Lars T. Lih's contribution to a Leninism for the 21st century

Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context
By Lars T. Lih, Haymarket Books, Chicago 2008, 840 pages

Review by Barry Healy

If a spectre haunted 19th century Europe, as Marx said of the embryonic communist movement, then the name of Lenin was no ghost for the 20th century bourgeoisie, it was a terrifying reality.

For the capitalists, with Leninism the communist phantom came howling out of the underworld, beginning with the 1917 Russian Revolution, sweeping whole continents clean of capitalist rule. Millions of human beings found their life’s purpose in learning from and extending into their own national contexts the ideas of Lenin.

Epic intellectual – and sometimes bitter, physical – conflicts have been waged over the meaning of Lenin’s ideas. Among leftists, the Trotskyists in particular, to their ever-lasting credit, argued for a revolutionary, liberationist reading of Lenin, in defiance of Stalin’s bureaucratic evisceration, often at the cost of their lives.

On the right, a whole industry of conservative, Cold War warrior intellectuals has made an easy living proving that Lenin really opposed the independence of the working class and that his ideas led straight to Stalinism. Their logic is that no matter how unhappy workers may feel under capitalism, they dare not tamper with the world as it is; anything is better than the dread Leninism/Stalinism.

Better that we trudge to work each day with our eyes downcast than dream of utopias, these dreary bourgeois ideologues intone. Their reactionary accounts almost invariably focus on one book by Lenin (but not its entirety): What Is to Be Done?

Just three words plucked from two famous paragraphs are the source of all Leninism’s supposed faults: “spontaneity”, “divert” and “from without”. Upon this rickety scaffold it is claimed that Lenin feared workers’ spontaneous development, wanted to divert it from its natural course by the arrogant intervention of non-workers and hoped to create a new, undemocratic, centralised “vanguard” party operating conspiratorially.

Essentially, he is depicted as dishonestly pretending to uphold Marxist orthodoxy. 

What Is to Be Done?

So, a fundamental starting point for all readings of Lenin, be they revolutionary, Stalinist or bourgeois reactionary, is this short 1902 booklet. Subtitled “Burning Questions of Our Movement”, it was a contribution to a debate within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) that culminated in the famous split in the movement at its 1903 congress, where the words Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) first entered history.

Lenin was arguing for a new type of party organisation for the RSDLP, which came to be known as the “Leninist vanguard” party. Between Trotskyists and Stalinists there developed, especially after WWII, a struggle to best exemplify this Bolshevik principle, leading to all kinds of distortions.

Stalinists, infamously, self-ordained as the working-class leadership, believed that they could dispense with such niceties as, for example, democracy in trade union elections, or freedom of thought within their organisations or the workers’ movement as a whole. Trotskyists, vying to outshine the Stalinists with their ardour, often displayed voluntarism (the practice, seen as a virtue, of demanding unrealistic levels of commitment) that was personally and organisationally destructive.

A terrible irony is that the Trotskyist movement produced some of the worst, egomaniacal leaders, dedicated to combating the Stalinist cult of the personality through constructing their own. Such names as Juan Posadas, Michel Pablo, Gerry Healy and Jack Barnes mean little outside the tiny circle of initiates, but those individuals did much to besmirch the name of Leon Trotsky by attempting to claim his mantle, and through him Lenin.

Reactionary conservatives delight in exposing all this and drawing a line between Lenin and the foolishness perpetrated in his name. All sins begin, they claim,  with Lenin’s elitist and manipulative attitude towards the working class and often their jaded reading of What Is to Be Done? is their starting point.

As the Bolivarian Revolution emanating from Latin America forges a new tradition of socialism of the 21st  century, Lars Lih, without stating it, has made an important contribution towards creating a “Leninism of the 21st  century”. He has brought penetrating linguistic expertise and an ability to forensically dig deep in the archives to bring Lenin’s original conceptions to light.

Lih’s project

In What Is to Be Done?, Lenin refers to a small number of people on nearly every page, Lih points out: Elena Kuskova and Sergei Prokopovich of the Credo group, K.M. Taktarev of Rabochaia mysl, Boris Krichevskii and Alexandr Martynov and “b-v” (pseudonym for Boris Savinkov) of Rabochee delo, L. Nadezhdin of Svoboda and the Joint Letter (which was sent to Iskra by a group of Siberian exiles).[1] Most of these barely even rate as historical footnotes anymore.

Lih’s project is to trawl through all the Russian-language original texts that Lenin mentions (even in passing), extract their meaning (often through methodical examination of Russian grammar and tracing problems of translation), compare them to the overall thinking of the international socialist movement of the time, dominated as it was by the German Social Democratic Party, and explain how the debates played out within the RSDLP.

