could be quietly dismissed – because they were only silly Trots. Ernest Mandel, Tony Cliff, John Molyneux, Paul Le Blanc, or Achin Vanaik, have written about Lenin and party building, but one would look for citations of those texts in the massive ‘Leninism as evil incarnate’ factory’s outputs in vain.

It is in this context that we need to recognize the tremendous achievements of Lars T. Lih. The first statement in Lih’s acknowledgement states that the study was undertaken and completed without any institutional support. As one who has traveled that path, one can only express wonder at the extraordinary level of Lih’s achievement.

Lih starts from a point made repeatedly by Lenin. Karl Radek, a communist leader important in the Russian Party after 1917, though originally a Polish Marxist, wrote after Lenin’s death that in 1921, when a proposal had been made to translate and republish the book Chto Delat? (WITBD), Lenin objected, urging at least good commentaries ‘in order to avoid false application’.  Yet bourgeois scholarship has repeatedly failed to do this. A text, it seems, is a text that requires no context. Who was Lenin polemicising against?  What had they written? What, for example, was the difference between “the straightforward R.M.” and the “weathercock Krichevskiis and Martynovs”? Why worry about such minute details, when one simply needs to know that Lenin had an “unspoken assumption” that the “majority of the population is actually or potentially reactionary”, and an unspoken conclusion, “that democracy leads to reaction”.   Or, as Leopold Haimson, a scholar closely connected to the documentation of Menshevik sources located in the USA, was to write, implicit in WITBD “was not merely a lack of faith in the capacity of the labor movement to grow to consciousness by its own resources, but also a basic distrust in the ability of any man to outgrow his ‘spontaneous’ elemental impulses, and to act in accord with the dictates of his ‘consciousness’ without the guidance, and the restraint, of the party and its organizations.”  With our divine knowledge of Lenin’s implicit ideas and psychoanalytic instruments that lay bare his inside, why do we need to bother examining the precise arguments to which he was responding, or to relate WITBD with his writings just before and just after it? Such examinations may confuse the reader by making her or him think that Lenin might (shudder) have held democratic views.

The book is divided into three parts – titled ‘Erfurtianism’, ‘Lenin’s significant Others’, and ‘The World of What Is to Be Done?’. There are several appendices and annotations. Finally, the author provides a fresh translation of Chto Delat?, for reasons that will emerge shortly. This book could not have been written without an intersection of different specializations, usually not found among academics. To situate Lenin, one has to have a very thorough knowledge of the history and theory of international socialism, especially (but not solely), the German tradition. One also has to have a solid grasp over Russian politics and the discussion within the Russian oppositionists to Tsarism. Finally, one has to explain Marxist political terms a century old, to a contemporary readership. Lih performs the amazing feat of doing all this with great flair.

Lih begins by asking what to be a revolutionary socialist, or Marxist, meant to a young revolutionary in the 1890s. The term he uses is Erfurtian. At the Erfurt Congress of the SPD (The Social Democratic Party of Germany), the old programme, a compromise with Lasalleans, was replaced by a new programme, the theoretical part drafted by Karl Kautsky with Frederick Engels commenting on the text. This text, and the explanation provided by Kautsky, became the hallmark of Marxist orthodoxy, especially after Eduard Bernstein began his revisionist campaign (calling for a revision of supposedly outmoded and doctrinaire aspects of the socialist programme and strategy). Lih defines the term Erfurtian carefully (after all, he is the inventor of Erfurtianism). But it makes sense. In the twentieth century, after the Russian Revolution, the idea of what bolshevism was (though the idea may have been distorted in subsequent decades) inspired countless communists across the world. In the same way, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the SPD was the principal inspiration for revolutionary socialists across the world. Today, authors often quote approvingly the letter of a rightwing socialist, Ignaz Auer, to Bernstein: “My Dear Ede, one doesn’t formally decide to do what you ask… one does it. Our whole activity… was the activity of a Social Democratic reforming party.”  No doubt, there is good reason today, after the betrayal of 1914, after the supine surrender to Hitler in 1933, and after the total integration in bourgeois politics after World War II, to look at even the earlier history of the SPD with a degree of skepticism. But if we look at it from the standpoint of Russian radicals of the period under discussions, they could see the vicious efforts being made,even after the collapse of Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist laws, to silence the SPD. Or, they could see how the vast masses of workers actually did treat the SPD as their party. Lih documents with ample details, the nature of SPD politics. However, since Lih stops at 1904, there is a slight tendency on his part to exaggerate the identity between Lenin and the orthodox Marxists in Russia on one hand, and the SPD on the other. It is not inconsistent to accept Lih’s assessment of Kautsky in the 1890s with the gradual development of a politics of compromise in the SPD, a politics where bebel and Kautsky, the foremost revolutionary leader and theorist respectively of the earlier generation, did not play an altogether glorious role.

