Notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered

What follows are some notes on Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered. An upcoming second post will conclude these notes with some separate conclusions on the continuing relevance of What is to be Done? in regards to thinking about revolutionary organization.


Lenin Without “Leninism”

Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? in Context is a major reevaluation of the famous (and infamous) work by Lenin. The status of What is to Be Done? in the history of the revolutionary Left since the Russian Revolution has obscured the actual context and meaning of Lenin’s arguments on organization. While Lenin’s book became one pillar for the “vanguard party-building model”, it also evolved into a kind of shorthand for what was to become known as “Leninism”. Taking apart the myth of What is to Be Done? is the subject of Lih’s book, which consists of an almost 700 page commentary and a new translation.

Lih not only takes issue with the revolutionary Left that claims the “leninist” mantle. He also critiques those who see in What is to Be Done? the foundations of authoritarianism and one-party dictatorship. However, it wasn’t only Cold War era academics in the West who crafted this kind of argument. A highly developed form of this idea was also developed by revolutionary marxists, which has continued to characterize WITBD ever since. It is best summarized by Trotsky’s attack in 1904 that what Lenin actually proposed was “subsitutionism” in which “the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee”. Luxemburg brought an even more distinct leftwing critique, citing Lenin as an example of a marxist who theorized a party of “blanquist” intellectuals as the agent of history rather than the working class.

Lih calls these approaches to What is to Be Done?—whether from the left or right—the “textbook interpretation”. He defines this approach as one that sees WITBD as a break with the prevailing social democratic marxism of its time. While the rightwing use of the “textbook interpretation” argued that WITBD cast in terms of organization an authoritarian and undemocratic worldview, the leftwing use said that it showed a clear rejection of the central role of worker self-activity.

Lih equally takes to task a more subtle use of the “textbook interpretation”. He writes:

The textbook interpretation is thus, on the whole, a postwar creation. One reason for its rise is a great forgetting of what prewar international Social Democracy was all about. The principal reason for this loss of context is the watershed of the 1917 revolution, which split prewar Social Democracy in two and gave the name ‘Social Democracy’ only to the more moderate side. On the other, a number of writers with no or very shallow roots in the Second International—Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch—created a theory (not shared by Lenin) that Leninism was the principled rejection of the fatalistic Marxism of the Second International and of Kautsky in particular. (32)

Lih points to a version of this interpretation in the Trotskyist tradition. Perhaps the best example is Tony Cliff’s classic four-volume work on Lenin. The Trotskyist recuperation of WITBD, Lih argues, sees Lenin as establishing a real if not completely realized break with social democratic marxism. While there is no doubt, the argument goes, WITBD overstates the role of a party working on an “unconscious” proletariat, Lenin “bends the stick” back during the 1905 Revolution, to not only reinsert the category of workers self-activity into his theory of revolution, but also into his approach to organization when he castigated rank-and-file bolsheviks for not “opening up” the party to the masses of newly radicalized workers.

The Social Democratic Roots of What is to be Done?

The central argument of Lih’s book is that WITBD is rooted in the Social Democratic conception of marxist organization and its relation to the workers’ self-activity. By late 19th century the German SPD had become the model embodying this conception. According to Lih, it is no surprise that the two foundational works on organization for Lenin and most Russian marxists at the time of WITBD were The Communist Manifesto and The Erfurt Programme, a commentary on the program of the SPD by Karl Kautsky. In fact, Lenin translated the latter into Russian in 1894. Taken together these works underscored an idea of what Lih calls “the merger of socialism and the worker movement” (41).

Merger was necessary because intrinsic to Social Democratic theory was the idea that there is a distinct separation between socialists and the trade union movement. Such a separation arose for historical reasons. Bourgeois intellectuals who, for material reasons, were able to construct a systematic account of modern society formulated socialism. But such a development ended with Marx and Engels who both superseded and synthesized older forms of socialism, including utopian and insurrectionary socialisms of the early and mid-19th century. Only Marx and Engels achieved a truly “scientific” account of capitalist society and laid the groundwork for the necessary merger of the workers’ movement and the theory of socialism. Social Democracy saw such a merger as necessary because the agent of communist revolution was a mass movement of the working class, as argued by Marx, but because of its material conditions the proletariat as a class was unable to generate a fully systematic insight into its conditions without the role of socialist theory.