All that, plus argue a case against what he calls the “textbook” interpretation of What Is to Be Done? The “textbook interpretation” is that long held by both academics (usually anti-Leninists) and those Lih calls “activists”: Paul Le Blanc, Tony Cliff and other socialist leaders. (Lih does not distinguish Stalinist “activists” from anti-Stalinists; Stalinism simply does not enter into his scheme of things.)

This is all topped off with his own translation of What Is to Be Done?

No wonder it’s a door-stopper of a book and no wonder seemingly endless pages argue for a fine definition of, say, a particular Russian word or why an translation from 1929, which has been carried through later editions, is inaccurate.

This is an academic tome, but only such a work could do service to Lih’s project, which is to completely renew our understanding of Lenin and Leninism. It is to Lih’s credit that he successfully steers the reader through this hall of mirrors.

Lenin’s project

Is it actually legitimate for the disparate voices asserting Lenin as their source to claim as their own What Is to Be Done? Lih quotes Lenin, writing in the preface to a 1907 collection of his writings called Twelve Years, warning precisely against that:

The basic mistake made by people who polemicise with What Is to Be Done? at the present time is that they tear this production completely out of a specific historical context, out of a specific and by now long-past period in the development of our party.[2]

Twelve Years was written in a short period of democratic freedom forced upon tsarism by the 1905 Russian revolution. Lenin had to argue hard and long to convince the Bolsheviks, experts at the underground struggle, of the necessity to surface and organise themselves utilising the full attributes of internal democracy.

This contrasts with the period in which What Is to Be Done? was written, one in which the embattled Russian Marxist movement was beginning to move out of its “small circle” existence. Constantly harried by the tsarist secret police, in 1903 the Russian revolutionaries (of all stripes) were forced to operate underground in self-selected, secretive groups.

Different circles of revolutionary Social Democrats (as Marxists were known as at the time) produced short-lived newspapers that were circulated hand to hand in the factories (generally each circle was known by the name of its newspaper). On average, leading activists could expect to operate for around three months before being arrested and deported to Siberia, whereupon new leaders would have to begin the whole painful process of organisation again.

The exile grouping that Lenin was part of published Iskra (the Spark). “What Is To Be Done? is a summary of Iskra tactics and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 and 1902. Precisely a ‘summary’, no more and no less”, Lenin wrote in Twelve Years.[3]

In 1902, what was crucial was that the Russian workers were on the move, ultimately towards the 1905 Revolution, the prelude to 1917. The workers were moving beyond the “spontaneity” of their struggle.


Thus, Lenin explained, in one of the passages that, ripped out of context, is used to batter his name:

Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.[4]

As Lih carefully explains, the English word ‘”spontaneity” was a 1929 translation of Lenin’s Russian term stikhiinost, which, Lih says, contains the meaning of the English “spontaneity” combined with a sense of an elemental force.

For a recent political example: the Palm Island riot in Queensland that followed the whitewash of Indigenous man Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death was stikhiinost; unplanned, impassioned, justified, but ultimately self-defeating.

Prior to 1903, in Russia, it was not unknown for workers to strike, drive the police out of whole areas of a city or town, then break into the vodka stores and drunkenly let the police regain the upper hand. It was because the workers had started to go beyond this stikhiinost that Lenin was demanding that the RDSLP seriously organise itself to lead the rebellions.

Lenin was arguing both against the danger of the RDSLP activists lowering the level of their politics to reflect the stikhiinost level of the workers and for the need of the activists to catch up with the workers whose “spontaneous” struggle was advancing rapidly and might leave the RSDLP behind.

An interesting example of the ignorance upon which criticisms of Lenin is based is explained by Lih. Rosa Luxemburg was enrolled by Lenin’s Menshevik opponents to write against him. She wrote an article in 1904 castigating his underestimation of the creative movement of Russian workers. In evidence she wielded an Iskra article that demonstrated the Russian proletariat’s resourcefulness, of which she said Lenin was unaware. Little did she know that the very source that she rested her case upon was in fact written by Lenin in Iskra without a by-line.

Moreover, Lih argues, the Russian expression, trediunionizm, which Lenin criticised, cannot be understood properly if simply transcribed into the English “trade unionism”. Lenin’s target was the ideology that trade unions are all that is needed, as distinct from an independent class-based workers’ socialist party

The classic home of this trediunionizm was England, but Lenin’s view of British trade unionism was nuanced. He was dead-set against trediunionizm but still admired in many ways British trade unionism, that is, the activity, organisational practices, etc. of the British unions, citing the example of the militant leader Robert Knight.

