Donate to Links
Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box
- The Future of the Left in Scotland
1 week 1 day ago
- Brazil: No to Temer’s government imposed by an corrupt Congress
1 week 1 day ago
1 week 2 days ago
- Of Icons, Myths and Doug Enaa Greene
2 weeks 3 days ago
- This election is a crisis
2 weeks 4 days ago
- Characterizing Russia
2 weeks 4 days ago
- response to Roger Annis (continued)
2 weeks 5 days ago
- imperialism and Syria
2 weeks 6 days ago
- Where is imperialism in this survey of Syria?
3 weeks 23 hours ago
- Art Young on Israel and the SWP.
3 weeks 2 days ago
Lars T. Lih: ‘We must dream!’ Echoes of `What Is to Be Done?’ in Lenin’s later career
[Talk given at the US International Socialist Organization’s Socialism 2010 conference, Chicago, June 2010. Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Lars Lih's permission. Lars T. Lih's Lenin, a short volume in the Critical Lives series of Reaktion Books, will be published later this year. Click here for a special offer. Read more by and about Lars T. Lih HERE. You can also read more about Lenin HERE.]
* * *
By Lars T. Lih
I appreciate the opportunity to look again at Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?—especially since I have just completed a biographical study of Lenin’s career as a whole (Lenin, forthcoming in the Critical Lives series by Reaktion Books). One of the things I found—to tell the truth, somewhat unexpectedly—was a series of echoes of What Is to Be Done? throughout Lenin’s entire career. So I thought it would be useful to talk about some of the basic themes of Lenin’s book and tie each of these themes to later echoes.
Why do I say “echoes”? Because Lenin himself did not talk directly about What Is to Be Done? very much. What Is to Be Done? was first published in 1902. In 1907, it was reprinted, but just as part of an anthology of Lenin’s writings. In his Foreword to this anthology, Lenin discussed What Is to Be Done? briefly, and that was it: no more direct mentions at any time in any of his writings. Even in Soviet Russia, What Is to Be Done? was only discovered again after Lenin’s death. In fact, it’s really a myth that What Is to Be Done? served as the founding document of Bolshevism. Nevertheless, it became clear to me that some of the major themes, often accompanied by characteristic vocabulary, do surface again and again in Lenin’s writings.
My book Lenin Rediscovered necessarily had a polemical edge, because it was going up against some deeply engrained prejudices, to which I gave the overall name of “the textbook interpretation”. The key theme of the textbook interpretation is Lenin’s alleged “worry about workers”, that is, the idea that Lenin’s basic message in What Is to Be Done? was to insist on the limitations of the revolutionary understanding and commitment of the workers, and the consequent need to replace the workers with a party of conspiratorial intellectuals calling themselves “professional revolutionaries”.
This idea of Lenin’s “worry about workers” comes in two versions, one on the right and one on the left. The right-wing version says, “What Is to Be Done? shows that Lenin despised the workers, and that explains Stalinist tyranny.” The most prominent left-wing versions say something along these lines: yes, What Is to Be Done? does show Lenin’s distrust of the workers, it is rather elitist, but—Lenin changed his mind soon thereafter, so it’s all right. When the 1905 revolution rolled around, the spontaneous revolutionary actions of the workers so impressed him that he made a 180-degree turn, and now, finally, he thought it would be a good idea to recruit workers on to party committees—ironically, much to the disgust of his fellow Bolsheviks, who were weaned on What Is to Be Done?. Or so the story goes.
I think that the “worry about workers” interpretation, in either left or right versions, is not only wrong, but topsy-turvy wrong, upside-down wrong. Rather, the hallmark of What Is to Be Done? is exhilaration about workers—and this means, as opposed to some prominent left-wing writers, that Lenin saw 1905 as a confirmation, not as a refutation, of What Is to Be Done?.
To tell the truth, I am more interested in correcting misperceptions on the left than on the right. In particular, I want to rebut those well-meaning writers on the left who think they are paying Lenin a compliment when they see him repudiating What Is to Be Done? in 1905. One aim of my present talk is to show that, in actuality, Lenin saw 1905 as a ringing endorsement of his 1902 book.