Lih says that Engels in Condition of the Working Class in England put the first “merger” view forward. Engels argues that while the Chartists—the English trade union movement of the 1840s—are not socialists they are genuine proletarians who had built the largest worker movement in Europe at that time. The socialists are politically more far seeing than the Chartists, but they have little organic links with the worker movement. Socialist ideas only become useful when they animate the worker movement, but the workers can only lead when they have socialist ideas. Engels summarizes this view in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, when he asserts that the theoretical and practical task of socialism is to “bring the conditions and the nature of the proletariat’s own act into the awareness of a class that, although oppressed today, is called to this [great] action” (quoted in Lih, 49).

Lih says the first socialist to put the theory of merger into practice was Ferdinand Lassalle. He writes “one cannot understand the emotional world of Social Democracy nor the logic of its institutions without looking at its forgotten founding father,” Lassalle, whose contribution was to “set out the fundamentals of the party’s political strategy” (54). In his “Open Letter,” Lassalle maintained that the working class must organize itself into an independent party, separate from the liberal Progressive Party, and fight for democratic rights against the Prussian monarchy. By emphasizing the need for a specific political organization of the working class, Lassalle was going against the prevailing view that the class had little interest in such an organization. Lassalle was the first to put into practice the attempt to build a party rooted in the working class that went beyond trade union politics. As Lih writes, “Lassalle’s central contribution was to turn the idea of historical mission into practical politics” (61). Broadly speaking, Lassalle placed the conquest of political power within the form of a party, but the most immediate task was the struggle for democratic rights against the Prussian monarchy. The winning of bourgeois rights for the working class would enable the deepening of consciousness and organization of the workers.

Lassalle provided the practical organizational foundations for the German SPD and, more broadly, orthodox Marxism of the later 19th century, but Kautsky developed its intellectual depth. Besides providing a systematic account of Marx’s otherwise scattered work, Kautsky constructed a theoretical view of the role of revolutionary organization and its relationship to the working class. He elaborated the “merger” concept of Engels into a theory of consciousness, or what Lih calls “circles of awareness” (75). The level of consciousness, or depth of awareness, is represented by a series of concentric circles, one inside another, which correspond to different layers of organization. As one moves from the outer circle to the inner circle, we see a gradual increase in the precision of consciousness:

Labouring classes –> Proletariat –> Worker Movement –> Social Democracy

The outer circle, the “labouring classes” taken as a whole, has less awareness and insight into the conditions of capitalism. The next circle is the proletariat, the leading class, destined to assume political power at the head of the whole people. However, as a class it still lacks insight into its place within capitalism. The next circle is the organized section of the proletariat, often associated with the trade unions. As Lih defines it in social democratic discourse the “worker movement” is “neither the proletariat as a whole, nor is it social democracy. It is the militant or fighting proletariat—the section of the proletariat animated by a spirit of organised resistance” (76). The inner circle is “social democracy,” the independent political party of the working class, which represents a merger of the socialist theory and the worker movement.

Under the leadership of the advanced workers in the social democratic organization the highest level of awareness, represented by the inner circle, expands and social democracy comes to gradually embrace the whole of the working masses. The emphasis in Kautsky’s hands, according to Lih, is on the teaching role of the party. Since socialist ideas did not automatically emerge from the experience of the workers such consciousness had to be taught and learned.

Lih points to a central question about this framework. While Kautsky stresses that socialism is a “natural necessity,” an inevitable development within capitalist society, he also emphasizes the key role of marxist organization. Lih asks in what way are these circles coming together? What are its “amalgamating forces” and “in what direction do they operate? Does the worker movement give rise to the highly aware inner circle through forces internal to itself? Or does Social Democracy move out to transform the worker movement in its own image?” (77). In answering these questions Kautsky emphasizes the role of organization as, according to Lih, the “active force that transforms the worker movement by expanding awareness…Social democracy definitely does not emanate automatically from the worker movement…It is, rather, the force of a particular insight that comes originally from Marx and Engels” (80-81). However, Lih says of Kautsky, “possession of the insight about socialism does not in and of itself generate the realisation that only a militant worker movement can bring it about” (82).

Earlier forms of proletarian socialism were distinct from the worker movement, preferring the barricade or conspiratorial small groups that would seize power and carry out a revolution. This differed from earlier utopian socialists only in content if not form. Utopian socialism focused on the activity of an educated elite as well as wealthy liberal benefactors to implement their plans for social reconstruction. Social Democracy, instead, especially as Kautsky sees it, argues that socialist ideas and organization must gradually grow among the worker movement and, at a point historically tenable, come to power. This conception stuck to what it considered a middle ground between French syndicalism, which, according to Social Democrats, substituted the union movement for political struggle, and the British trade union model that sought to keep socialism out of the worker movement.