Lih then goes on to examine the influence of Karl Kautsky on Lenin. Lih’s argument is that Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt programme, and his book Parliamentarism, were profoundly influential, and the latter work brought together the logic behind what the Russians called the strategy of hegemony of the proletariat in the democratic revolution. Kautsky argued that while the working class would arrive at socialism through its own experience, left to itself, it could take a long time. Social Democracy, that is, a political strategy based on the ideas of Marx and Engels, had to merge with the working class movement. Social Democracy was needed, and would be heeded. It would be heeded because it was bringing, in Lih’s formulation, good news for the proletariat. Kautsky’s argument was that originally, socialism and the worker movement were separate, but the birth of revolutionary socialism or Marxism changed that. Lih argues that the Erfurtian socialists displayed a set of features: an explicit acknowledgement if three sources of authority – the party, the programme, and Kautsky’s writings; a commitment to the concept of merger mentioned previously; a definition of Social Democracy’s mission as spreading the good news of the world-historical mission of the proletariat; an ambition of building a class-based political party, which would be disciplined, yet democratic, organized on a national plane, an insistence on the priority of achieving political freedoms, an expectation that the party would eventually lead the entire people (i.e., a commitment to a strategy of achieving proletarian hegemony). Finally, Erfurtianism, meant a commitment to internationalism. Lih then proceeds, in a meticulously written chapter, to use this checklist and examine Lenin’s early writings. Lih begins with the book length manuscript Who The ‘Friends of the People’ are and How They Fight against the Social Democrats?, from which he quotes a passage  that provides succinctly all but one of the Erfurtian features, namely the open commitment to Erfurtianism, which in turn is to be found elsewhere in the manuscript. When, shortly before Lenin’s death, two-thirds of the manuscript was found (it was trought to be entirely lost), Krupskaya, Zinoviev and Kamenev, three of the people closest to Lenin for many years, were excited. For good reason, since the key strategy of a political struggle for socialism through democracy was explicitly adumbrated in this very first political statement by the young Lenin (he was then 24). Lih takes the readers through a tour of Lenin’s political writings to establish in almost painfully elaborate details, that this was not an aberration but the consistent political strategy of Lenin. The conclusion Lih draws is, Lenin does not develop any new core values between late 1899 and late 1901. So if WITBD is supposed to tell us about the core values that Lenin later applied in other situations, then the conclusion is, the core values of WITBR derive from Erfurtianism, and that is that.

The Iskra Period:

So we have to turn to WITBD as a polemical tract, examining its specific context. This was the context of the Iskra period, and the struggle for party building.

