A new introduction to Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done?’

Lenin in 1895

Below we republish a new introduction to Lenin’s pamphlet What is to be Done? The introduction and Lenin’s work were published by the publishing house of Sozialistische Organisation Solidarität (CWI in Germany).


 Lenin’s writings are deeply rooted in the Russian revolutionary tradition. This begins with the title of his book, What is to be Done?‘. Today we associate the title above all with Lenin’s book. Even people who only know Lenin and his ideas from hearsay have heard that he wrote a book with this title. However, 120 years ago, when the book was written, “What is to be Done?” was primarily the title of a novel by Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky lived from 1828-1889 and was a Russian writer and revolutionary. He was influenced by the French early socialist Fourier and the German philosopher and critic of religion, Feuerbach. He was arrested in 1862 and wrote the novel “What to do?” in prison.

Georgi Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, responded thirty years later to criticism of the artistic quality of the novel: “Show us at least one of the most outstanding truly artistic works in Russian literature whose influence on the moral and intellectual development of Russia would have been as great as the influence of the novel, “What is to be done?”. No one can show such a work, because such a work did not exist, does not exist and certainly will not exist. From the introduction of the printing press in Russia to the present day, not a single printed work in Russia has been as successful as that novel.”

The novel is about progressive personal relationships, but also about social commitment. A main character founds co-operatives and dreams of a socialist society. A secondary character, Rakhmetov, is an ascetic who subordinates his personality entirely to his goals. Nothing concrete is said about these goals. But readers understood Rakhmetov to be a revolutionary and assumed that this was only not said openly for censorship reasons.

The Narodniki

Of course, the novel was not the reason why countless young people from “better society” broke with their class and sacrificed themselves for the revolutionary movement in the years that followed. This was due to the social conditions. The autocracy of the tsars (the Russian version of absolutism) was perceived as intolerable in view of the social conditions in Western Europe. The limited nature of the regime’s reforms of 1863/64 showed that improvement from above was not to be expected.

Marxists later declared that the old feudal or semi-feudal economic, social and political system in Russia was outdated and a fetter on further development. Its overthrow was overdue. But in the West, in countries like France, this overthrow had already taken place decades earlier. There, the bourgeois revolutionaries had imagined that they would establish an empire of “liberty, equality and fraternity”. In the meantime, it was obvious that they had only replaced the old contradictions and antagonisms, the old exploitation and oppression, with new ones. For idealistic young people who were prepared to risk their health and lives to overcome the old system, the transfer of Western European class society to Russia was not a particularly attractive goal. So they did not set this as their goal, but rather what the progressive opposition forces in the West now saw as the goal: socialism, whatever that meant in detail in the 1860s or 1870s.

The first major movement to see itself as socialist was the Narodniki, the people’s movement. In this movement, children from “better society” broke away from their parental home and “joined the people”. They went to the few factories and, above all, to the villages to share the lives of the common people. Like Rakhmetov in the novel, they not only renounced luxury, but often even the smallest comforts of life. In some cases, they tried to practically benefit the population as teachers, doctors and midwives, but above all they tried to spread their socialist ideas. The government responded to this peaceful propaganda with brutal repression. There were thousands of arrests, and many spent years in solitary confinement until they were put on trial. In the “Trial of the 50” in Moscow in 1877, mostly young activists were sentenced to severe punishments. But their defence speeches and the inhumane punishments only increased sympathy for the convicts. The next trial, the “Trial of the 193” in St Petersburg, then took place largely in-camera.

Semlya i Volya and Narodnaya Volya

The experience of state repression and the limited effect of agitation among the peasants showed the limits of the spontaneous movement. “Semlya i Volya” (“Land and Freedom”) emerged as a centralised revolutionary organisation. But it split again as early as 1879. Initially, there were isolated terrorist attacks, especially on representatives of the tsarist regime, who were particularly brutal in their repression. In 1878, for example, Vera Sassulyich, the later co-founder of Russian Marxism, carried out an assassination attempt on the St Petersburg city captain Trepov because he had had the student Bogolyubov flogged in prison after the latter had not reverently removed his cap. The jury was so impressed by her personality and motive that they acquitted her.