So, what are the main themes of What Is to Be Done? Lenin’s motivation in writing What Is to Be Done? was of course to make specific proposals about a specific conjuncture in party affairs. I’m not going to talk about these proposals, but rather about the underlying scenario that provides the framework for Lenin’s more specific policy suggestions. And I use the word “scenario” advisedly, because I think that in order to understand Lenin, we need to have a feel for an underlying drama, a dynamic interaction, that Lenin sees going on everywhere.
The key theme of this drama is inspiring leadership. And by this, I certainly do not mean a “Great Leader” inspiring the masses, but rather thousands of more ordinary but still effective leaders who (in Lenin’s vision) arise out of the masses themselves. Think of a worker pushing himself forward at a street demonstration and urging the crowd to take revolutionary actions—this is the sort of thing that Lenin wants to see happen.
Heroic, inspiring leaders require heroic followers. Therefore Lenin has a very exalted idea of the worker, not only as potential leaders, but as followers. Lenin says to would-be activist leaders: the workers are ready to hear and heed your message. And because of this, says Lenin, a single activist, a single praktik, can accomplish miracles.
In the rest of the talk, I’m going to take up the following themes, all arising out of the scenario I have just sketched:
- first, workers as eager, ready-to-be-inspired followers;
- second, workers as potential leaders;
- third, the miracles that result when leaders inspire followers;
- and finally, I will glance at a further kind of class leadership, namely, when the worker class as a whole inspires the narod, aka the people, aka the toiling masses, aka the peasants.
Lenin and his friends set themselves a very remarkable mission in and around the turn of the century. They, a tiny band of émigrés, were going to print an underground newspaper, smuggle it into the vast Russian empire—and they hoped that their newspaper would spark off the overthrow of the tsar! In fact, that’s what they called their newspaper—The Spark, Iskra.
And what a newspaper! If you ever get a chance to look at a facsimile of Iskra, you will see that it is not exactly inviting layout. Reading it is hard going—take it from me. It is not dumbed-down propaganda for the masses, but in fact suitable only for some very serious and industrious readers. And yet, we are told, Lenin was pessimistic about the revolutionary inclinations of the workers. One influential founder of the textbook interpretation, Adam Ulam, noticed the problem and therefore called What Is to Be Done? “a remarkably illogical performance”—why? Because, if Lenin had such a low view of the workers, how did he expect his feeble little underground newspaper—his persecuted, shaky little underground organisation—to stir the masses into action?
But What Is to Be Done? is not remarkably illogical, it is in fact logical enough, once you grasp what is really Lenin’s basic premise, namely that the workers, as a whole, are ready, eager and willing to receive the revolutionary message. For example, Lenin asks himself, why don’t the Russian workers protest more against all the abuses of the tsarist system, for example, “the police’s bestial treatment of the people, the persecution of sectarians, the corporal punishment of peasants, the outrages of the censor, the torment of the soldiers, the persecution of the most harmless cultural undertakings, and so forth” (Citations from What Is to Be Done? are taken from the translation included in my study Lenin Rediscovered [Haymarket Books, 2006], in this case p. 738).
Is it (Lenin asks the reader) because the worker feels it’s not his business, or because the worker is only interested in his own economic struggle? No, it’s because we Social Democrats, we revolutionaries, we undergrounders, have not done enough to tell the worker about all the abuses. All we really have to do is to throw—that’s the word Lenin uses—to throw exposés and journalistic indictments to the worker masses:
If we do this (and we must do it and we can do it)—the very simplest worker will understand, or will feel, that the dark force that mocks and oppresses the student and the sectarian, the muzhik and the writer, is the same that oppresses and weighs on him at each step of his life. And, when he does feel this, he will himself desire, with an overwhelming desire, to respond—and he will know how to do it (Lenin Rediscovered, 738).
The essence of Lenin is expressed by this adamant expectation of a passionate response from the workers.