There are distinct stages in the history of the growth of the Social Democratic movement in Russia and its transformation into a well-knit party. In the early 1890s, the handful of Social Democrats had focused on recruiting individual workers into study circles. The movement was by necessity underground because of the repressive nature of the autocracy. When the class struggle began to intensify in the mid-1890s,  social democrats, including Lenin, made a turn—generalized throughout the movement by the publication of the widely circulated tract On Agitation, written by Arkady Kremer and with a foreword by Julius Martov—toward agitation around workers’ immediate economic demands. At this stage, the circles remained entirely local in orientation, organized independently of each other, with no national organization or publications. Some of the younger social democrats in this period began to overestimate the importance of the economic struggle and to downplay the importance of organizing the working class for a political struggle against the autocracy. Eventually, a trend developed that tried to systematically theorize this limitation itself as the right strategy. In 1899, a tract called the Credo was circulated in social-democratic circles. Written by E.D. Kuskova, the document expressed sympathy with the reformist gradualism of Eduard Bernstein in Germany and argued that instead of fighting for revolution, Russian socialists should have a much more modest goal. As she wrote:

“Any talk about an independent worker political party is in essence nothing more than the product of the transfer of alien taks, alien results, onto our soil. … For the Russian Marxist there is only one conclusion:  participation by helping the economic struggle of the proletariat, and participation in liberal oppositional activity.” 
This argument, that the economic struggle was the only one worth waging for the workers, and that at most they should provide the economic struggle itself a political colour (i.e.,  pressure group politics, as opposed to revolutionary politics) was what the orthodox Marxists termed ‘Economism’, or in Lenin’s hands at least, tred-iunionism (I follow Lih here). By this was meant, not doing trade union work, but seeking to restrict politics to the politics of trade unions. Accusing anyone of seeking to implement the programme of the Credo was about the most serious accusation Lenin could make, against anyone.
A classic statement of the economists’ view was expressed in the newspaper Rabochaia mysl: “What sort of struggle is it desirable for the workers to conduct? Isn’t the desirable struggle the only one which they are able to conduct in present circumstances?”  This statement was nothing if not reminiscent of Bernstein’s statement that the movement was “everything” and the final goal “nothing.” No wonder Lenin and his co-thinkers considered economism the Russian variant of Bernstein’s revisionism.
Lenin’s response to the publication of the Credo, which he wrote while he was in Siberian exile (he had been arrested in 1895 and was released in the summer of 1900), was swift. His article, signed by seventeen other exiled socialists, argued, that the assertion about the Russian working class not having put forward political aims revealed ignorance about the Russian revolutionary movement. Lenin was particularly incensed, because populists criticized the Marxists for ignoring the political struggle, and the orthodox Marxists always rejected this populist charge. Now here were people claiming to be Social Democrats and putting forward just the kind of non-revolutionary programme the populists accused Marxists of having. Lenin argued that accepting the programme of the Credo would be tantamount to the political suicide of Russian Social Democracy. A point to remember, when reading those articles of Lenin, is that at that stage, for all its hesitations and nebulous formulations, Russian Liberalism still seemed a revolutionary force. So if the working class struggle was restricted to economic issues, it would become the tail of Liberals or populists, and lose the independent and potentially leading role in the struggle against the autocracy.
Not long after the emergence of economism, social struggles began to take on a more political character, which gave urgency to the ideological conflict over economic versus political struggle. The student movement picked up steam, as did government repression against it. Workers joined some of the student demonstrations. They also began organizing May Day protests, including one that led to a general strike in Kharkov in 1900. In Petersburg in May 1901, workers of the Obukhov defense works engaged in running street battles with the police and Cossacks, then barricaded themselves inside the plant. Thirty thousand students participated in the general strike in the winter of 1901–02. In Moscow, a demonstration called to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the ending of serfdom brought out thousands of workers who clashed with Cossacks. A November 1902 railway strike in Rostov on Don turned into a citywide general strike.  It was in this atmosphere that Iskra was launched. Two groups came together in the project – the founders of Russian Social Democracy, led by George Plekhanov, Pavel Akselrod and Vera Zasulichm, and a younger group, recently arrived in emigration, represented by Lenin, Martov, and Aleksander Potresov.

