Lars T. Lih: Scotching the myths about Lenin's `What is to be done'

By Lars T. Lih

October 21 2010 -- Weekly Worker -- What is to be done? was written for the first time in Russian between the autumn of 1901 and spring of 1902. It was a success among the rather limited number of people he was addressing: namely the people in the social-democratic [as revolutionary socialism was still know as] movement in Russia and interested parties. Of course, this audience was not sufficient to make it a real bestseller, but it did have an impact. When we look at the pamphlet today we want to have a sense of when, why and for whom he wrote it.

So, first, I am going to look at the basic task that Lenin and his comrades had set themselves. The reason for this is that he shared this task with other leaders in the movement, and even with some of the people he is arguing against. But, because he shares it, it is not actually set out in the book itself. It becomes background; because he assumes agreement on the basic task, he does not talk about it. We have to be aware of this.

Then I will look at the specific policy suggestions in the book, all aimed at the situation facing the Russian social democrats at that particular time and place. So, whatever meaning we want to draw from the text, we have to do so through the specific suggestions of the pamphlet at that time. Then I will look at the polemics that are in the first part of the book, probably the best known part and probably the most controversial. Then I will step back and take a look at some of the empirical evidence Lenin draws on in order to support his point of view and make it seem plausible.

Political freedom

Unfortunately, although the polemical part of the book is the best known, in my opinion it is not the most useful. The policy suggestions are also bound in time: the basic tasks are a little more longstanding in Lenin’s time, but the empirical justifications, which one might assume are the most ephemeral element, are in my opinion the ones that reveal Lenin and his thinking the most. Let us see why this is the case.

What was the basic task? In To the rural poor, a 1903 pamphlet he wrote to explain the outlook of Russian social democracy to a non-social-democratic audience, Lenin writes a chapter entitled "What do the social democrats want?". The first line of this chapter clearly sets out the answer: political freedom.[1] This was the heart of the matter, and what Russian social democracy was driving towards. This was not the ultimate task, but it was the immediate one. At that time and place for the Bolsheviks, this was the organising concept, so that when you saw banners at demonstrations in 1903 and 1904 they would boldly proclaim "Long live political freedom!". Concretely this meant: Down with the autocracy!

Political freedom is essentially what allows people to organise, to have a party with open campaigns to get the message out. It means freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of organisation, freedom to strike and so forth. In the early 20th century, some revolutionaries were very dismissive of political freedom, likening it to some sort of bourgeois fraud. Why, some said, would you want to overthrow the tsar when all this was likely to produce was the coming to power of some bourgeois liberals, whose papers could not even be read by the majority of the population anyway?

Marxism really was an exception to this, and challenged other socialisms and revolutionary views precisely on this basis. It argued that socialism required political freedom as its essential precondition. The reason for this, I think, is that if the working class has a historical mission to take power and introduce socialism then it has to understand this and be ready to take it on. At the very least, this understanding must be at a national level, which precludes mere rabble-rousing in local villages and towns and necessitates a national newspaper and other means of communication. In turn, these require political freedom. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Lenin and Karl Kautsky all refer to these freedoms as the “light and air” of the proletarian struggle.

In this sense the example of German social democracy, the Socialist Democratic Party (SPD), is extremely informative. It was a very innovative party -- the first to rely on day-to-day mass agitation and campaigns with people who did this professionally. In my book[2] I use the term "campaignism" to sum up this approach: the idea of the permanent campaign to bring the message to the workers, to convince them and persuade them at all levels and in a number of ways. For example, SPD socialist choirs, cycling and walking clubs were very popular. So fighting for the freedoms to enable Russian social democrats to do such things was what Marxists at this time were arguing for -- although others equated this to flimsy reforms.

The first generation of Russian revolutionaries in the 1860s and 1870s were very hostile to political freedom. For them what was necessary was overthrowing the tsar in order to bring about socialism immediately. Anything else was a sell-out and would simply bring the capitalists in. So it took a generation or so of working through the problems and trying out different ideas before they came to the conclusion that without political freedom you were not going to get the masses on your side and that starting a riot in this or that village was simply not enough.

One of the martyr figures in this sense was Lenin’s brother, Alexander, who tried to assassinate the tsar in 1887 and was killed. What was he trying to accomplish? He was a socialist who sacrificed his life for political freedom. He was of the opinion that they could only achieve a mass movement through overthrowing the tsar, and that before this point, by definition, there could not be a mass movement, so that the only way to create the conditions was through terrorism or other individual action of that kind.