Now a movement emerged which, faced with the difficulty of winning over the peasant majority to socialism, declared the assassination of the regime’s representatives – and in particular the tsar himself – to be a political strategy. The newly formed organisation “Narodnaya Volya” (People’s Freedom or People’s Will) also succeeded in killing the tsar in 1881. But Alexander II was followed by Alexander III, and the slogan of killing “one Sasha after the other” (Sasha is the Russian pet name for Alexander) could not be realised. The Narodnaya Volya was smashed by the police. A few years later, Lenin’s older brother Alexander Ulyanov and a few like-minded people tried to pick up the thread again, but they fell victim to the police before they had even achieved their immediate goal. The following decades showed that mass movements cannot be turned on at will like a tap, but that they require certain objective and subjective preconditions. Mass struggles can be successful, while individual terror can never replace the mass movement.

The “black redistribution”

The second organisation that emerged during the split of the “Zemlya i Volya” in 1879 was called “Chorny Peredjel” or “Black Redivision”.

“Redistribution” was the regular redistribution of peasant land among peasant families that took place every few decades. Whether this institution is a primeval communist relic or an institution of the tsarist state to ensure tax payments is of secondary importance to us here. In Western Europe, the number of workers was adjusted to a agricultural area by sending the children of poor peasant families to work as farmhands and maids elsewhere; in Russia, the agricultural area was adjusted to the number of workers through redistribution.

In contrast to this state redistribution, the black redistribution was the revolutionary redistribution, in which not only the land of the peasant families was redistributed, but also the land of the large landowners was to be distributed among the peasant families.

The “Liberation of Labour” group against narodnikism

The “Chorny Peredjel” organisation continued the old policy of the “Zemlya i Volya”, except that it was more interested in the emerging industrial proletariat. It was particularly important as a kind of “flow heater”. Leading representatives of the organisation emigrated to Western Europe, where they became acquainted with Marxism and began to apply it to Russian conditions. In 1883, former members of the organisation founded the “Liberation of Labour” group in Geneva, the first Russian Marxist organisation. The group was primarily concerned with the translation of classical Marxist texts into Russian, the Marxist examination of economic and social conditions in Russia‘ and the refutation of the Narodniki ideology, which had previously dominated the Russian revolutionary movement.

One of the characteristics of Narodniki ideology was a kind of messianism, the belief that backward Russia, unlike other countries, was called to reach socialism directly, without a diversion via capitalism. Secondly, they tried to prove that capitalist development was not even possible in Russia. This assertion was refuted more and more clearly every day by the economic data, as a result of which the Narodniki increasingly found themselves on the defensive and Marxism increasingly gained the upper hand. (A third feature of Narodniki ideology was subjective sociology, the complete overestimation of the role of “great men” in history).

“Legal” or revolutionary Marxism?

For Russian Marxism, however, its success was not unproblematic. It consisted, above all, in proving that capitalism was spreading more and more in Russia and that this was progress compared to the previous conditions in Russia. The current of “legal Marxism” emerged, which primarily emphasised this side of Marxism. As it fought against the ideology of the Narodniki, whom tsarism still regarded as its main enemy, its writings were often authorised by the censors, hence “legal Marxism”. The phenomenon described above, whereby bourgeois criticism of Russian conditions was wrapped in a socialist cloak, was particularly true of this “Marxism”. A typical representative of this “Marxism” was Peter Struve, but most of these Marxists soon went into the camp of the bourgeoisie.

Real Russian Marxism had to wage a double struggle, both against the Narodniki and against this “Marxism”. In fact, the development of capitalism in Russia also meant the development of a working class, a proletariat in Russia, and the development of the class struggle. It was not enough to say that capitalism was progressive for Russia, it was also necessary to answer the question of which of the capitalist classes fighting each other was the progressive one, and to reject the claim that workers should not exaggerate their struggle for higher wages and better working conditions, otherwise it would limit the economic development of progressive capitalism.