Lenin’s attitude toward the workers as followers can also be seen in his reaction to a man named Serge Zubatov. Zubatov was a tsarist police official who, around 1900, had the brilliant idea of beating the Social Democrats at their own game. Remember that not only political parties but even trade unions were illegal before the 1905 revolution. Zubatov’s idea was that the police themselves would set up semi-legal trade unions so that workers could pursue their economic struggle in a peaceful way, while still remaining loyal, even grateful, to the tsar.
What was Lenin’s reaction to this so-called “police socialism”? Let’s try to predict, based on our view of Lenin’s outlook. Now, if Lenin thought that workers were naturally reformist, one would think that he’d be pretty worried about these police unions, since the tsarist government was trying to show it could genuinely carry out needed reforms.
In fact, Lenin’s attitude was very brash—indeed, it could be summed up as “bring it on!”. According to Lenin, these police unions were good for the revolutionary underground in every way. For one thing, the police took over the job of providing legal workers’ literature, so that the underground could concentrate on smuggling in the stronger stuff. For another thing, there was no chance that the workers would be taken in for any length of time by the anti-democratic, anti-revolutionary message of Zubatov and his minions—of course, assuming that the Social Democrats did their job of vigorously refuting Zubatov’s message.
That’s what Lenin said in What Is to Be Done? in 1902. A year or so later, the revolution of 1905 started off in a way that reminded Lenin of the predictions he had made in his earlier book. In January 1905, a follower of Zubatov, Father Gapon, led the workers to present a loyal, peaceful petition to the tsar, and they were shot down by the government on Bloody Sunday, January 1905, leading to a radicalisation of large sectors of the working class.
Lenin’s reaction was not, “Oh, the workers are being revolutionary, what a surprise, I guess I’ll have to change my plan.” He said, and said it more than once “See, the outbreak of the revolution proves just how right I was in What Is to Be Done?” (my paraphrase). For example, Lenin proudly pointed to his prediction in What Is to Be Done? that “even the most backward workers would be drawn into the [revolutionary] movement by the Zubatovists”—a prediction he felt was borne out by the events of the 1905 revolution (Lenin, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii [PSS, Complete Collection of Works], 9:220-1). The outbreak of revolution also validated (Lenin now claimed) his earlier argument that “once they are brought into movement and become interested in the issues of their own fate, the workers will go further” (Lenin, PSS 9:174-7). These comments from 1905 show us what Lenin himself felt was the attitude toward the workers expressed in his book of 1902.
After the October revolution in 1917, Lenin did become less confident about the ability of the masses to resist the blandishments of the bourgeoisie. When a worker member of the party named Ganka Miasnikov wrote Lenin in 1921, asking for a free press at least for workers and peasants, Lenin responded with something like panic: oh no, a free press means we allow the bourgeois to publish newspapers, and that would be equivalent of political suicide. We’re not ready to commit suicide. Thus, for all sorts of reasons, Lenin no longer had the “bring it on!” attitude of 1902 and 1905.
On the other hand, Lenin still retained his deep faith that the masses were thirsting for knowledge and enlightenment. Lenin backed up the practical proposals put forth in What Is to Be Done? by insisting that the Russian workers were desperately eager for knowledge, for reading, for enlightenment, for information about the world. He said over and over again in his book that any activist who restricted their agitation to immediate, local, strictly economic disputes were not doing the workers any favor, since the workers themselves had wider horizons.
In one of his final published articles in early 1923—the overlooked “Pages from a Diary”—Lenin returned to this theme in a plea to make education and literacy campaigns a top priority:
We are speaking of the semi-Asiatic absence of culture, from which we have not yet extricated ourselves, and from which we cannot extricate ourselves without strenuous effort—although certainly the possibility exists of our doing so, because nowhere are the masses of the narod so interested in real culture as they are in our country; nowhere are the problems of culture posed so profoundly and consistently as they are in our country; in no other country is the state vlast in the hands of the working class which, in its mass, is fully aware of the deficiencies, I shall not say of its culture, but of its literacy; nowhere is the working class so ready to make, and nowhere is it actually making, such sacrifices to improve its position in this respect as in our country (Lenin, PSS, 45:363-8).