Lenin later wrote that Russia “suffered its way through to Marxism” -- I think he had his brother in mind. What he means is that a whole generation had to work out the necessity of political freedom. Why was Lenin so taken when reading Karl Kautsky’s commentary on the Erfurt programme in the 1890s? Because he saw the SPD as a possible answer to his particular problem as a young revolutionary in Russia. Kautsky, using the “light and air” metaphor, says that anybody who downplays the significance of political freedom is doing the proletariat a grave disservice and that political freedom has to be at the top of the agenda. Representing a common position in the West, Kautsky also adds that the bourgeoisie cannot be counted upon to win political freedom -- whether they were initially interested in it or not, they are losing that interest rapidly -- and in countries where there is no political freedom it is not going to be the bourgeoisie that fights for it.

The SPD strategy, then, was to have the message propagated to the masses, but how was this possible under absolutism? The whole generation of revolutionaries in the 1890s tried to work out precisely how to apply this strategy to conditions of Russian absolutism. Given those conditions, this is obviously a paradox. But they did manage to figure out ways of doing it, such as local committees with threads that would connect them to the factory workers, who they would work alongside, and so forth.

National party

But now let us fast forward to 1900. There are local social-democratic committees in many of the cities in Russia, and there is the notion that a national party is a good idea. There is also the increased militancy of Russian workers. Those working on the newspaper Iskra had the idea that their newspaper could act as a "spark" for the combustible material: that is, the militant working-class movements. Iskra’s mission was to take the party to the next step of getting national institutions and a national organisation.

Iskra had begun in late 1900, and had only been in existence for around a year when Lenin said, I’m going to write a small book in which I set forth our ideas on how to get from A to B: that is, from local committees to a national organisation that could help to bring about the overthrow of the tsar. Lenin also added that the discussion around economism was over and that he now intended to write a book without polemics. When you look at What is to be done? you obviously see a lot of polemical stuff. But this has to do with factional developments that happened in the summer and autumn of 1901. It is important to look at the dates of the book in order to grasp that it was written in a real time and a real place and, the more concretely we can see the events and ideas Lenin is responding to, the better.

So, the book ended up being very polemical, and the polemics ended up being pushed to the front of the book, with the policy suggestions at the back. Thus many people tend to only remember the polemical aspects. What I am going to do is go through the book backwards, starting with chapter 5 and working back to the polemical parts later. Indeed, I think this is a good way to actually read the text in the first place.

Chapter 5 is about Lenin’s idea of using a newspaper to move from local committees to a national organisation. But under a very repressive autocracy how is this possible? The dilemma is that in order to get the committees to come together you need a unity of outlook, but in order to have unity you need a national organisation. Lenin’s way out of this was to say that we are a self-appointed group, not official in any way, but we are going to send a newspaper out to everybody, which is going to propagate some programmatic message that can unify the committees. One by one, we will persuade them to adopt our program. Practically we are also going to unify them because they are going to be our collaborators on the paper -- they are going to send us material for the paper, are going to help distribute and build it, and thus for the first time we social democrats are going to work together on a national project with a national voice and a national presence. In a year or so we will be in a position to call a party congress, and the party congress will already be ideologically unified, with Iskra then becoming the official party publication and the problem will be solved.

Of course, this emphasis on newspapers also comes from the SPD, which had hundreds of publications to get the message out. Throughout the book Lenin is looking to the experience of the SPD as a model. Lenin argues that, in contrast to the Germans, Russian social democracy almost has nothing in terms of getting the message out beyond leaflets and publications, so we have to use to the maximum what we have in order to get to the next step -- the newspaper. I get the distinct impression that the strategic approach of the CPGB is rather like that of Iskra: that is, using a newspaper to get the message out and achieve unity based on that message.

Lenin is not talking about making suggestions and recommendations on party organisation after it has been constituted. He had his opinions on this, but he did not take up what sort of powers the central committee should have, he was not talking about discipline or local autonomy: he is merely talking about how to get a central committee together when one still does not exist.

The newspaper is also there to make people aware of each other. Again this goes back to the idea of combustible material. It is based on the assumption that there are hundreds of people out there who hate the tsar -- not merely the workers for their particular reasons, but also the nationalities, teachers, the zemstvo (local self-government institutions of the gentry), bureaucrats, capitalists and even landowners: all of them are just sick and tired of this incompetent bunch of tsarist thugs, but nobody dares to do anything because they fear they would be alone. After all, there is no mass force out there -- it is all very well for everybody to complain, but unless there is something that they can join then this means next to nothing.

