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Need for a party is not just historical

This article is over 13 years, 4 months old
Helen Salmon asks whether Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done evidence of Lenin’s "dictatorial" ambitions?
Issue 2228

Those who want to defend class society, and some on the left who oppose revolution, argue that revolutions merely set up new hierarchies, not the freedom and equality their participants dream of.

They argue that What is to be Done? was a blueprint for a dictatorship, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks at its head.

The pamphlet was actually written as an intervention into an argument over the need for a unified left party. Russian Marxism then consisted of study circles of intellectuals, isolated from one another both nationally and even within the same cities.

Lenin was determined to forge an all-Russia socialist organisation out of this patchwork of groups and individuals.

He looked to the millions‑strong German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as a model of a professional national organisation that intervened in national politics—the antithesis of the amateurism and atomisation that characterised the movement in Russia.

It was a polemical argument for the creation of a centralised party in Russia.

The pamphlet reiterates Lenin’s fervent belief in the possibility of workers’ risings in Russia, and his impatience to create a party that could organise, coordinate, politicise and lead these risings to win political freedom.

He laid out three arguments that formed a break with the fatalism of pre-Leninist Marxism.

First, Lenin explored the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness. He attacked those within the socialist movement who argued for an economistic approach—one that concentrates on “bread and butter” issues.

Lenin argued that socialists must win workers to a politically conscious approach to the struggle. He said workers should oppose every act of oppression meted out by the Tsarist autocracy.

Only by such an approach could they place themselves in the leadership of the battle for political freedom against autocracy, and make themselves fit to make a socialist revolution.

The pamphlet has correctly been criticised for Lenin’s assertion that socialist intellectuals had to inject such consciousness into workers’ struggles.

Lenin argued that workers by their own efforts would only ever attain trade union, rather than political, consciousness. But workers’ organisation during the 1905 revolution just a few years later led Lenin to change his view.

Secondly, Lenin argued for a vanguard party. This, he said, is because consciousness within the working class is uneven.

A party that attempts to organise the whole class would be dragged down by its least class conscious elements—those who scabbed on strikes, racists, sexists, supporters of the Tsar.

Therefore Lenin argued that the party should aim to organise the best militants who would then be better armed to lead the rest of the class.

The third part of the pamphlet argues the need for secrecy and professionalism within the party. At that time, the average life span for a socialist group, before being broken up by the secret police, was about three months.

In fighting to stitch together an all-Russian socialist party, Lenin prioritised the need for centralism. He argued explicitly for a top-down organisational principle, that emphasised the rights of the leadership.

Opponents of Lenin depict this as his sole model of party organisation—one that fits all circumstances.

However, many aspects of the pamphlet were specific arguments for a form of organisation suited to organising under autocratic rule.

Lenin himself overturned his own formulations on secrecy and the primacy of the leadership in 1905.

The upsurge of workers’ revolt led Lenin to fight for the opening up of the party, and for the leadership of workers within it. He also argued for the democratic principle to operate as the rule inside the organisation.

What was not specific to its time, though, was Lenin’s insistence that Marxists could not merely wait on events.

Only a party that attempted to organise the most class conscious workers could be the instrument of revolution.

Lenin’s insights were to have significance well beyond Russia.

Read What is to be Done? online at

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