Unlike early to mid-19th century socialisms, Kautsky arrived at an idea of active class leadership in developing the concept of social democratic organization, which was premised on a notion of the working class as the historical bearer of socialism and therefore consisted in the organizational fusion of theory and mass workers activity at the center of revolutionary process. He avoided deterministic interpretations of the historical process. However, though Kautsky appears to have conceived of the “merger” of theory and workers’ activity in a dialectical way, we have to raise questions about his tendency to see a formal separation of knowledge and practice. Such a distinction is rooted in his understanding of the relationship between intellectuals and the working class in 19th century Europe. As a product of these relations Kautsky did not have a critical view of the social origins of the intellectuals and the kind of state-building, modernizing “socialism” that came to define social democratic marxism (and what was to become later Stalinism and other state socialisms). How this is repeated in Lenin’s own thought is the subject for another time, but towards the end of these continuing notes I want to briefly take this issue up in Lih’s analysis of WITBD.

Lenin Adapts Erfurtianism to Russia

Rather than a break with social democratic marxism, Lih says that WITBD actually represents a continuing attempt by Lenin to adapt the SPD model to Russian conditions. Lih argues that WITBD in fact upholds what he calls an “Erfurtian” position; that is the correctness of the Erfurt Program of the SPD.

Lih sees WITBD as a continuation of Lenin’s arguments in the 1890s for a social democratic organization along the lines of the SPD. Lenin first formulated the “orthodox” argument for Russian conditions in his book-length polemic, “Friends of the People,” written in 1894. Against those who said that the socialist and worker movement could not merge in Russia given the presence of an authoritarian society without political freedoms, Lenin pointed to the history of Western Europe where the socialist and worker movements were separated for decades until the German SPD emerged as uniting force for the two elements. The Germans were a particularly good example because they constructed their organization under Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, which were not repealed under social democratic pressure until 1891, protecting the rights of socialist activity. For Lenin, only the German socialists had been successful in “merging” the workers and socialist movements. It was no accident that many Russian socialists sympathetic to this view studied the tactics of the Germans during this time. It was also not coincidental that central to German socialist tactics was the role of exile organizations and their newspapers distributed illegally back home. Lenin obviously had this in mind with his plan for Iskra that he laid out at the end of WITBD.

In WITBD, Lenin, like other Kautskyite social democrats, was following Engel’s line of argument that said the proletariat is the only social class capable of leading a bourgeois-democratic revolution. The bourgeoisie, in fact, hides in the arms of the monarchical state for fear of the working class taking advantage of bourgeois rights to increase its political power. The working class not only struggles for its own rights but the freedoms of social layers in society. The end goal of this phase of the proletarian struggle was the achievement of a parliamentary regime. It was not until after the failed 1905 uprising that Russian marxists began to systematically appropriate the concept of “permanent revolution,” which emerged after the bitter defeat of the workers in the revolutions of 1848 in Germany and France, famously formulated by Marx in his “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League”. There he declared that the working class must “make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power.”

Since social democratic theory—especially as it is outlined in the The Erfurt Programme—held that only open political organization is effective in carrying out the struggle for socialism, the importance of bourgeois political freedoms was therefore paramount for all Russian socialists. This included the Russian marxists, whose views were first codified by Plekhanov and Akselrod in the draft program of the Emancipation of Labor Group written in 1885. For Lenin this document remained fundamentally sound, which continued to inform the line of thinking represented in WITBD. As Lih says, Lenin’s focus on first the democratic revolution was at one with all other Russian marxists, where “political freedom, for the time being, [was] in the front seat, while socialism was in the back seat.” In fact, Lih tells us, in the early years of Iskra there was not a lot about socialism (162). However, Lenin and the Iskra-ites differed with other marxists in how to overthrow the tsarist regime and achieve the bourgeois revolution. This difference and its organizational consequences is the subject of WITBD.

When Lenin wrote “Friends of the People” there was little or no contact between the marxist circles and Russian workers. Lenin had to defend the theory of the merger of the worker and socialist movements. By the time Lenin wrote the “Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats” (1897) real contact between the marxist circles and workers was becoming a reality. The strike wave of 1896, centered in St. Petersburg, set the working class in motion as a serious political force in Russian society for the first time as predicated by Lenin and the Emancipation of Labour Group. Lenin wrote “Tasks” as a follow-up to the 1896 strike wave, according to Lih, as a means to defend and clarify the support of social democrats for a revolutionary political struggle against the tsarist regime. Lih stresses the continuity between “Tasks” and WITBD. Rather than an “unconscious heretic” who did not yet see he was charting a path away from orthodoxy, Lenin was repeating the same arguments he formulated in the 1890s, only now against critics of the SPD model within the Russian marxist milieu.