Propaganda and agitation

While the struggle of Marxism against the Narodniki and the “legal Marxists” was raging in the “high” spheres of theory, an everyday struggle was taking place on the ground of everyday labour, which revolved around the concepts of propaganda and agitation. The Russian labour movement began by teaching Marxist theory in small illegal circles to individual workers whom they had discovered to be open to socialist ideas. Lenin’s wife, N. K. Krupskaya, described very vividly in her memoirs how, as a teacher at an advanced training school for workers, she paid attention to whether a pupil said something in class that indicated prior knowledge or openness to socialist ideas. Such pupils were approached after class and, once they had been put through their paces, were admitted to a secret circle. There they learnt more than just Marxist theory. Given the miserable level of education at the time, they also had to be taught a lot of general knowledge, e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution to people who only knew the biblical story of creation. This was done by “teachers” who had a lot of enthusiasm, but only limited knowledge themselves and, at best, pedagogical skills by chance. It is an impressive testimony to the hunger for education of these workers that, after long working days at night or at the weekend, they strove with these circle meetings and even learnt something in the process. This Marxist training of a small minority of workers was called “propaganda”.

From around 1893, a new method called “agitation” spread from the Jewish labour movement in Vilnius. Instead of teaching a small layer of workers the entire Marxist theory, attempts were made to win over the masses of workers to fight for their immediate interests: higher wages, shorter working hours, better working conditions, etc. Often, revelations were used for this purpose. Revelations about the conditions in certain factories often served this purpose. One of the organisations that used this new method was the “Fighting League for the Liberation of the Working Class” in St Petersburg, in which Lenin played a leading role (after his arrest from prison in December 1895).

In May 1896, a strike of 35,000 spinners and weavers in St Petersburg took place, which was sensational at the time, over the question of whether workers should be paid for the public holidays to mark the coronation of the new Tsar Nicholas II. The strike triggered a whole wave of strikes, in the organisation of which the “Kampfbund” played an important role. A few improvements were achieved, even a legal restriction of working hours to 11½ hours a day.

The crowning glory of this phase in the history of the Russian labour movement was the founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in Minsk in March 1898.

The third phase: economism

But now a new problem arose: the founding generation of the socialists had been arrested and exiled to Siberia. At the head of the organisation came a new generation who, in view of the partial successes, developed illusions in the possibilities of material improvements and legal reforms within the framework of the existing political system. This was the basis of the “economism” trend. The mouthpiece of this movement was the newspaper “Rabochaya Mysl” (Labour Thought), which was published by the St Petersburg economists. It was partly printed there and partly smuggled in from abroad. After economism had prevailed in the League of Struggle, Rabochaya Mysl became the official mouthpiece of the League of Struggle.

Lenin and other exiles in Siberia had already formulated a joint protest against Economism in the autumn of 1897 and the struggle against Economism formed a focal point of Lenin’s activity in the coming years until it reached a certain conclusion with the pamphlet “What is to be Done”.

Economism was not limited to Russia; it also won supporters in emigration. In 1894, the group “Liberation of Labour” had founded the “Foreign League of Russian Social Democrats”. Now the economists were gaining the upper hand there. Their mouthpiece became the newspaper of the Foreign League, “Rabocheje Djelo” (Labour’s Cause). For this reason, at the second congress of the Foreign League in April 1900, the “Liberation of Labour” group and those close to them left the Foreign League and founded the “Revolutionary Organisation ‘Social Democrat'” (which in 1901 merged with the group around Lenin, who had emigrated in the meantime, to form the “Foreign League of Revolutionary Russian Social Democracy”).