In three chapters, Lih sets out a narrative of the Iskra period (including the role of a large number of individuals, like Plekhanov, Martov, and others), a discussion of those Russians in the socialist movement who were opponents of Erfurtianism (Kuskova, Takhtarev), as well as those who were Erfurtians, but inconsistently so, in Lenin’s opinion (Krichevskii, Martynov). Particularly skillful is Lih’s treatment of how Lenin functioned in group conflicts. In political battles where a number of groups, whether claiming to be factions of the same party (as in Russia in the period under discussion) or to be rival parties (as in India within the far left today) fight for hegemony, very often, groups who are close, but have separate existence because of secondary differences, can have extremely sharp polemics. In many such cases, attempts are made to establish that the rival group’s seemingly slight difference is actually the beginning of a massive slide into opportunism, sectarianism, or some other error. Lenin emerges, from Lih’s account, as a very able polemicist in this tradition. This is not something very new. He has always been treated as a polemical author, constantly firing off shots at opponents. It is possible to look at other phases of party and Russian history to see him doing similar things. Thus, when the struggle was to save the underground party (and with it, the revolutionary programme) in opposition to the proposals of currents in the party who wanted to accept the police-controlled “legality” after 1907, Lenin can be found engaged in the same kind of polemics. There too, he attacked not just the liquidators, as those who proposed a legal party were called, but also the “conciliators”, i.e., those who stressed the need for an underground party, but had a somewhat different attitude about the legal structures, including the trade unions. The so-called conciliators included Trotsky, as well as a large number of Bolshevik activists who at times (e.g., the 1910 Central Committee Plenum) sided with Trotsky. And so, Lenin often hurled thunderbolts at Trotsky far stronger than those he was directing towards the liquidators, who were being in any case massively defeated among the practical workers.  So, there exists a need to study each case, not as a general Leninist political strategy, but as a specific reaction by Lenin to a specific conflict. Lih does two things very clearly. Along with the myth of Lenin’s skepticism about the revolutionary potential of the working class, there had grown up, of necessity, a myth about the “worker-phile” attitude of the “Economists”. Lih brings to light the exact articles in dispute, and shows that the economists wanted to avoid the struggle for democracy, and in some cases firmly rejected the Erfurtian model. Lih provides a translation of an editorial from the “Economist” paper Rabochaia mysl, No.1, October 1897, so that readers can read it for themselves. The editorial rejects the view that the working class struggle has any historic mission, of bringing socialism, not within a few days or years, but for the future. Instead, it asserts: “Let the workers conduct their struggle, knowing that they are not fighting for just some kind of future generation but for themselves and their children – let them remember that every victory, every foot of ground taken from the enemy, is one more step in the ladder leading to their personal well-being.”   Evidently, the author of the editorial was clearly opposing the line stretching from Marx to Kautsky to Lenin, about the task of the working class being to become the “national class” (Marx’s formulation in the Communist Manifesto), about the fusion of communist theory with the working class, and about the historic mission of the working class. The editorial, as Lih shows, was actually written by an intellectual, and does not reflect any “authentic” working class voice as against intelligentsia impositions by orthodox Marxists. And so, we are led to the conclusion, that the author of the editorial was advising workers – do not bother yourselves about profound missions, about a socialist future that only later generations will see, but try and get little bits of concession. Combatting this attitude, not controlling workers, was what Lenin was concerned about.