So the paper is going to have a national presence, make everybody aware of all the complaints of the Finns and other nationalities, the teachers who sign petitions and get arrested for it, and so on. Everybody will become aware of everybody else’s dissatisfaction, and the paper will point out all the while that the workers are increasingly becoming a mass force who can put the task of overthrowing the tsar on the agenda and make it a real possibility.


Chapter 4 is devoted to "professionalism". This is where the term "professional revolutionary" crops up, which I advocate translating as "revolutionary by trade". I am not wedded to this term, and since "professional revolutionary" is more common, I will stick to that.

I point out in my book that there are some connotations of "professionalism" that have a whiff of elitism about them -- specialists like doctors, lawyers and architects to whom we defer because they know best. This is not what Lenin meant: it was something more akin to a worker knowing his or her own trade very well, and hence I translated the term differently. In any event, there is a connotation of professionalism which Lenin was seeking to bring out, as when we say, "Let’s be professional about this, comrades."

Lenin is not using "professionalism" to argue for less democracy and more elitism, but to combat what he saw as sloppy amateurism in the Russian movement. The special form of this which was most relevant to him at the time was local isolation. This is what drove him up the wall: people in Kiev not knowing what is going on in Moscow and not caring about it; the people in Krakow not knowing what is going on in Petersburg, etc. So Lenin is looking to tackle this inefficiency, which is why he used the word kustar, which means "handicraftsman" or "artisan". What Lenin desires is a modern political factory with a division of labour with a nationwide market, whereas kustar implies somebody who, although individually quite skilled, is only making things for a local market in a rather inefficient manner. Lenin argues that we have to move beyond what I rather clumsily translate as "artisanal limitations" to get a national organisation.

Where did he get this idea of an underground organisation? The argument I am going to make is taken from other Russian revolutionary writers of the time, because, although he alludes to it, I do not think it is his own idea. What Lenin is doing is bringing out the logic of the organisational schema that had been worked out in practice in the past decade or so. He is attempting to apply the SPD logic to Russian conditions, working this out empirically and presenting it to be read in a book in a way that can inspire the movement and get them to take these tasks seriously with a professional division of labour.

Some of Lenin’s critics -- including the Mensheviks later on -- were upset at what they saw as excessive specialisation: somebody doing the newsprint, somebody doing the distribution and so forth. They likened this to a soulless bureaucracy. But this criticism at least was a criticism of something Lenin was actually saying, which is not true of all of the criticisms he encountered.[3]

One of the things I like about what I have done in my book is to bring out the meaning of the word konspiratsiia, which was used by those revolutionaries in the underground. That word is never translated as "conspiracy" -- if you read the earlier versions you will find that the term is usually translated as "secrecy". But what konspiratsiia means in the context of the Russian underground is the set of rules by which you do not get yourself arrested by the police, what I call the "fine art of not getting arrested". What we have here is a "konspiratsiia underground": that is, a "conspiracy" which is not based on the usual logic associated with the word, but precisely the opposite: having an underground organisation that has mass roots through organising strikes, distributing literature and so on. Konspiratsiia is thus the opposite of conspiracy. A conspiracy means keeping information and knowledge within the small group, so that it can go and knock off somebody or lead a palace coup. Konspiratsiia is the opposite -- it is about getting knowledge and ideas out to as many people as possible.

There is a little passage in What is to be done? where one of Lenin’s critics says that there is no such thing as a secret strike. Lenin disagrees, arguing that, although a strike might not be secret to anybody in the town where it happens, people across the country might not know about it, so our task is to get that word out and let everybody know about it. But in order to do that we need people organising professionally in underground conditions in order to get the report, write it up, send it off to Geneva, where the paper is printed, and then smuggle it back into Russia again for distributing. This demands the logic of konspiratsiia -- empirically worked-out rules for not getting arrested.

Let me emphasise something here: everybody in the underground accepted these basic ideas; these are not the controversial parts. The term "professional revolutionary" was adopted by everybody in the Russian underground including the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries and even the liberal Constitutional Democrats in so far as they had an underground organisation. I often say that the least important thing about the term "professional revolutionary" is that it was coined by Lenin. It is only used in one chapter of What is to be done? and Lenin certainly does not claim to have invented it or come up with a new idea -- it was in the air. He is simply arguing that the underground should take this professionalism seriously.

Just one more thing on this. There is no connection between the intelligentsia and the professional revolutionary, and if there is then this is one connection that is truly limited in time and space. Even as Lenin was writing, there was already a thorough "workerisation" of this apparatus going on and it continued for the rest of the underground period.