Workers as leaders
We have examined Lenin’s view of workers as followers—a view that can only be described as exalted. Let us now turn to the other side of the equation, that is, workers who rise from the ranks to become leaders. Lenin is of course associated with the idea that only intellectuals can be good leaders or “professional revolutionaries”. In actuality, a central feature of Lenin’s image of the ideal revolutionary activist is worker origins.
Lenin is very eloquent on this theme in What Is to Be Done? He says that the workers are constantly pushing forth (vydvigat’) leaders from their own ranks, and therefore the revolutionary Social Democrats should do much more then they are to help this process along. Why? Because, Lenin told his readers, genuine party leaders from worker ranks are the best kind, and if we had more of them, we would be unbeatable.
First, Lenin lists all the wonderful qualities that a worker who rises up in the party organisation will acquire:
He acquires experience and dexterity in his trade [of revolutionary activity], he broadens his horizon and his knowledge, he observes close up the outstanding political leaders of other localities and other parties, he attempts to lift himself to this level and to merge in himself a knowledge of the worker milieu plus a freshness of socialist conviction with the kind of full apprenticeship in his trade [of revolution] without which the proletariat cannot conduct a stubborn struggle with the excellently trained ranks of its enemies (Lenin Rediscovered, p. 794).
He then talks about the benefit to the party if it succeeds in recruiting worker leaders in this way:
No political police in the world will be able to cope with these detachments [of worker-revolutionaries], because these detachments of people, boundlessly devoted to the revolution, will also be able to rely on the boundless confidence of the broadest worker mass (Lenin Rediscovered, p. 794).
This was Lenin’s view in 1902. When we look ahead to 1905, we find that Lenin insisted that a renewed effort be made to recruit workers onto local party committees. Some writers—and particularly those on the left—have looked at this, and said, oh, Lenin must have changed his mind from three years earlier, in 1902, when he wrote What Is to Be Done?, because in that book, as we all know, he thought workers should be kept off party committees. Thus these writers praise Lenin in 1905, because, they say, he changed his mind.
But Lenin didn’t change his mind, as we have just seen, and in fact, in 1905 he rather insisted on this fact. He claimed, with some justice, that he was the only Russian Social Democratic leader who had previously made a clear call for worker recruitment onto the committees. In 1905, he and his fellow Bolsheviks debated among themselves the best way to get suitable workers recruited, but all shared the goal of getting as many workers as possible onto the committees. The correct version of this episode in 1905 needs to be emphasised, because, as I said, influential writers on the left use it to reinforce a fundamentally incorrect interpretation of What Is to Be Done?.
We can get a better idea of Lenin’s image of the ideal worker-as-leader by looking at Lenin’s reaction to two real-life examples, Roman Malinovsky in 1912 and Jacob Sverdlov in 1919. One was a fake; the other, in Lenin’s view, was the real thing.
Who was Roman Malinovsky? In 1914, he was a prominent Bolshevik leader, a member of the Bolshevik central committee, and the most prominent orator for the Social Democrats in the tsarist legislature, the Duma. He was also a police spy. In 1914, afraid of being exposed, he fled the country and showed up in Lenin’s home in Poland. Most people at the time accurately deduced that this behaviour showed him to be a provocateur. But not Lenin. Lenin gullibly believed Malinovsky when the latter protested his innocence, and he also viciously attacked anyone who called Malinovsky a police spy. Only in 1917, after the tsar was overthrown and tsarist police records were made public, was Lenin forced to admit the truth.
Why was Lenin so stubborn on this issue? I think it was because Malinovsky seemed to embody Lenin’s ideal image of the worker leader. Malinovsky really was a man of the people who had been “pushed forward” by his fellow workers, first as a trade union leader and then as a party leader and orator. He was informed, he was eloquent, he was an inspiring speaker. We could sum up Lenin’s argument in What Is to Be Done? as saying: “a party led by Malinovskys would be unbeatable by any political police in the world.” Malinovsky was an ideal Bolshevik leader, except for one thing: he was a fake, a set-up job.