Lenin explained that every trade union secretary “always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket” etc.[5]

But Lenin was staunch in distinguishing revolutionary trade union activity from trediunionizm, in one of the most famous passages in What Is to Be Done?:

It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.[6]

Lenin recognised the importance of economic, trade union struggle because it pitted worker against capitalist. But the socialist movement required that and more, the struggle against tsarism, which needed a much higher level of political understanding because of its complexities.

Revoliutstionery po professii

To tie all these ideological and practical tasks together, Lenin argued, the party would need to take its underground existence seriously and organise conspiratorially to avoid being broken up. Secrecy was to be adhered to professionally as opposed to what has been translated as “amateurism” or “primativism”.

This period of working-class upsurge, argued Lenin, required revoliutstionery po professii, skilled in the arts of underground operations. Such people were not intellectual “professional revolutionaries”, as that term has been translated and interpreted, Lih says. In English the term “professional” has taken on connotations of someone who earns their living somewhat above the normal lot of workers, such as a professional engineer or even a professional sportsperson.

In Russian, the noun professiya is applied to just about any kind of work requiring skills and training. The phrase for "plumber by trade", for example, is santekhnik po professii.

The sense of Lenin’s revoliutsioner po professii is thus something like, “skilled, experienced revolutionary”. It doesn't have the slightest tang of elitism; such a person is completely at one with the workers she or he strives to influence. Lih’s point is that, when understood this way, Lenin's argument takes on a meaning quite different from the one usually assumed.

For Lenin, the revoliutsioner po professii could be workers or anyone else who could organise and lead with proper regard to secrecy, not middle-class intellectuals intervening in the working-class movement to lead it astray, which is the meaning imposed on his work by hostile readers (and some fervent ultra-leftists). Lenin’s revoliutsioner po professii would intervene to redirect (or divert) the workers to go beyond their economic struggles towards the political struggle for democratic rights and from there to socialism.

The light and air of the labour movement

Lenin’s main target in 1902 was Rabochee delo as the representative of the political trend of “Economism” in the Russian social democratic movement. “Economists” downplayed the importance of struggling for political freedom in Russia as a requisite for building the workers’ movement.

Lenin summarised Economism as “infatuation with the strike movement and economic struggles”. Moreover, at the time in which he wrote, Economism was “the then dominant trend” within 19th century social democracy internationally, not just in the Russian movement. The words ‘”economic” and “political” held particular meaning. In both Germany and Russia social democracy suffered from repression and had to operate illegally.

The “political struggle” was essentially the battle to win legality, or in Russia, to overthrow tsarism and win political freedom as a launch pad for the struggle for socialism. The “economic struggle” emphasised working for such things as factory legislation as a principle.

Of course, anarchists and others who insisted on the primacy of the economic struggle did have a form of politics. Lenin himself apologised for using the clumsy expression “Economism”, but did it because it was in common use.

Lih argues that without an understanding of the international socialist movement of the times, dominated as it was by the German Social Democrats, ideologically tutored by Karl Kautsky and within which Eduard Bernstein was a controversial but prominent figure, the disputes within the RSDLP cannot be comprehended.

In opposing the Economists, Lenin supported Kautsky’s thinking, as expressed in his book, Class Struggle, which was a commentary on the German SDP’s Erfurt Programme:

On this account, wherever the working class has endeavoured to improve its economic position it has made political demands, especially demands for a free press and the right of assemblage. These privileges are to the proletariat the prerequisites of life; they are the light and air of the labour movement. Whoever attempts to deny them, no matter what his pretensions, is to be reckoned among the worst enemies of the working-class.[7]

The struggle for the “light and air” of democracy is the motivating thrust of What Is to Be Done? and without an understanding of its fundamental importance there is no understanding Lenin.

More than this, Lenin aspired to organise the RSDLP into as tight a campaigning unit as the German SDP. In its period of underground struggle against Bismarck, the SDP had published a weekly newspaper abroad. So effectively was it smuggled into and distributed in Germany that Bismarck himself was believed to have quipped that the SDP’s “postal service” was better than the state post office.

Kautsky outlined a schema for building SDP influence which advanced the formula that social democracy is the merger of the ideology of socialism and the workers’ movement. This was in opposition to the trends first criticised by Marx in the Communist Manifesto, which saw socialism as a kind of benevolent missionary activity conducted from above by philanthropic intellectuals.

Kautsky envisaged circles of influence continually moving outwards from more highly politically educated and organised workers, through layers of less advanced parts of the class until the whole class was organised and led by the socialists.

For Lenin, following Kautsky, the role of the Marxists was therefore to fight against those who wished to maintain the separation of socialism from the workers’ movement, including simplistic “economist” non-political trade unionism which ignored the political cause of the class.