These critics emerged from the younger generation of marxists who came of age in the 1890s and formed by the great strike wave of 1896 that had initiated a permanent workers movement in Russia. This younger generation included people like Lenin and Martov who would move closer to Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor group who, while acknowledging the breakthrough of the 1896 strikes, also focused on the limitations of the new worker movement. However, younger challengers to the Erfurtian consensus of Russian marxism were numerous. Although “economism,” as this tendency was called, was largely fading from view by the time Lenin wrote WITBD, it was the main subject of attack by the Iskra-ites as they vied for influence over the developing Russian marxist movement after a new upsurge of the workers’ movement in 1901.

Economism and Revisionism

Given the absence of political freedoms, critics insisted that any attempt to transplant the SPD model to Russia was doomed to failure. Lih says, in response “Lenin had to show the sceptics that Russian Erfurtianism was a coherent political stance” (114). Such a defense had to be conducted against the Populists. The Populists had been skeptical of the SPD model in Russia because, they argued, capitalism had created a developed working class in Western Europe that gave rise to a hegemonic workers’ movement. In contrast, Russian capitalism was unable to give rise to such a working class because of the deforming presence of the tsarist regime that blocked any ascendancy of the bourgeoisie to power. Only a focus on the peasantry combined with the organization of conspiracy and terror would overthrow the authoritarian state. However, these debates occurred at a time when there was no mass worker movement in Russia.

However, in the later 1890s Lih points out that there were new challenges to Erfurtianism. The first main challenge came from revisionism. The second came from economism. One of the main points of WITBD is to draw what Lenin considered the underlying connection between the two currents. Lih says that WITBD is the culmination of the ideological struggles with these trends on the part of Iskra. Iskra maintained that the historical development of Russian society was leading to the merger of the workers’ and marxist movement in which the strike wave of 1896 represented a qualitative leap and which the resurgence of the movement in 1901 was serious advance. However, Lenin and Iskra insisted that revisionism and economism were, each in their own way, seeking to artificially separate the two and, in essence, hold back this historical development.

The main representative of “revisionism” that appears in WITBD is the “Credo.” The “Credo” was a document written by Elena Kuskova and circulated among some social democrats in Petersburg in 1899. While exiled in Siberia, Lenin wrote a critique of this document called “Protest of Russian Social Democrats,” which was published abroad, ironically in Rabochee Delo, given this journal would be the target of WITBD only 2 years later. Kuskova’s husband, Sergei Prokopovich, published a well-known history of the Western social democratic movement entitled The Worker Movement in the West: An Essay in Critical Investigation in 1900. His book had the distinction of passing through the tsarist censors and, according to Lih, it was said that Zubatov, famous as the architect of the so-called “police” unions, promoted it or workers unions started by the secret police to divert energy away from the movement against the Tsar (222).

The “Credo,” like Prokopovich’s book, upheld a Bernstein revisionist interpretation of social democratic history as well as developments in Russia. While they considered themselves social democrats, much like Bernstein, they believed the social democratic movement was going through a general transformation towards revisionism. If they did not believe the SPD model was appropriate for Russia, it was of little consequence. Not only was it important to abandon any idea of an organization based upon principles of the historic mission of the working class, they were critical of the notion that the working class had any awareness of a grand historical task at all. Regardless, the arrival of socialism was not going to happen anytime soon even if the working class was capable of its achievement. To consider otherwise, let alone put it in a program of a party, was purely utopian.

Revisionists like Kuskova and Prokopovich argued that Russian workers were not capable of overthrowing the Tsar. After 15 years of trying to bring a socialist program to the workers, the approach of Plekahnov, Akselrod and the Emancipation of Labour Group had failed. As a result, the role of social democrats was indeed to “lead” the class, but only to fight spontaneity by helping the workers struggle for their immediate economic interests alone. Given that the workers could not possibly overthrow the tsarist regime, never mind lead such a struggle, the most social democrats could hope for was to participate in and subordinate socialist critique to liberal oppositional activity. Eventually, they argued, as tsarism represses these efforts, workers would widen the idea of their interests and at some point begin to see the systematic causes of their exploitation and begin to arrive at the truth of socialism.