In contrast to Malinovsky, we have Jacob Sverdlov. Sverdlov was an Old Bolshevik who was taken into the Bolshevik central committee about the same time as Malinovsky (1912). Sverdlov, however, was soon arrested and sent to Siberia. It was probably Malinovsky, in fact, who fingered him. During the first year and a half after the 1917 revolution, Sverdlov was an important member of the top party leadership. He died from illness in early 1919; if he had lived longer, undoubtedly his name would be more familiar. In March 1919, Lenin gave a short speech as a eulogy for Sverdlov. This speech is an extremely revealing one, and I wish I had used it in Lenin Rediscovered as an illustration of Lenin’s view of leadership.
Lenin treats Sverdlov as the ideal example of the perfect professional revolutionary—or, as I translated the term in my book, revolutionary by trade. Lenin again insists that one quality of an ideal professional revolutionary such as Sverdlov is that he or she comes forth from the people. Lenin uses the same image and even the same word as in What Is to Be Done?: the leaders are “pushed forth” by the workers. In fact, Lenin specifically says that workers started to replace the older generation of intellectual revolutionaries at the turn of the century—in other words, just at the time he was writing What Is to Be Done?
Lenin gave this speech in 1919, that is, at the height of the civil war. And so, as he notes at the beginning of his remarks, for many observers of the time, the essential quality of the Bolsheviks was their lack of qualms about applying revolutionary violence. But, says Lenin, although the ability to apply violence when needed was a useful quality, it was not the real essence of Bolshevism, since violence is only justified under certain specific conditions. The real essence is Bolshevism’s ability to organise large masses. And by “organisation”, Lenin does not mean an efficient office routine. He means, essentially, being an inspiring leader—a true vozhd, to use Lenin’s eloquent Russian term.
In his eulogy of Sverdlov, Lenin runs through the list of the qualities of an ideal vozhd/ professional revolutionary/organiser. This list will be pretty familiar to any attentive reader of What Is to Be Done? The ideal leader:
- comes forth from the people;
- earns love and respect from the workers, due to his complete devotion to the cause;
- always maintains links with the advanced workers, despite underground conditions;
- works hard to instill in himself the necessary practical knowledge and flair;
- helps make the basic idea of Soviet power an inspiring force throughout the world (that is, there is a global dimension to the inspiring leader).
Lenin does not only emphasise how much the inspiring leader can do for the proletarian cause. He also emphasises how much the proletarian cause can do for the leaders. It almost seems sometimes as if the revolutionary workers are a means to the self-realisation of the leaders.
I’m going to read two citations, one from What Is to Be Done? and the other, 17 years later, from the Sverdlov eulogy. In each of these, Lenin says: in the old days, before the rise of the mass proletarian movement, would-be leaders had no chance to really apply their talents. Only now, when supported by a mass movement, do individual leaders really have a chance to shine.
In both cases, I think Lenin had in mind specifically the case of his older brother Alexander, a potential leader who tragically threw away his life when he was executed after a useless attempt to assassinate the tsar. As Lenin saw it, Alexander lived and died too early, before the rise of an underground mass movement.
Here is the quote from What Is to Be Done?:
It is precisely at the present time [that is, in 1902] that the Russian revolutionary—guided by a genuinely revolutionary theory and relying on the class that is genuinely revolutionary and that is undergoing an elemental [stikhiinyi] awakening—can, at last—at last!—draw himself up to his full stature and reveal all his heroic [bogatyrskii] strength.
The bogatyri were the giant marvelous heroes of the Russian folk epics. Lenin could have chosen no better word to evoke his romantic conception of the Russian revolutionary as leader. Now compare the quote from the Sverdlov eulogy in 1919:
The history of the Russian revolutionary movement over the course of many decades has known a long list of people, devoted to the revolutionary cause, but who did not enjoy the possibility of finding a practical application of their revolutionary ideals. And, in this connection, the proletarian revolution was the first to give these previously isolated individuals, heroes of the revolutionary struggle, a genuine grounding, a genuine base, a genuine framework, a genuine audience and a genuine proletarian army, where these vozhdi [leaders] could reveal themselves (Lenin, PSS 38:75).
