From International Socialism, No.16, Spring 1964, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
What Is To Be Done
translated by S.V. Utechin
edited by S.V. & P. Utechin
One of the confusions which bedevil present day Marxist thinking lies in the concomitant use of two very different definitions of the concepts of spontaneity and consciousness. One distinction is in terms of control from below or above, the other in terms of lesser or greater understanding.
The first sees in spontaneity decisions made at root level, local initiative and the absence of delegated decision making. In this sense all revolutions have been largely spontaneous, at least at first. Consciousness, as the opposite, comes to mean centralisation and plans carried out, on instructions, by members of a disciplined organisation. They may, individually, be unaware of the part their action plays in the total scheme, and the consciousness is that of the leadership, whether it is elected or not. Seen thus, Lenin’s claim that consciousness must come to the workers from outside, from an organisation of professional revolutionary intelligentsia, would indeed be the sinister cornerstone of an elitist doctrine that many see it to be. At times Lenin does stray into this meaning of the terms, especially when seeming regrettably to make a virtue of the necessary limitations of internal democracy imposed on a revolutionary organisation by illegality and the need for secrecy. (In practice, wherever possible, the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks did exhibit a high degree of internal democracy).
It is, however, the second distinction between spontaneity and consciousness which was the one usually understood by Lenin. For him unconscious or spontaneous action is that taken without knowledge of the causes of problems or the consequences of revolt against them; taken without understanding of the way in which social conditions are related to each other in a system and without ideas about how, and with what allies, they can be changed. Spontaneity is consciousness in embryo, the first confused realisation that something is wrong and that revolt is possible. Such action cannot bring about a new society in which men shape their own lives. It leads to defeat or else to the workers being used as shock troops in the battles of other, more conscious, classes. Thus at best they replace one set of rulers over them (in this case the feudal autocracy) by another (the bourgoisie, or today perhaps a state bureaucracy). The task of revolutionaries is not to be the consciousness of the workers, but to make available to them knowledge and broader horizons, to ‘imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and its task’ (Kautsky, quoted by Lenin). In saying that this must first be brought from ‘without’ he is surely right. Ideas take shape in the minds of individuals who use the existing knowledge of society and who observe its reality. These ideas must be communicated to individuals. They do not arise by a chemical process among the ‘masses’, spontaneously generated by economic conflict. The experience of particular workers is limited in time and space, and beyond this their consciousness is often that of their rulers. If they are to change society themselves they must understand its politics, economics, and history, not just the shop floor in isolation. In this sense revolutions are massive expressions of consciousness on the part of millions of individuals, with ideas which have come, at first or tenth hand, from other individuals, and which they have found relevant and adapted to a common experience. Previously existing organisations are mainly relevant because of the value of ideas they have spread and the efficiency with which they have done so. The organisations which now matter are mainly those created in the course of a revolution.
All knowledge to the workers, is Lenin’s slogan in What Is To Be Done. One must for this, of course, start with a minority who have ideas and knowledge in advance of the mass of people, which they must propagate freely and coherently. When and if these ideas are found relevant and are broadly accepted, and given favourable circumstances, there can be action based upon them.
The ‘Economist’ ideas of Lenin’s time, against which he is polemicising made a brief bow to revolution. They claimed that it, and the consciousness for it, would be produced by material forces. They then went on to call for economic struggle for realisable advances and reforms, rather than general political and theoretical talk. This was presented as integration with the workers’ movement as it actually was, and as speaking at a relevant level. Today we have the same attitude, without the revolutionary postscript, in every ‘realistic’ trade union bureaucrat and Labour Party reformist who mocks at ‘idealists divorced from the working class’ and who seeks to keep industrial action and politics (the sphere for politicians) in separate compartments. His idea of democracy is speaking of what people wish and understand, as is shown by public opinion polls. We find this attitude too in Communist Party ‘front’ tactics which keep each issue sealed off from the rest and never frighten well-wishers away with ideas they don’t already believe in. Clearly, this acceptance of workers as they are, is also an acceptance of their apathy and powerlessness, and as we see, it does not make for a particularly democratic or rank-and-file directed movement. Without horizons which extend beyond the present system the workers do not appear as actors on the stage of history.
There are organisations whose basis of unity is a common idea or ideas and the desire to propagate them. There are organisations based on common interest or interests and the desire to fight for them. Although membership of these two kinds of organisation will overlap, and the distinction between them is often blurred, they should be kept theoretically distinct and the difference between forms of action and organisation appropriate to each should be remembered.
With the first kind should be numbered many small groups inside and outside the Labour Party (including CDS and VFS) also CND and in many respects the CP. Membership in these is based on the acceptance of a certain central idea or ideas. Exclusions and splits occur when ideas differ to a point where a minority cannot express fully to the outside world what it thinks important, or a majority finds its viewpoint blurred and confused by concessions. To be able to maintain an unpopular view such a propaganda group, if necessary, must be exclusive and self-selective vis-à-vis the outside world, but it should internally be based on democratic control and full freedom of speech. The right to express and to criticise ideas cannot be subject to majority decision in the broad movement, but whether the ideas are to be accepted and acted upon must always be so subject. Thus by its exclusiveness the propaganda group protects its ideas but forfeits its representativeness and thus its right to take any action except in its own name. The appropriate sphere for such action is very limited. If a group based on common ideas seeks to act on them alone one gets ‘terrorism’ and often meaningless martyrdoms. If it is also dishonest and claims to be (or to be representing) ‘the working class’, ‘the unemployed’, ‘the women of Britain’, ‘Labour Party Youth’, etc, it will be acting in a substitutionist fashion, putting itself forward as a self-chosen leadership and representative of the workers (etc) and leaving the workers themselves off the scene as they have always been before. A revolutionary propaganda group may seek to be the vanguard and leadership in putting forth policy and ideas, but not in taking action by themselves.