Chapter five, ‘A Feud Within Russian Erfurtianism’, deals with the conflict between Rabochee dyelo and Iskra, and Lih shows clearly that the entire Iskra group was involved. Indeed, Plekhanov showed a much more intolerant and unethical attitude (though one that the historian can applaud, since he thereby published private correspondence which is very useful in understanding the conflict). Because Rabochee dyelo was Erfurtian, so the dispute between Iskra and this paper was not over fundamental principles, but tactics. It was in course of this tactical dispute that Boris Krichevskii wrote an article in Rabochee dyelo where he introduced the concept of stikhiinost. I follow Lih in retaining the Russian original. It is forever claimed, if never proved, that Lenin was violently opposed to spontaneity, and condemned it for its bourgeois tendencies, demanding control from above through a tight, disciplined, small organization. Stikhiinost is the word usually translated as spontaneity.  So what was Krichevskii talking about and what was Lenin responding to? Krichevskii was writing about political explosions such as the worker demonstrations in 1901 in support of the students, attacking Iskra from the left, claiming that Rabochee dyelo had a better response to the movement under discussion. Krichevskii had seized on an earlier article by Lenin, where Lenin talked about a stikhiinyi explosion, that is, an elemental, unplanned, sudden and powerful event.  Indeed, this is a passage to which very few authors have paid attention (for obvious reasons) ,since Lenin was writing that  “it is fully possible and historically much more likely that the autocracy will fall under the pressure of one of those stikhiinyi explosions…. But no political party, unless it falls into adventurism, can base its activity solely in the expectation of such explosions….”.  Lenin was arguing that Iskra had been working according to a plan, while Rabochee dyelo tended to jump from event to event, banking on elemental upsurges. The dispute was not one over whether the working class should be controlled, but whether party building should base itself on hopes for sudden explosions. Krichevskii accused Iskra of overestimating a large, purposive, aware, well-organized proletariat. In that case, of course, it is difficult to understand why Krichevskii also accused Iskra of being a conspirator.

When Lenin wrote WITBD, therefore, issues like stikhiinost, and konspiratsiia, were forced on him, rather than his having chosen these issues as a matter of core values.  Rabochee dyelo had an agreement with Iskra, which it was violating. Lenin was using the existing Rabochee dyelo articles to prove his point. So he had to follow Krichevksii’s usage. He argued that if Krichevskii’s proposal was taken seriously it would lead to denying any need for active Social Democratic leadership. Lenin’s aim, in putting forward these arguments, was not to present a novel proposition, but to argue that his opponents were rejecting a widely accepted Social Democratic position. Lih’s central argument is that nowhere in WITBD does Lenin express what he calls, in shorthand form, ‘worry about workers’, i.e., a worry that spontaneous working class struggles would lead to bourgeois politics, and therefore the working class must be bound tightly to party dictation. Instead, what we find, if we read WITBD as a whole, instead of zooming in on a couple of passages quoted around a thousand times, is Lenin assuming that the working class is rational, and arguing that the task of Social Democracy is to put across the socialist message to the working class movement, because if it is done properly, they will accept it, and will fuse with the socialist theory.

Lih makes a strong case for treating “conspiracy” and “professional revolutionary” also in a different way. The Russian word konspiratsiia, translated baldly into English as conspiracy, has a major problem. Konspiratsiia involved successful underground work. People living in democratic countries where they can have the luxury of a party office with a Red Flag fluttering boldly often do not realize what basic principles of party work in Tsarist Russia, or in Bismarckian Germany, could be like. Lack of skill in konspiratsiia would result in disaster for the party organization, with its members arrested and links with the workers broken. Obviously, success in konspiratsiia meant keeping secrecy from the police, and to this extent it overlapped with conspiracy. But the RSDLP defined itself from the outset against the Narodnaia Volia strategy of conspiracy against the Tsar. Not secret plots against hateed rulers, but awareness raising and formation of purposivenes among the working class were the Social Democratic strategy. Lenin is presenting a case, in WITBD, of how to combine konspiratsiia with the expansion of participation.  Regardless of the efficacy of his proposal, it is clear that he was trying to work out the tactics that would make possible a mass movement even under Tsarist autocracy.

The professional revolutionary, likewise appears not as the intelligentsia activist cut off from the workers, but someone who is not an amateur. In Lih’s translation, it is a revolutionary by trade, that is, someone who treats it seriously, as a full time work. The shift by Lih is a legitimate one, yet one which even scholars with a knowledge of Russian had not thought of. Even in WITBD, Lenin talks about professiia, professional’nye soiuzy (trade unions) and so on quite often. Looking at the underground work metaphorically as a trade, he implies that the revolutionary needs a set of skills. While a professional revolutionary could at times be thought of as something akin to a professional soldier, the term revolutionary by trade does not carry the same connotation. In addition, Lenin nowhere implies that non-workers cannot be revolutionaries by trade. Indeed, his whole point was that workers must be made revolutionaries by trade. The revolutionary by trade was one who knew konspiratsiia, and one who knew the value of division of labour. However, Lih treats the term as one almost accidentally used by Lenin, as a result of reading a passage in an opponent’s writing. Even if this was indeed the origin if the term, Lenin had more serious aims. As Marik has argued, he wanted to ensure that workers could become full-time revolutionaries. 