The “Iskra”newspaper

Although the SDAPR had been founded in 1898, the Central Committee elected and most of the participants in the founding party conference were arrested shortly afterwards; the illegal printing press of the party newspaper was taken down and the organisation was effectively thrown back to local illegal circles. In the discussions that Lenin held in exile in Siberia, he came to the conclusion that the next step in building the workers’ movement would be to found an all-Russian newspaper smuggled into Russia from abroad. To this end, he went into exile at the end of his prison sentence and made contact with the “Liberation of Labour” group. The result of the negotiations was the newspaper “Iskra” (Spark).

The editorial board consisted of six people; Plekhanov, Sassulich and Pavel Axelrod from the “Liberation of Labour” group, and Lenin, Martov and Potressov, who had just come out of exile in Siberia. Lenin and Martov had worked closely together in the St Petersburg League of Struggle, and Potressov had at least been in its circle. There were certainly tensions between the two groups that had joined forces for “Iskra”. This began with the question of the editorial centre. Plekhanov & Co wanted it to be in Switzerland, where they lived. It was precisely for this reason that Lenin moved to Germany and, in 1902 (when persecution by the German police made a move necessary), England. There was never a meeting of all the editors. The articles were sent between them by post, and criticised and commented on.

Smuggling the newspaper to Russia was even more difficult than producing it. Some Russian and international comrades smuggled it across the border; sympathetic sailors brought it ashore to harbours and professional smugglers were also used. The newspaper was transported from Bulgaria across the Black Sea to Odessa or from Alexandria in Egypt across the Mediterranean and Black Sea to Kherson in Ukraine and Batum in the Caucasus. It was smuggled from Germany to Warsaw or Vilnius, from Austria to Kiev, from Sweden via Finland to St Petersburg, from Norway via the North Cape by sea and so on. A network of Iskra newspapear supporters, Iskrists, emerged in Russia, who wrote articles as correspondents, collected money, organised transport into the country and distribution. As editorial secretary, Lenin’s wife Krupskaya organised the correspondence, made visible what had been written in secret ink, deciphered coded names and other difficult passages in letters and ciphered such passages in outgoing mail.

As Lenin had foreseen, an organisation developed around the newspaper. In January 1902, a conference of Russian Iskrists was held in Samara and an office was formed to coordinate the work. In this way, “Iskra” made a decisive contribution to the organisation of the second party congress of the RSDLP in the summer, at which the actual founding of the party took place.

Revisionism in Germany and internationally

Lenin’s paper “What is to be Done?” is not only part of the development of the Russian revolutionary movement, but also has an international context. For many years, Eduard Bernstein had been a leading representative of German Social Democracy, which at that time still saw itself as a revolutionary socialist party. When the party was banned under Bismarck’s Socialist Law, Bernstein published the party newspaper “Sozialdemokrat” in Zurich and then in London, which was illegally smuggled into Germany. He therefore had to remain in London even after the fall of the Socialist Law because he was still wanted by warrant in Germany. In London, he was in close contact with Friedrich Engels, who appointed him as one of his executors.

It therefore caused quite a stir when Bernstein began to question the basic assumptions of Marxism in a series of articles in the winter of 1897-98. In fact, it was only his person and not the content of his remarks that caused a stir, because he was merely repeating what opponents of Marxism had written a thousand times and Marxists (including Bernstein himself) had refuted a thousand times. Since Bernstein felt he had to revise Marx’s teachings, the whole thing went down in history as “revisionism”. Bernstein’s theoretical endeavours were combined with the practical advances of opportunism in German social democracy.

The theoretical and practical debate was not limited to Germany. In Russia, previous representatives of “legal Marxism” advocated revisionism until they completely defected to the side of bourgeois liberalism. In France, a variety of practical opportunism caused a furore. The socialist Millerand joined a bourgeois government.

“Freedom of criticism”?

At the beginning of his writing, Lenin deals with the demand for “freedom of criticism”. This was a main slogan of revisionism and opportunism at the time … at least where they were in the minority.