Lenin and Iskra followed the Erfurtian idea that organized leadership “could accelerate historical development” (226). In other words, the activity of revolutionaries could bridge the gap between the “awareness of the masses” and the “development of social relations” (227). However, the “Credo” interpreted such an idea as voluntarism and idealism. Kuskova and Prokopovich said that tactics, therefore, must follow the line of least resistance while Iskra, instead, wanted to force the workers to go where they could not go. This approach corresponded to Prokopovich’s version of Social Democratic history. In his view Lassalle was a “declassed” element who thought that economic organizations were useless because the revolution was right around the corner. As a consequence Lassalle could only speak at the workers about the “content of their interests,” but “was not in a position to use agitation to help them defend their interests”. Despite Lassalle’s efforts the workers were in no position to assume any kind of independent leadership and, whether socialists liked it or not could have only followed the liberals. For Prokopovich, Kautsky’s theory of merger made no sense since it was impossible, given the historical development of capitalism and the working class, to consider practically linking workers activity and socialist theory promulgated by the intellectuals.

The “Credo,” Lih suggests, was infused by the kind of determinism and stagism that was the hallmark of Bernstein revisionism. Russian revisionism was not concerned about the domination of intellectuals over workers. Instead it thought that any attempt to “widen the circle of awareness” by revolutionaries was a waste of time. Once again, their tactical proclivities corresponded to their understanding of the history of social democracy in Western Europe. In his book Prokopovich attacked Kautsky’s version of how the SPD grew. Prokopovich said that, in fact, the SPD grew by participating in the day-to-day interests of the workers.

Economism emerged after the strike wave of 1896, when the workers decisively entered into Russian politics as an independent force. As a result, economism became a pronounced challenge to the Erfurtian consensus within the marxist milieu. It is important to keep in mind that the older generation of Russian marxists, led by Plekhanov, developed the Erfurtian politics of social democracy within the context of low workers activity. The strike wave, therefore, not only had an important impact on the consciousness and character of the younger generation of marxists who came of age in the 1890s, but provided a real challenge to Erfurtian politics that were seemingly defined for a previous era, which, to some of the younger critics, put too heavy an emphasis on the leading role of social democratic organization and socialist theory.

The newspaper Rabochaia Mysl (Workers Thought), which appeared in Petersburg from 1897 to 1902, represented the economist position in WITBD. Rabochaia Mysl ran sixteen issues, an impressive run given the level of police repression. Lih says that it tended to be eclectic and lacked a programmatic focus. However, its first editorial, to which Lenin cites in WITBD, set the tone for the subsequent issues of the newspaper. The editorial argued that the focus of socialists within the Russian movement should be the “average worker” (249). In fact, many of the writers of Rabochaia Mysl were to argue that the Erfurtian consensus, as upheld by Iskra, was based on the viewpoint of the intelligentsia and the advanced workers. Both formed an obstacle to average workers arriving at socialism. While these middle layers were concerned with the achievement of political freedom, the average workers would only arrive at socialism through their experience and agitation around immediate economic interests. The writers of Rabochaia Mysl tended to be confident that the “economic” struggle of the workers would develop as a continuous line without interruption or obstacle if socialists remained within what they considered the current configurations of workers’ consciousness. Both Rabochee Delo and Iskra criticized Rabochaia Mysl for its sympathetic articles on Bernstein and its tendency toward anti-political positions. However, as we will see, each camp drew different conclusions about the meaning of Rabochaia Mysl and economism in general.

There is one other target in WITBD that is important to mention. A young and recently exiled revolutionary whose underground name was Nadezhdin jumped into these debates with his own series of pamphlets, Eve of Revolution and Rebirth of Revolutionism, which appeared in 1901. There he argued that Russia was on the eve of a revolutionary explosion. Not only did Nadezhdin reject economism but also Rabochee Delo, who he saw “as a representative of the half-and-half mood of the preceding period” (361).

Nadezhdin leveled the charge that both Iskra and Rabochee Delo were out of touch with developments back in Russia. He maintained that both groups were far too conservative in their analysis, even as Iskra was far more optimistic about events in Russia than Rabochee Delo. Nadezhdin said Russia was quickly developing into a pre-revolutionary situation. The focus of revolutionaries, therefore, had to be on agitating for a direct assault on the tsarist regime and the immediate seizure of power. By contrast, Nadezhdin argued, Iskra was far too conservative with its political agitation. He attacked what he perceived as an academic approach by Iskra, with its greater emphasis on theory and historical analysis of developments in Russia. These strategic differences, Lih says, were rooted in opposing conceptions of the “spread of awareness” and the need for deliberate and planned organizational building. The assault on the tsarist regime had to be prepared. While the focus on mass insurrection was necessary, taken alone it was also one-sided. Obviously Nadezhdin agreed with Iskra that a “rich soil” was emerging in which a new middle strata of workers was beginning to identify as socialist, he thought that Iskra’s conception of the “spread of awareness”—the development of consciousness—was too linear (365). In the end, echoing Rabochee Delo, the views and “plan” of Iskra were formalistic and schematic, however, not because they overestimated the potential of the movement, but that the movement would solve the organizational dilemmas of the revolutionaries and the necessities for the seizure of power.