Lih traces the Iskra ideas about organization (indeed the norms developing within Russian Social Democrats generally), including centralism, discipline, development of political skills, opposition to conspiratorialism cut off from worker milieus, konspiratsiia, division of labour, and the inapplicability of real democracy and transparency in the underground conditions. He argues that the ideal organization presented by Lenin in WITBD (not the real Iskra organization) was a summing up of the logical culminations of those norms. But these norms were seen as a specifically Russian application, in underground conditions, of the SPD norms, and not any “party of a new type”. It is here that one could argue with Lih. He is correct, if he is talking about the Iskra period. But the revolution of 1905, the next period of underground, all led to the Bolsheviks developing ideas about a revolutionary party somewhat different from what the SPD had been even as a normative role model. Reviewers like Molyneux have written about this. I do not propose to cover ground already covered by others. But Lih is certainly correct in arguing that WITBD shows a working class desiring better socialist propaganda, and an organization being needed so that the revolutionaries on the ground could achieve their desired goal of taking to the masses the good news of socialism. Also, WITBD emerges as a much more limited purpose text than is often imagined, or pretended, by many critics for whom it is the core of the myth of Lenin’s anti-democratic attitude. Perhaps the best revelation is the one where Lih shows Rosa Luxemburg excoriating Lenin for ignoring mass struggles, based on unsigned articles in the Iskra written, unbeknownst to her, by Lenin.

Bringing Consciousness from Outside:

This has often been a major issue in storms over Chto Delat? The working class can, Lenin is supposed to have said, arrive only at trade union consciousness. The socialist consciousness was developed by the intelligentsia, and has to be injected into the working class from outside. Practically every historian who has tilted at the windmill of Lenin’s elitism has cited the concerned passage. Few have bothered to examine the fact that Lenin was actually quoting Karl Kautsky, who, according to their myth, was a democratic socialist very different from Lenin. Kautsky, moreover, was presenting his explanation of the programme of the Austrian Social Democratic party. Of course, this does not solve the problem. Perhaps Kautsky too was elitist. I suggest that Lenin was less elitist than Kautsky’s formulation implies. A careful reading of Chto Delat?, even in existing translations, rather than the new one prepared with explanations by Lih, will show several elements. First, the use of the inside-outside counterposition in Lenin’s hand means something different. He argues that the worker, to become revolutionary, cannot see everything purely from inside the factory and immediate surroundings. Second, Lenin, in his own discussion following the Kautsky quotation, injects an important qualification. Certainly, Lenin did write that :
“The doctrine of socialism grew out of those philosophical, historical, and economic theories that were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intelligentsia.”   
Despite Lih’s admiration for Lenin, in the chapter entitled Scandalous Passages, he is compelled to admit that taken by itself the passage does show a move away from Lenin’s Erfurtianism. This leads to a view socialist doctrines grew up separately from the working class, that is, only non-workers could develop socialism, when we combine this with the other assertion that:
“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, that is, a conviction of the need to unite in unions, to carry on a struggle with the owners, to strive for the promulgation by the government of this or that law that is necessary for the workers and so on.”   