In each case, Lenin is saying: now, and only now, do individual heroes, would-be leaders, really get to be leaders.
We’ve now looked at worker-followers and worker-leaders. Now let’s look at what happens when these two meet, when they interact. What happens can be summed up in one word: a miracle. This is Lenin’s word, chudo in Russian, and, when you start looking, words like “miracle”, “miraculous”, are fairly common in Lenin’s vocabulary. Here I would just like to cite a remark from What Is to Be Done?, which, if I had my way, would be the most famous sentence in the book.
The passage starts off with Lenin looking back to the Russian populist revolutionaries of an earlier generation in the 1870s. Lenin asks: Why are these people heroes? Why do we look up to them as model? Because they had a centralised, conspirational underground organisation? No, they are heroes because they were inspiring leaders. Here’s what Lenin says about these earlier revolutionaries:
their inspirational preaching met with an answering call from the masses awakening in elemental [stikhiinyi] fashion, and the leaders’ seething energy is taken up and supported by the energy of the revolutionary class.
And then Lenin goes to say there’s no reason why the Social Democrats of today—that is, in 1902—can’t produce leaders of equal calibre. Lenin turns to his critics and says (and this is the sentence I would like to see quoted in all the textbooks):
You brag about your practicability and you don’t see (a fact known to any Russian praktik) what miracles for the revolutionary cause can be brought about not only by a circle but by a lone individual (Lenin Rediscovered, p. 770).
The same thinking is behind another phrase in What Is to Be Done? that is already quite famous: “Give me an organisation of revolutionaries and I will turn Russia around!” In context, what does Lenin mean by this phrase? Does he mean that a band of intelligentsia conspirators can somehow wave their hands and destroy tsarism? No! Lenin is saying this (my paraphrase): Comrades, look around you! Can’t you see that the Russian workers are champing at the bit to receive the message of revolution and to act on it? Can’t you see the potential for leadership that already exists among the activists, the praktiki? Can’t you see how many more leaders would arise out of the workers if we set our minds to encouraging their rise? Given all this potential, what is holding things up? Why is the tsar still here?
We, comrades—we’re the bottleneck! If we could hone our underground skills and bring together what the tsarist regime wants so desperately to keep apart—worker leaders and worker followers, the message and the audience—then, by God, we could blow this joint apart! (or words to that effect).
This is Lenin’s message in 1902. A decade or so later, in 1913, the revolutionary situation in Russia started hotting up again, after many years of relative quiet. And Lenin again emphasises how a very small group could have a very large effect—in other words, how a small and persecuted underground organisation could be the lever that moved Russia. In St. Petersburg in 1913, there were mass protest demonstrations and strikes. Here’s how Lenin described the cause and impact of these strikes and demonstrations:
The St. Petersburg underground consists of several hundred workers who are nevertheless “the flower of the St. Petersburg proletariat” [NB: the image of the “flower of the proletariat” recurs in the Sverdlov eulogy], who are “esteemed and appreciated by the entire working class of Russia”. These workers issue some hasty, poorly printed and unattractive looking pamphlets. “And lo, a miracle!”—a quarter of a million workers rise up “as one man” in strikes and demonstrations in Petersburg. “Singing revolutionary songs, with loud calls for revolution, in all suburbs of the capital and from one end of the city to another, with red banners waving, the worker crowds fought over the course of several hours against the police and the Okhrana [security police] that had been mobilized with extraordinary energy by the government.”
The leaflets and the revolutionary speeches by workers carry the message that a revolution to install the democratic republic is the only way to ensure freedom. This message does not stop at the city limits of Petersburg. The industrial proletariat is able to “draw into revolutionary actions the labouring and exploited masses, deprived of basic rights and driven into a desperate situation”. The revolutionary strikes of the Russian proletariat—the mighty weapon it forged for itself in 1905— are therefore “stirring, rousing, enlightening, and organizing the masses of the narod for revolution”. In fact, the May Day strikes and demonstrations will show “to the whole world that the Russian proletariat is steadfastly following its revolutionary course”.