The need to fight the separation of socialism from the workers is the meaning of the polemics against Economism in the book. Secondary targets were the terrorists, who also ignored the necessity of merging the workers’ movement with socialism.

Key to all this was the need to win democratic space for the revolutionaries to operate in.

Lih sums up Lenin’s arguments, which the vast majority of the RSDLP supported:

The merger formula – ‘Social Democracy is the merger of socialism and the worker movement’ – pulls all Kautsky’s various arguments together. The expanding circle of awareness, the original and nearly fatal separation of socialism and the worker movement, the two-front polemical war against those who refuse the great Marxian synthesis, political freedom as light and air for the proletariat, the strength that comes from an inspiring final goal, the need for disciplined, modern parties of nation-wide scope, the aspiration to become a Volkspartei, the need to carry out the democratic tasks that the bourgeois is too scared to undertake, and finally, Social Democracy’s own exalted sense of mission – all these flow from the merger narrative. [8]

Lih quotes extensively from socialist leaders of the period, Menshevik and Bolshevik, to show the commonality of this “merger” argument. This is what Lih calls the “good news”, world-historical mission of social democracy, to bring socialism to willing workers, and which sets the context for Lenin’s book on how Russian social democracy can carry out this undertaking.

The Lenin of What Is to Be Done? is the exemplary social democrat of his time. He is fiercely arguing that the workers can and will embrace the teachings of Marxism – in fact, he is possessed by his confidence in the working class. His polemical tone appears because he must urgently convince doubters that the workers can be won directly to social democracy, not to any watered down substitute for it, and effectively organise the party for the task.

Hence the zeal of his stern case against those who try to say the workers need to go through lower stages of political development, or aren’t ready, or should not embrace political tasks which are beyond them.

And hence the tremendous value of this magnum opus from Lars Lih. As the wreckage of 20th century Stalinist failures is pushed aside by the forces articulating innovative socialism Lenin Rediscovered allows us to see Lenin afresh, relearn the lessons of his epic struggles and creatively apply them.

Those who meet this challenge will be the exemplary Leninists of the 21st century.

Leninism: past, present and future

How would Lenin have met these challenges? Perhaps the clearest guide is given in his 1907 Preface to the Collection Twelve Years, where he mused that the democratic conditions that appeared in 1905 required “an irrevocable break with the old circle ways that had outlived their day.“[9]

The circles were necessary in their day and played a positive role”, he explained. Indeed, under tsarism, socialism could only have developed through them, complete with their conspiratorial organisation and inherently limited internal democracy, “nearly always based on personal friendship”.

The circles’ controversial, polemical tone was due to the fact that they were debating “the most general principles and the fundamental aims of all Social-Democratic policy generally” and “these seemingly minor differences were actually of immense importance”.

Subsequent history unfortunately forged “Leninists” who mistook this hothouse polemical atmosphere as representing the best of the tradition, not realising that Lenin himself described it as “inherited from the past and is unsuited to our present tasks”. As Paul Kellogg, like Lars Lih, another “re-contexturaliser” of Lenin has termed it, “Leninism: It’s not what you think”.[10]

Lenin, sharply called upon his readers “to break with many of the circle traditions, forget and discard many of the trivial features of circle activity and circle squabbles, so as to concentrate on the tasks of Social-Democracy in the present period.”

Leninists of various traditions are beginning to reconsider their previous dogmas and break from them. In France, they have founded the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (New Anti-Capitalist Party, NPA), in Australia the Socialist Alliance and many are casting about for similar formations in other countries.

Lenin wanted socialists to take advantage of the “light and air” of democracy to organise the class struggle, not waste time in pious sectarian game playing, which has been the fate of too many 20th century Leninists.

[Barry Healy is an activist with the Australian Socialist Alliance in Perth, Australia.]

[1] Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2008, p. 218.

[2] Lenin, Preface to the Collection Twelve Years, LCW Vol.13, Marxist Internet Archive, Quoted, frontispage, Lih Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context. It should be noted that Lih’s translation is slightly different to that in LCW.

[3] Lenin, Preface to the Collection Twelve Years, LCW Vol.13, Marxist Internet Archive,

[4] Lenin, What Is to Be Done?, LCW Vol. 5,

[5] Lenin, What Is to Be Done?, LCW Vol. 5,

[6] Lenin, What Is to Be Done?, LCW Vol. 5,

[7] Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program), 1888, Marxist Internet Archive,

[8] Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2008, p. 102.

[9] Lenin, Preface to the Collection Twelve Years, LCW Vol.13, Marxist Internet Archive,

[10] Kellogg, Leninism: It’s not what you think, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,


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