However, Lenin moved away from this, a few pages later, when he said that workers such as Proudhon and Weitling participated in the development of socialist ideology. He remarked that they did so not as workers but as theoreticians.  If this distinction means anything at all, it means that Lenin is actually contradicting the view that the intelligentsia is representative of the propertied class. There can be worker intelligentsia as well. And it is as theoreticians of socialism that we need to see any one of them, whether Marx or Kautsky, or Proudhon and Weitling. Moreover,  Lenin’s comment, ‘the doctrine .. grew out of’, suggests he was talking about those who have been called Utopian Socialists. In this sense, of course, the comment can be made to fit what Lih calls the merger narrative (the Marxist argument that theoretical socialism and the living working class movements merged with the rise of revolutionary, proletarian socialism or Marxism).      

Lenin’s whole thrust is to argue that the working class is ready to absorb socialist theory enthusiastically, and is only prevented by intellectuals who wish to restrict the working class to purely economic issues. Later in the same book, Lenin qualifies the point still further, arguing that in fact the working class does indeed gravitate toward socialist consciousness, but that it does not do so in an ideological vacuum. Bourgeois ideology, older, more prepared, with an ample supply of writers as well as funds, is able to spread confusion, and that is why it is essential to organize for revolutionary socialist propaganda. Those sections of the class that do spontaneously gravitate toward socialist politics before others must be organized together to exercise more influence over their fellow workers who are still influenced more by bourgeois ideology.

A Few Critical Comments on Lih:

One problem, stemming from Lih’s purpose, is perhaps an overemphasis on the orthodoxy of Lenin, if by orthodoxy is meant adherence to Kautsky’s line, not just that of Marx. There were problems with the Kautsky-Bebel politics, even before 1914. Leftists in the SPD, like Luxembourg and Parvus, or leftists outside the SPD, like Plekhanov, at times clashed with Kautsky or Bebel over what they saw as their insufficient firmness with Revisionism and reformism. One aspect of Bernstein’s attack treated with kid gloves by the SPD orthodoxy but very vigorously in the Russian movement was his attack on dialectics. It is often argued that Lenin attacked Bogdanov’s philosophy only when he broke with Bogdanov politically. Yet, following Lih’s work, it is worth thinking about how seriously Lenin took dialectics. Not only during his struggle against Bogdanov, but again at the beginning of World War I, he went back to philosophy before moving on to politics. One (not the only) specific contribution of Leninism has been the stress on having a firm philosophical position for correct revolutionary politics.

Another, very important problem, is the inadequate attention paid to the Lenin’s constant attention to the relationship between theory and practice, and his constant effort to refine revolutionary strategy. If we consider Lenin’s position as a finished one, as Lih occasionally comes close to doing, we do him a disservice. Lenin’s views on the state, on the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution, on the peasant question, on imperialism, and on the party, all shifted and changed based on lessons learned directly from the course of struggle and from developments in international capitalism and the international socialist movement. While it can be said that his more mature conceptions of the relationship of the party and class were expressed in embryo in the period we are discussing here, it cannot be said that the Iskra period represents Lenin’s first and last word on party organization. Lenin’s views on the state, on the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution, on the peasant question, on imperialism, and on the party, all changed as he assimilated lessons of the class struggles in Russia and internationally. While it is correct to stress the continuity in his thought, it is inaccurate to say that his ideas of the Iskra period represent his final word on party organization.

Linked to this is a final set of critical comments. Lih demonstrates, with a mass of evidence, that in 1902-4, Lenin stood much closer to Kautsky than to two revolutionaries he calls heroes of the activist tradition – namely Luxemburg and Trotsky. Yet, if we move forward we find the picture changing. By the time of the war it had become clear to Lenin. Witness his letter of 27 October 1914 to Shlyapnikov, admitting that Luxemburg had got a better estimation of Kautsky’s degeneration (she had been attacking him since 1910). And from 1914, he repeatedly offered unity to Trotsky (in exile, with Nashe Slovo, back in Russia, between the much bigger Bolshevik party and the much smaller Mezhraiontsi, on very generous terms). Also, Lih seems unnecessarily dismissive in his book toward Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci. They were prominent theorists and also, in the 1920s, party-building revolutionary activists working in the Leninist tradition. A revolutionary Leninist revival today has much to learn from them, as well as from Luxemburg and Trotsky.