The basis of this slogan was the confusion over a political organisation which one joins voluntarily. Lenin pointed out, as did Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, for example, that in such a voluntary organisation the freedom of criticism must have certain limits. An organisation has a certain basis and if someone has left this basis, then they no longer have the right to criticism within the organisation; only the right to criticism from outside.

That should be obvious. Anyone who does not accept this raises the suspicion that he or she is not interested in criticism, but in fighting the organisation from within on the assumption that such a fight is more effective than from the outside.

Economism or Marxism?

However, the majority of Lenin’s writings are not devoted to the international dimension of the confrontation with revisionism, but to the Russian confrontation with economism. Two fundamentally different views clashed here.

For economism, the aim was to fight for concrete improvements, including legal reforms, through successful strikes and other protests on the ground. A more far-reaching political struggle was thus delegated to the (then almost non-existent) bourgeois opposition to tsarism or to the indefinite future. For this purpose, the spontaneous mass movement could certainly be regarded as sufficient. There was also no urgent need to unite the local circles into a nationwide organisation. The local capitalists could be put under pressure with a local strike, and St Petersburg in 1896/97 had shown that even modest legal improvements could be achieved in this way. In this view, there was also no need to address issues of political oppression beyond the immediate interests of the workers.

Lenin labelled this attitude “Khvostism”. “Chwost” means “tail” in German. The English word “tailism” corresponds to this. There is no equivalent word in German, but “Nachtrabpolitik” is about right. For Lenin it was clear that it was not the task of a revolutionary organisation to lag behind the consciousness of the masses or even to be at the same level. The task is rather to be ahead of it, not so far that it is out of sight, but so far that it can propose the next steps.

And in the concrete situation at the time, this meant that it could not leave the fight against tsarism, against autocracy, to the almost non-existent liberals or to the future. In fact, in the years between the writing of “What is to be done?” and the 1905 revolution, “Down with autocracy!” became one of the most popular demonstration slogans. (For Lenin, of course, this meant that it was now becoming Chvostism to stop at the slogan as a revolutionary organisation. A few years later he pointed out that this slogan would also be fulfilled by replacing autocracy with a constitutional monarchy. That is why we must demand a republic, Lenin argued. In 1917, the “republic” was no longer enough and slogans such as “All power to the councils” became correct).

If the agenda included not only the representation of workers’ interests within the framework of tsarism, but also the overthrow of tsarism, then in a country where the workers were a small minority, this naturally meant that they needed allies. This is why Iskra published articles denouncing the oppression of students (at that time, almost always from the bourgeoisie or even “higher” classes), ethnic and religious minorities, police brutality against peasants and so on. The economists saw this as a distraction from the actual tasks of a workers’ newspaper.

Since tsarism could not be overthrown in one factory or one city, it was clear to Lenin that a nationwide organisation had to be established. Under the conditions of tsarist oppression, this organisation had to be illegal and, in order to make it as difficult as possible to smash parts of the organisation, it had to be highly professional. In addition, of course, illegality forced professionalisation in various areas. If you can’t have a leaflet printed in a commercial print shop, you need experts in smuggling and/or in running a secret print shop.

When Lenin wrote “What is to be done?”, the struggle against economism had largely been won. Three years before the first Russian revolution, the consciousness of the workers was already so high that the political limitations of economism were increasingly ridiculous.

Tsarism tried in part to pose as a neutral arbitrator between labour and capital. In 1901-1903, the head of the Moscow secret police, Zubatov, experimented with legal workers’ organisations that were supposed to confine themselves to purely economic issues in order to keep them away from political and revolutionary struggle. When economists advocated something similar to this “police socialism”, it naturally discredited them among class-conscious workers.

No wonder that the second party congress in 1903 approved the political line of “Iskra” and thus also of “What is to be Done?” by a large majority.