Nadezhdin’s analysis led him to synthesize Russian marxism with the tactics of populist terrorism, occupying a midway point between the social democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries who carried on the traditions of Russian populism. Nadezhdin’s presence in exile circles compelled Lenin to respond in WITBD to renewed interest in the tactics of terrorism. WITBD criticizes the return of terrorism as a mistaken response to the new energy of the movement. Lenin’s critique fell most heavily on Nadezhdin’s failure to fully theorize the role of revolutionary organization. Its absence in Nadezhdin’s writing flowed, ultimately, from his insurrectionary views, which, in turn, were based on his assessment of the Russian situation. Lenin used Nadezhdin’s positions to broaden his picture of the correctness of Russian Erfurtianism. Just as WITBD connected economism and revisionism, it also made a link between economism and terrorism, and, by extension, the insurrectionary analysis that informed the tactic of terrorism. Between economism and terrorism Lenin saw a common “kow-towing to stikhiinost”—the Russian word translated into English as “spontaneity”. While economism fell behind trade union demands, the tactic of terrorism betrayed a worldview that adapted to the “stikhiinost of the intellectuals” (376).

Iskra Versus Rabochee Delo

Those who upheld the Erfurtian consensus opposed both revisionism and economism within the Russian marxist milieu. They maintained that social democracy was a synthesis of reformism and revolution. Thus the SPD model charted a middle course between English trade unionism and French syndicalism or marxist sectarianism. While the SPD conceived of itself as using parliament for revolutionary aims, what was critical in the debates in the Russian movement for the Iskra-ites was the role of the organization in the continuity of struggle and leadership, and the merger of economic interests with the goal of the political overthrow of the tsarist state. As Lih puts it, social democratic organization realized “the social-revolutionary energy of the proletariat [as] a political factor on a continuing day-to-day basis. No longer would the revolutionary party only emerge on days of revolution and then afterwards subside back to quiet theoretical propaganda” (232).

Lenin’s goal was to set in relief the organizational implications of revisionism and economism, but he did so in WITBD by targeting the main rival of Iskra, the journal Rabochee Delo. Rabochee Delo (Workers Cause) was a marxist newspaper that ran from 1899 to 1902. The founders of the newspaper were, up until the late 1890s united with the Emancipation of Labor Group within the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad, which Plekhanov’s group split from in 1898. The founders of Rabochee Delo were part of the younger generation of marxist exiles who had first-hand experience in the movement of the mid-1890s, much like Lenin and Martov. Iskra began publication in response to Rabochee Delo. The two newspapers, in effect, became rival ideological centers within the embryonic Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.

The critique of Rabochee Delo in WITBD is a complicated one. While it may appear that Lenin accused the journal of economism and even being in sympathy with revisionism, reality was something different: Rabochee Delo upheld the Erfurtian consensus. Instead, according to Lih, the main charge leveled by Iskra was that Rabochee Delo failed to understand how to correctly adapt the Erfurtian program to the Russian context. Therefore, WITBD is informed by the idea that, despite its affirmations to the contrary, Rabochee Delo failed in practice to draw sharp distinctions between social democratic orthodoxy and the double threats of economism and revisionism.

The ongoing debate between Iskra and Rabochee Delo took on more urgency with the upsurge of the worker movement in 1901, which provides the immediate background of WITBD. Lenin faults Rabochee Delo for having too eclectic an approach and therefore failing to wage an uncompromising theoretical struggle against economism and revisionism. The connection between this task and the upsurge goes in a straight line for Lenin. The qualitative leap in worker and student activity must be met by a similar leap in the “leadership” of the class, which can only take shape in the still formless and undeveloped RSDLP.

Following the orthodox blueprint for the educative function of socialist propaganda, WITBD is saying that the new movement upsurge cannot break out of the capital-labor relation without socialist theory and strategy. Lenin insists economism reinforces this reality by confining the workers’ struggle to immediate grievances. Therefore, in the absence of clear propaganda and leadership the movement will fall under the leadership of the liberals. To put it another way, the liberal opposition to the tsarist regime will fill the vacuum left by socialists if they abandon their historical role in merging with the workers movement. Only in this way can the working class achieve its goal of political leadership of the whole people in struggle for a democratic revolution. Lenin is saying that both economism and revisions advocate that social democracy abandon such a role.