To sum up on organisation, which links to strategy. What I think Lenin is trying to do here is to connect two things that seem to be opposites: mass organisation and underground. In commentary on this, Lenin is often accused of choosing the underground side over a mass organisation, but what is actually happening is that Lenin is trying to carry out the logic of the mass organisation as much as possible in underground conditions in order to overthrow the tsar. Lenin’s basic position can thus be summed up as the following: let us have an organisation as much like the German SPD as possible so that we can overthrow the tsar. And, when we do, then we have the conditions for an organisation even better than the SPD.


Now we go to chapter 3, on agitation. The emphasis is on political agitation. Again, this is for a specific time and place, with Lenin arguing that now the time has come for a heavy emphasis on political agitation. One reason for this is that Iskra is now a national organisation and thus can focus on national political questions in a way that it could not do before.

To get a flavour of this discussion we should look at the passage where he talks about the move from economic agitation to political agitation. There were a number of organisations like Rabochaya Mysl (Workers’ Thought) which had carried out economic agitation, and a number of organisations producing (sometimes quite long) leaflets, a very important form of agitation. So some local agitator from a committee -- often known as an intelligyent (not an intellectual, but somebody educated and thus able to read and write) would go to the workers and ask what was going on in the factory to then report on it, list their strike demands and then draw up a leaflet for agitation around these issues. If there was any room at the end then they would also write, "By the way, you should overthrow the tsar!"

Lenin argues that when the underground carried out economic agitation previously, the workers had their story to tell, they went out and the local committees were overwhelmed. But Lenin also adds that people should not conclude from this that the workers are only interested in the economic issues: they care about political issues and in terms of their day-to-day lives they often come across political oppression more than economic oppression. He says:

Why does the Russian worker show, in so limited a fashion, his revolutionary activeness in connection with the police bestial treatment of the people, the persecution of sectarians [that is, religious groups], 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?[4]

Lenin asks: is this because the workers only believe in economic questions? No, he replies, it is because the underground movement is not doing its job in getting the news of these outrages to the mass of the people.

We must blame ourselves for falling behind the movement of the masses, for we have not been able to organise indictments of these despicable things in a broad, clear and timely fashion.

What he literally says is that we have to throw it out to the masses and, if we do, they will respond.

If they can do it, Lenin argues,

the very simplest worker will understand, will feel that the dark force that mocks and oppresses the student, the peasant and the writer is the same that oppresses and weighs on him at every step of his life. When he does feel this, he will himself be filled with an overwhelming desire to respond. And he will know how to do it.

This is the sort of eloquent passage, by the way, which is missing if we concentrate too much on the polemics in the first two chapters. This is the essence of Lenin. Passages like this are truly exciting and deserve to be well known.

That is one side of Lenin -- political agitation for and to the worker, who is ready, willing and raring to go with political agitation. We are moving into the "end game" in terms of overthrowing the tsar, and this is what is going to happen.

Along with political agitation is the idea of going “to all classes”. Lenin says, we should also, to the extent possible, send the message “to all classes”. I am a little vague as to what Lenin exactly had in mind here, because when he wrote the book the Russian social democrats were in a particular situation -- they were the only organised underground party around at that time. The populist Socialist Revolutionaries had not got themselves together nor had the liberals. But these parties were in formation and looking to represent specific interests in society.

The call has two sides to it. First, the workers should have a view of the entire social situation and not simply restrict themselves to working-class problems. Second, many of the other classes have a political interest in overthrowing the tsar and they should be made aware of the idea that revolutionary change and the overthrow of the tsar is possible, and when they realise this, they will help us, our party, because we are the main force working against the tsar. This is the part of Lenin’s argument that became out of date pretty quickly.

A lot of what he is saying here is that the social democrats can get help from such people through whistle-blowing, the publication of scandalous documents, even down to a respectable doctor or lawyer offering a professional revolutionary a room for the night. This is an anticipation of the so-called hegemony strategy. However, I think that What is to be done? does not get to the centre of Lenin’s strategy as a whole because this involves the peasant question and leading the peasantry, issues which became vital only during and after 1905.