Thus, in Lenin’s exalted view, the small Social Democratic underground of Petersburg sent a message heard around the world. And why? Because it told the truth to millions about their hopeless position under tsarism, thus “inspiring them with faith in revolutionary struggle” (Lenin, PSS, 23:296-305).
The power of the Social Democratic message—this is what, for Lenin, is the source of the miracle, and the reason why the lever of even a feeble underground organisation can move the world: the truth of the message on one hand, and the ability of the masses to respond to it on the other.
Leadership by the class as a whole
Notice that it is not only the workers who, in Lenin’s view of the world, are inspired by the Social Democratic message—it is also the Russian people as a whole, particularly the peasants. In fact, Lenin sees the whole world as becoming inspired by what’s going on in Russia—and mind you, this is long before the socialist revolution in 1917, back when Lenin was thinking strictly in terms of a democratic anti-tsarist revolution only.
I have talked about Lenin’s scenario of leadership by looking at worker leaders and worker followers. If we were focusing on Lenin’s leadership scenario as a whole, we would spend a lot more time on the leadership of the peasants by the workers as a class. This leadership by a whole class is essentially meant by the phrase “hegemony of the proletariat”. This aspect is present in What Is to Be Done?, but because of the particular circumstances behind the production of that book, it is not the main focus. So here I will just mention that while the word ‘vanguard’ is often used by Lenin to mean the party as the vanguard to the proletariat (although I can’t help mentioning that the term “vanguard party” is not used in What Is to Be Done?), the term “vanguard” is used even more often, by Lenin and other Bolsheviks, to mean “the proletariat as the vanguard of the people, the narod, as a whole”. This is, the whole worker class is the vanguard, and the mission of this vanguard is to provide inspiring leadership to the peasants.
We must dream!
In a stirring passage near the end of What Is to Be Done?, Lenin imagines what would happen if his specific nuts and bolts proposal about a party newspaper were to be put into effect. Lenin admits that his particular scheme in itself is a very small one—but if it were actually carried out, Lenin sees it merging into something much larger. He sees leaders from the intelligentsia and leaders “pushed forth” (that word again) by the workers who will “take their place at the head of a mobilized army and will raise up the whole people [narod] to settle accounts with the shame and curse of Russia. This is what we must dream about!” (Lenin Rediscovered, p. 828).
Now let’s fast forward to early 1923 and look at the last article Lenin wrote for publication, “Better Fewer but Better”. Here again Lenin has a specific scheme for a specific problem in mind. He wants to improve the soviet bureaucracy by enlisting workers off the bench to inspect it and suggest ways to improve it. This scheme is, I’m afraid to say, a rather desperate and implausible one in itself. But still, Lenin ends his article in a way very similar to the What Is to Be Done? passage just quoted. First, Lenin sets forth the nuts and bolts of his scheme. Then, he ties the scheme to vast and heroic perspectives. Abroad, global revolution, including India, China, and “the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe”. At home, the workers “retain the leadership of the peasants” (as mentioned, worker leadership of the peasants is Lenin’s constant theme throughout his life), thus enabling the Soviet economy to move symbolically from horsepower to hydroelectric power. He ends up again invoking the need to dream: “these are the lofty tasks that I dream of” for my worker inspection scheme.
Thus both in What Is to Be Done? and his final articles, Lenin insists that we must dream. This coincidence is more than a rhetorical flourish—it is the way Lenin’s mind works. Lenin comes up with a nuts and bolts scheme for improving this or that, and then ties it directly to vast, world-changing perspectives. Why? because he has such confidence in the almost literally miraculous power of a particular force—the force of inspiring leadership. Heroic leaders require heroic followers, and Lenin had an exalted idea of both leaders and followers.
This exalted view is the heart of What Is to Be Done?, and it is the reason that we find so many echoes of his 1902 book throughout his life.
[Lars T. Lih is author of Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2008. Lars T. Lih's Lenin, a short volume in the Critical Lives series of Reaktion Books, will be published later this year. Click here for a special offer.]