As is clear in WITBD, then, Lenin argues there is an internal relationship between economism and revisionism. In effect, the economists end up in the same place as the revisionists in their understanding of the relationship between the economic and the political since they argue that the workers are not yet historically developed and prepared for political struggle. Revisionism and economism have a common root in their denial of the possibility of the workers’ movement leading the conquest of political power.

Key to that task, Lenin says, is the development of a political leadership rooted in the working class. Again, Kautsky guides Lenin here in his understanding of the relationship between consciousness and knowledge. As Lih writes, for them “awareness is knowledge that guides action while purposiveness is action guided by knowledge. Awareness is not just neutral knowledge, but the kind of knowledge that impels and compels action—the knowledge, for example, of one’s historical mission. ‘Purposiveness’ is a quality of action. Knowledge, for Lenin, is the key criteria for consciousness. Knowledge is a “scientific” awareness of the capitalist system as a whole. In Lenin’s framework, when action is propelled by knowledge it is purposive. As Lih puts it, consciousness tends to be a “matter of doctrine, of the teaching of scientific socialism” (338). For Lenin only the advanced worker—the skilled worker—was in a position to fully carry out the kind of conscious activity necessary to build an organization and lead a revolution to overthrow the tsar.

The organizational course Lenin sought to chart may have corresponded to the thoughts and experience of these advanced workers. Lih says there is evidence that more advanced workers considered the economist newspaper Rabochaia Mysl as lacking militancy and was too focused on “less purposive workers,” or the average worker that appears in the background of the debate in WITBD (341). One of the roles of the revolutionary underground, WITBD argues, is to provide a place for the advanced worker to come together, develop and begin to act as a leadership for the working masses as a whole. While these “purposive” or conscious workers had emerged in the social democratic movement in Europe, Iskra maintained that they were now emerging in Russia in great numbers. Lenin did not discount the role of the average workers, nor other layers in society, most importantly the peasantry, all of whom he equally saw becoming a force in Russian politics. In fact, a newspaper like Rabochaia Mysl, like all economism, underestimated the extent to which and dissatisfaction with the autocracy ran deep in the broad masses and, as a result, severely mischaracterized the political capacities of the broad

However, Lenin emphasized the special role of the advanced workers and their central role in building a Russian party and leading the mass struggle. The role of these advanced workers was to serve as a bridge for a growing layer of radicalizing workers emerging again with the strikes and protests of 1900-1901. The new layer of politically aware workers was emerging between the already existing worker revolutionaries and the mass. Lenin placed these developments in the context of the organizational history of Russian marxism. The worker graduates of the propaganda circles of the 1890s had to establish links with the new layer of workers coming out of the tactics of mass agitation, learned during the 1896 strike wave, but now applied on a greater scale among the new conditions of a mass movement increasingly taken on an anti-tsarist character.

WITBD argues that Rabochee Delo failed to decisively formulate the case for Russian Erfurtianism and, therefore, charged the journal with being de facto economist. The competitors of Iskra, Lenin is saying, did not uphold the important place of marxist theory in the struggle, backsliding on the presence of revisionism in the Russian marxist milieu. It did not strongly defend the critical role of broad political agitation and it did not clearly recognize the central role of the advanced workers. Further, Rabochee Delo tended to make, as Lih puts it, a “principled defence of passive leadership,” which tailed the activity of the workers and, therefore, had no understanding of the urgent need for a more developed and centralized organization of revolutionaries (351). Iskra argued that Rabochee Delo essentially reproduced the spirit of economism and revisionism by tending toward a stagist theory of the development of Russian workers activity. They emphasized a linear relation between the economic, trade union struggles as a first step in the emergence of consciousness followed by a political phase, which opened up the potential for socialist politics in the workers’ movement. Overall, Iskra complained, Rabochee Delo emphasized gradualness rather than qualitative leaps. In contrast, WITBD insists on the immediate possibility of the political leadership of the working class in the struggle against the tsar.

Rabochee Delo downplayed the influence of economism, including on its own thought. It countered that the inroads of economism was making in the Russian movement were minimal and actually decreasing. They pointed to the overt political character of the student and worker upsurge of 1901 as proof. The editors of the journal argued that this fact confirmed all along that there was no reason to worry about the phenomenon of a Rabochaia Mysl emerging as a general trend. If anything economism reflected a particular historical moment in the life of the movement—a point now passing from the scene.