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

But the end of economism was not the end of opportunism. The second party congress in 1903 meant that the question of whether a centralised political party was needed was decided in Lenin’s favour. But this raised the question of what this party should look like in concrete terms. At the party congress, the Iskrists had a compact majority over the economists. But during the party conference, the Iskrists split and a section made common cause with the previous economists. This came as a great surprise to those involved. In retrospect, it can be said that this was precisely because the creation of the party brought new issues onto the agenda and led to new lines of conflict.

This is not the place to retrace the further conflict. But the new lines of conflict also led to the past appearing in a new light and enthusiastic fans of “What is to be Done?” turning into critics in retrospect. In particular, it became popular among the Mensheviks to portray Lenin as a would-be party dictator.

It is true that Lenin considered real internal organisational democracy impossible under conditions of illegality. Democracy involves electing people to leadership bodies and knowing who to vote for. How is this possible when those to be elected work underground and use changing aliases? When the 1905 revolution temporarily created the possibility of legal activity, Lenin was firmly in favour of the transition to comprehensive internal party democracy. And Lenin was indeed more democratic in his disputes with the Mensheviks. At the Second Party Congress in 1903, he argued in favour of the right of the party congress to democratically elect the composition of the editorial board of the party newspaper, instead of simply taking over the “Iskra” editorial board agreed between himself and Plekhanov in 1900. When the composition of the leading bodies no longer corresponded to the resolutions of the Second Party Congress, due to resignations and arrests, Lenin campaigned for a new party congress, while the Mensheviks thwarted this.

Lenin was also accused of being a supporter of intellectuals patronising the workers. Firstly, as we have seen, it is true that a very large proportion of the revolutionaries initially came from bourgeois circles. However, this was not unique to the Bolsheviks, but applied to all revolutionary organisations. This only changed when workers joined the revolutionary movement en masse, especially in the 1905-1907 revolution. When there was a mass outflow from the revolutionary organisations after the defeat of this first revolution, the intellectuals deserted almost completely and threw themselves into the arms of esotericism etc. Above all, a core of workers steeled by the revolution remained loyal to the organisation and organised the reconstruction of the revolutionary workers’ movement from around 1911/12, when the lull after the defeat of the revolution was over. However, the organisation in which most of these revolutionary workers were active was the party of the Bolsheviks.

Lenin’s juxtaposition of organisations of workers and organisations of revolutionaries in “What is to be Done?” was by no means a juxtaposition of workers and intellectuals. He emphasised several times that many of these revolutionaries themselves came from the working class. In 1905, at the third party congress, Lenin waged a fierce battle against the committee people who considered the workers too backward to be included in the local party committees.

It is true that Lenin used a few exaggerated formulations on the relationship between “social-democratic” and “trade unionist consciousness” in his polemic against the economists’ worship of spontaneity in “What Is To Be Done?”. At one point, he writes that “the working class is only capable of producing a trade unionist consciousness through its own efforts” and a little later he quotes the Austro-German socialist theorist Kautsky: “Socialist consciousness is therefore something that has been brought into the class struggle of the proletariat, not something that has emerged from it naturally.” (Chapter II, subchapters a) and b)) But these formulations were not his last word on the question. For example, in November 1905, in his article “On the Reorganisation of the Party”, one of his most important articles after his return from exile to revolutionary Russia, Lenin wrote: “The working class is instinctively and spontaneously social-democratic, and the more than ten years of work of the Social Democracy have already contributed very, very much to transforming this spontaneous attitude into a conscious one.” When Lenin republished “What to Do?” in 1907, as part of the anthology “Twelve Years”, he wrote in the foreword that he had “not formulated certain expressions […] quite skilfully or precisely” regarding the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness, explaining this having to do with the polemical nature of his writing. In his 1940 biography of Stalin (Chapter 3), Leon Trotsky pointed out the further development of Lenin’s views: “According to Lenin, the labour movement, if left to itself, inevitably falls into the path of opportunism; revolutionary class consciousness is brought into the proletariat from outside, through the Marxist intellectuals. This is not the place to criticise this view, which belongs to Lenin’s biography and not Stalin’s. Incidentally, the author of “What is to be Done?” himself later recognised its one-sidedness and thus the error in his theory”.

Unfortunately, many others who consider themselves Leninists have not taken note of this correction of Lenin’s position and consider the old one-sided formulations to be the last word in wisdom. Incidentally, Marx also went through a similar development. At the end of 1843, he wrote that theory must take hold of the masses (“On the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction”), thus not allowing the masses to participate in the elaboration of theory. Just a few months later, he wrote that “the English and French workers have formed associations in which not only their immediate needs as workers, but their needs as human beings form the object of their mutual instruction” (“The Holy Family”, Chapter IV, Critical Marginal Gloss No. 5).

And today?

One of Lenin’s greatest strengths was his ability to think about the next concrete step in each specific situation in order to advance the revolution. That is why his writings are never eternal truths. So what sense does it make today to read one of his 120-year-old writings? The concrete situation is completely different today!

Of course it is. Much of Lenin’s writing does not fit our time. For example, at least in Germany, we don’t have to do illegal labour under a dictatorship. There is little similarity between the difficulties of transporting illegal literature back then and today’s Internet.

But other aspects of Lenin’s writings are still or once again relevant today, some are more relevant than 120 years ago, perhaps more relevant than ever before in world history.

The reason why Lenin polemicised so much against the worship of spontaneity in “What is to be Done?” was the huge gulf between the great amount of spontaneous activity and the weakness of revolutionary organisation, at the time. But was this gap ever as wide as it is today? How many mass movements have there been in recent years in the most diverse countries, whether in Chile or Colombia, Nigeria or Sudan, Lebanon, Kazakhstan or Myanmar? But what has come out of them? Even if they lead to a change of government, as in Chile, one of the first measures taken by the “left-wing hopeful” Boric is to appoint a former head of the central bank as finance minister. Lenin’s criticism of Khvostism, the restriction to ideas that large sections of the movement already hold, is more important than ever. When large parts of Fridays for Future protests demand “system change, not climate change”, then it is Khvostism. Then revolutionaries must use more far-reaching slogans, such as “Socialist change, not climate change”.

Lenin fought in “Iskra” and in “What to do be Done?” for the labour movement to take up the fight against all forms of oppression. That would be easier today than back then. Back then, the demand was that workers, despite their limited strength, should make the fight against the oppression of other social groups their own, in addition to the fight against the capitalists, and challenge the tsarist machinery of oppression in the fight against them. When we fight today against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, etc., then most of those affected do not belong to other social groups, but to our own class, then this struggle is precisely a necessity in order to be able to wage the common struggle against the common capitalist enemy more effectively. But instead of emphasising this connection, the struggle against oppression is almost everywhere only morally justified.

While Lenin called for the struggle against oppression because he recognised that the struggle against tsarism could only be won if the small Russian working class took hegemony in this struggle (contrary to what various left-wing political scientists believe, Antonio Gramsci did not invent this concept, but adopted it from the Bolsheviks and only generalised it somewhat). Today, when workers and wage earners make up the vast majority of the population, we are being told by identity politics advocates that the exploitation of workers is just one form of oppression among many.

Lenin argued for a nationwide revolutionary organisation because the overthrow of tsarism had to be prepared, which could only be successful in the whole country, not in one factory or one city. Today we have to prepare the overthrow of capitalism because the world is increasingly coming apart at the seams with economic crisis, climate crisis, covid crisis, international political conflicts, etc. and capitalism is threatening to devastate the planet. This overthrow can obviously only succeed on a global scale, so we need a global revolutionary organisation today. As the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), we are working to build such an organisation. Lenin’s ideas are more relevant than ever. The gap between the topicality of these ideas and their limited dissemination is one of the greatest contradictions of the present. The new edition of “What is to be Done?” is intended as a small contribution to closing this gap.

The text of What is to be Done? can be read here:

what-itd.pdf (marxists.org)

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!