On the other hand are organisations based on common interests. Such are strike meetings, and trade unions, tenants’ associations, and, in this country, the Labour Party. If such an organisation seeks to exclude and expel those with minority opinions, it becomes bureaucratic and stagnant. It may only legitimately take action in the name of a section of the workers or the community if it is open to all concerned, whatever their opinions, as well as being subject to control by a majority of the rank and file.
There are of course numerous ambiguities. A propaganda group which by ‘patiently explaining’ wins a majority to its view, will find its members elected as spokesmen by ‘interest group’ organisations, as did Bolsheviks in the Soviets, thus winning the right to act on its ideas. Trade unions may be divided into Catholic, Socialist, or Anarchist rival bodies. The Labour Party is supposed to be united by a common, though very variously interpreted, belief in socialism. There are problems. Which differences of opinion within a propaganda group may co-exist, and which necessitates a split? When Lenin opposes calls for ‘freedom of criticism’ he makes it clear that he was not against free speech but against continuing alliance with a tendency which differed basically; ‘you are free ... to go where you will ... But ... leave go our hands, do not clutch at us.’ Another problem is that the distinction between propaganda and action is not always clear.
The introduction to this edition puts forth the conventional view, of What Is To Be Done as the textbook of Stalinism. This book is taken to be the blueprint of elitism by all who seek, for praise or blame, to find in Stalinism the logical continuation of the Bolshevism that is destroyed. There is here surprising unanimity of Anarchists and Communists, social democrats and non-socialists. Trotskyists too seek in it for justification of their own conspiratorial and centralised organisations.
Most of this conventional view, however, would not have been apparent to Lenin or his readers, being due to later misuses of Lenin’s language and to perversions of his ideas to justify Stalinism. Some ‘potential germs’ of autocratic organisations are there, with ‘germs’ of all kinds, but these were not realised by Bolshevik practice. They were revived and developed later to explain practices arising from entirely different causes in different circumstances. (See the chapter on Bolshevism in Max Schachtman’s Bureaucratic Revolution).
In What Is To Be Done, Lenin is discussing the role and organisation of a Marxist propaganda group under the Russian autocracy. He is not concerned with the organisation of a mass movement in class-based parties or trade unions, in democratic countries, in a revolutionary situation, or after a revolution. (The organisational principles of What Is To Be Done were not followed in 1905 or 1917.) He is worried that the workers will be used as cannon fodder for the bourgeoisie in the coming battle with Tzarism. That (after the revolution) civil war, economic disorganisation, and backwardness, with decimation of the working class and the resulting mass apathy and exhaustion, would leave a vacuum in which the Bolshevik party bureaucracy would emerge as the seeds of a new ruling class was a possibility which certainly here never crossed his mind. For his policy and organisation in a revolution, State And Revolution (written in 1917) is a better text than What Is To Be Done. This former policy was not maintained because of external conditions, not because of the sinister implications of a book written fifteen years before in a different context. (Similar necessities to those which produced Stalinism are today shaping the one-party regimes of such places as Ghana, without the pre-existence there of a Bolshevik-type party, workers’ revolution or Leninist ideas).
The fact that Lenin was unaware of dangers which now seem so obvious to us meant that he did not try to build safeguards against them into his party (assuming that this was possible). We must try to learn from the experience he did not yet have, and be constantly on guard against bureaucracy and elitism. To do this, while maintaining our right to speak out clearly against the main-stream of popular thought, means that we must be very clear about the appropriate roles of theory and action; and of the distinction between groups based on ideas and those based on sections of the community with common interests.
I would have liked to welcome this new translation of What Is To Be Done, which is still an extremely relevant book. The only translation previously available was the Moscow edition, which is often hardly readable and at times seems not to be written in English at all. This new edition certainly is a great improvement in style, and it has a useful appendix. However, the editor has decided to omit ‘passages of purely historic interest,’ which he believes to be of no great relevance. His are not everyone’s standards of relevance, and at times he seems to have used the blue pencil quite at random. Omissions include a very illuminating quotation from Kautsky on the role of consciousness; most of Lenin’s concrete illustrations; reference to riots and most of the reference to strikes in the discussion on the development of consciousness from an embryonic state; and almost all the section on the nature and appeal of ‘Terrorism’ and its relation to ‘Economism’. There are many other cuts, often serving to confuse rather than to clarify. This is a pity.
The general problem of the relationship of Marxists to the labour movement remains. But it would certainly be foolish to follow Lenin’s plan for party organisation today, in different circumstances and with awareness of pitfalls which hindsight provides. Even at the time Rosa Luxemburg objected that ‘mistakes committed by a genuine revolutionary labour movement are much more fruitful and worthwhile historically than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee.’
Last updated on 11.8.2007