Writers for Rabochee Delo, much like other critics, tended to characterize Iskra as doctrinaire, formalistic and authoritarian. This claim lies behind the polemics in WITBD about “tactics as plan” versus “tactics as process”. Further, Rabochee Delo argued that Iskra spends so much time emphasizing leadership that it one-sidedly forgets about the central role of worker militancy. Meanwhile, Martynov, another Rabochee Delo opponent who makes an appearance in WITBD, accused Iskra of lacking a positive plan of action—hence the immediate impetus for the title of WITBD. For Martynov it was paramount that socialists make day-to-day economic struggle as political as possible while giving anti-government, “political” actions an economic basis by presenting the government concrete demands that can bring tangible results.

However, a new economist attack appeared in the form of a document that came to be known as “The Joint Letter,” written by a faction of Russian Marxists in 1901 in response to the new mass upsurge. The document stridently attacked both Iskra and Rabochee Delo. “The Joint Letter” restated the basic economist position, arguing that Iskra overstated the role of socialist leadership and the overall political development of the Russian workers. Since there are not the right material conditions that would give rise to the leadership of the Russian workers, and that they are not strong enough now to overthrow the autocracy, Iskra blurs the line with other political forces, such as those middle layers that support the zemstovs—the councils created by the tsarist regime to channel democratic dissent. In the broadest sense Iskra obscures the class point of view, which will lead to a compromise with other class forces. Finally, Iskra overemphasized theoretical debates, which was a product of the insular Russian circles in exile. These debates have little correspondence to the realities of Russian workers back home, who are not yet developed enough to understand or make use of the polemics of the exiles.

In WITBD, “The Joint Letter” becomes another stick to attack Rabochee Delo. If economism is not a problem, Lenin replies to Rabochee Delo, then how do you explain “The Joint Letter”? Characteristic of WITBD, its argument attempts to flip over the economist position. Lenin says the economists shift the blame for the current undeveloped state of affairs among Russian marxists from the revolutionaries to the workers. Contrary to the authors of “The Joint Letter,” Lenin contends, while the movement of the workers, and the people as a whole, is rapidly expanding and making qualitative leaps; the revolutionaries have not developed organizationally since the 1890s. Typical of economism, Lenin says, “The Joint Letter” seeks theoretical justification for the backwardness of the activists. In this regard, Lih argues, the controversy about the view of workers’ consciousness in WITBD is misplaced. Lenin upholds the “merger” view in his analysis of the 1901 upsurge; only he is not pessimistic about the workers who somehow need organizational form imposed from the outside. Instead, Lih says, the exact opposite is true: Lenin is optimistic about the workers, but pessimistic about the revolutionaries who have so far not developed alongside the expanding and deepening activity of the workers. Lenin “focuses attention precisely on this problem—on Social-Democratic deficiencies, not worker deficiencies” (317).

Iskra had a plan for Russian activists and Rabochee Delo did not. By the time WITBD appeared, their journal had folded and their grouping disappeared from the scene. However, some of the debates between these two contending ideological centers would take on new life after the second congress of the RSDLP when the mensheviks and bolsheviks began to emerge as two permanent factions of Russian marxism.

  • Kadir Ateş (Insurgent Notes)

    Thanks for this, looking forward to later installments!

  • Charlie Post
  • Kadir Ateş (Insurgent Notes)

    Charlie Post, as a member of Solidarity US (Trotskyist outfit), what possible criticism could you offer on Lih’ s book, which is more or less of a tome trying to suggest that Lenin never wanted a vanguard?  Let the dead bury the dead, and move on from Leninism.

    • Charlie Post

       Perhaps you should read what I wrote, rather than assume what I have to say.

      • Kadir Ateş (Insurgent Notes)

        I did, and it doesn’t say much.  Trostskyists would like to invent their heroes and theories anew is just as tiresome as the Open Marxist movement, which attempts to erase the various attempts of 20th century Marxism to struggle with theory and praxis.

        • Parcero

          Glad y’all are chiming in on the post. Perhaps y’all could lay out what you agree and disagree with the post in order to begin to see where our analysis diverge.

  • Glparramatta

    A related debate which readers might find interesting can be found at

  • Jacob

    Lars Lih’s work is merely the start.  I highly, strongly, and profoundly recommend reading CPGB comrade Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy: Marxism and the Challenge of Left Unity.  Lih covers the history, Macnair the contemporary political conclusions.

  • Jennifer L Johnson

    Truth- You can’t fight fire with fire!!!