The polemics are in the first two chapters. Why are they there? Well, another émigré group, Rabochee Delo (Workers’ Cause), which had been previously hostile to the Iskra group, decided to get together with it. They had a unity congress in September 1901, but this fell apart and both sides left screaming at each other. Then the Rabochee Delo side opened up a big polemic against the Iskra group, with Georgi Plekhanov and Julius Martov countering for Iskra. Lenin also weighed in, but the pièce de résistance of this polemical exchange was supposed to be Lenin’s book. So in his letters written before What is to be done? was published he often talks about finishing his book against Rabochee Delo. Perhaps rather unfortunately, this becomes one of the main missions of this book, whereas initially it was intended not to be polemical, as I outlined above.

He wrote it at top speed, almost entirely referring to articles published in the autumn of 1901 -- that is, pieces that were hot off the press. This is also true of the famous Kautsky quote[5] Lenin uses in the polemic, which he throws in from Kautsky’s journal Die Neue Zeit before picking up his own argument once more and carrying on.

My conclusion is that What is to be done? is not a good place to get Lenin’s theoretical or programmatic outlook. Partly because it has been used in this way, it has led to such distortions by figures both on the far left and in the academy. One reason why it is not a good source for Lenin’s overall view is that it is a passing polemic. Of course, you can extract quite a bit from a polemic in terms of a general picture, but this was one polemic with one set of people. He is often using their own terms in a rather sarcastic manner, which is not the same thing as setting up an argument with his own ideas and terms. He and his supporters all more or less admitted that he did not formulate his ideas very well.

I do not mean by this that he thought that he "went too far" in this polemic. He said something different: namely that he had not expressed himself very well. He claimed that what he wanted to say was perfectly uncontroversial and orthodox, but if he had not expressed himself clearly, well, then he apologised. Obviously he does not stress this too much, but you can find him and others making the same point. Lenin’s defenders tend to say that everybody liked this book, but that when the Mensheviks turned against Lenin they examined it with a microscope in the hope of finding defective formulations. The implication is that they actually did find vulnerable formulations, and that they deliberately used verbal problems to make Lenin look silly.

What is to be done? is also not programmatic in that it is not aimed at something global that sets out one’s whole scenario, as opposed to discussing one issue which is pertinent at one time. Moreover, many of the views in the book were held in common between him and his readers, so he did not go into them, and finally the book did not say anything on peasant policy, a view which was vital to him at the time.

So for all these reasons, I would actually suggest reading his short 1903 book To the rural poor to get a better view of his general outlook.

I am somewhat dismissing the polemical side of things, so let me emphasise: he did not say that workers could not obtain proper class consciousness, that only intellectuals make good revolutionaries, that only professional revolutionaries should be party members, that the party should be a tightly knit conspiratorial elite and -- in this book anyway -- he did not advocate a high level of centralisation or discipline. What he did say was that the party has a job -- to get the message out and to organise. And if we do a good job of it then the workers will respond and be interested, and so will the people more generally. Bring it, and they will come!

Finally, what sort of justifications did he give in asserting that this would be possible? After all, it is a strangely ambitious project: on the one hand, there is the mighty tsar, and on the other there are a bunch of émigré revolutionaries sitting around in cafes who think they can overthrow the tsar. How is this possible?

You can only think it possible if you make a whole series of optimistic assumptions: that the workers are ready to go, that there are dedicated revolutionaries around who are willing to get arrested and then be replaced by others, that the paper will arrive and be understood by the workers (Iskra had very small print with a dense message -- there was no dumbing down) and so on. There are a whole series of optimistic assumptions here needed to make Lenin’s outlook plausible. He was highly confident that, if everything was in place organisationally, these assumptions could come to fruition. There are many echoes of these themes throughout Lenin’s writings.[6]

He consistently uses words like "miracle". My favourite passage in the book is the following one:

You boast that you are practical, but you fail to see what every Russian practical worker knows: namely, the miracles that the energy, not only of a circle, but even of an individual person is able to perform in the revolutionary cause.[7]

Indeed, the word "miracle" is a common one in Lenin, and what we find again and again in Lenin throughout his whole writing -- the optimistic assumptions about revolutionary consciousness and what can be achieved.

[This is an edited version of the opening given by Lars T. Lih at the Communist University in August 2010. It first appeared in Britain's Weekly Worker, and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. Lars T. Lih is author of Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2008.]



  2. Lars T. Lih Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be done’ in context, Brill 2006.

  3. In my book, I argue that in 1904 Rosa Luxemburg in particular ("Organisational questions of Russian social democracy") presents a caricatured form of Lenin’s arguments.

  4. Translation from Lars T. Lih Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be done’ in context Brill 2006, p. 738.

  5. “Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously” (

  6. See my essay, "We must dream (echoes of What is to be done?)" for more information. Available at: