Revisting Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” After Bernie Sanders

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There are a lot of reasons to ask ourselves “what is to be done?” The coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis and the failure of the Sanders campaign have many socialists reaching for Lenin’s classic. Here is a reflection on his classic text.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s become extraordinarily clear that capitalism is a complete failure as a system. Socialism is emerging as the only logical, humane resolution to the crisis. Many people had put their hopes in Bernie Sanders to achieve some reforms of capitalism, but now he spends his time shaming those supporters into voting for neoliberal Joe Biden. The clear limits of the Sanders strategy for socialists should by now be evident to everyone. 

Many comrades, quarantined at home and wondering about how to move forward, are turning to Lenin’s classic What is to Be Done?. While there are huge differences between Lenin’s time and ours, the text still offers important insights on what to do in a moment of crisis and with a disorganized Left. 

The Context

Lenin wrote What is to Be Done? when Russia was a repressive autocracy, with mostly  peasants and only an emerging proletariat in the cities. Serfdom in Russia had been abolished only about 40 years earlier. Marxism was relatively new; The Communist Manifesto had been written only about 50 years earlier.

When Marxism arrived in Russia in the late 19th century, it first spread among intellectuals, academics, and eventually to anarchists, left terrorists, populists, and other Left currents that opposed Russian tsardom. Lenin’s own brother had joined a terrorist group sympathetic to Marxism and attempted to assassinate the tsar, only to have his plan foiled and then be hanged when Lenin was just a teenager. 

During this period, Russia was embroiled in a huge upsurge of the class struggle, with strikes and pickets among the nascent Russian proletariat, as well as peasant uprisings. Sectors of the emerging Left went to the working class and began to agitate for unions, better working conditions, and often against tsarism itself. Lenin also agitated among the working class, and led a socialist “cell” or small group and it got him exiled. While in Siberia, he worked out how to launch the Iskra (“Spark”) newspaper and use it to win over underground committees of workers to socialist politics and the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP).

At the same time, reformism was growing as a tendency within the international socialist movement, with Edward Bernstein writing Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation. Bernstein was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest of the parties of the Second International, with members in parliament, leaders in unions, and a huge working-class membership. Bernstein’s ideas about replacing the revolutionary goals of the socialist movement with immediate economic and political reforms began to gain an audience among Russian Marxist academics.  Revolutionaries characterized this “reformism” based on a revision of Marxism.

Lenin’s What is to Be Done? confronts these ideas with a practical, political roadmap forward for socialists in Russia. To help make his points, he polemicized against two newspapers of the Russian Left — Rabochaya Mysl (Workers’ Thought) and Rabochaya Dyelo (Workers’ Dawn) — whose positions served as foils for the warnings Lenin wanted socialists to heed. The focus of the text is on Lenin’s disagreements with the two newspapers, although there was a key agreement among Marxist groups at the time: socialists should be ingrained in the working class, and socialist parties should be made up of working class people, play a role in unions and class struggle. They agreed on building organizations independent of capitalists. 

Against Reformism and Broad Parties

Lenin argued that Bernstein’s reformism sought to change the SPD from “a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms.” He was emphatic in opposition to forming broad parties with people who advocate class conciliation; a group must be made up of people who agree on who our enemies are and have a desire to fight them.

We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire. We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation. And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road! Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are “free” to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!

Lenin is right. It is so difficult to organize for socialism, and there are so many enemies: the capitalists, the cops, the union bureaucrats — to name just a few! These are strong, with many more resources and weapons at their disposal than we do. What we do have, though, is the ability to organize, link arms, and advance together under fire. We can build a socialist political party because we choose to face off against capital. We don’t build an organization to support capitalists or to build up their organizations.

Economism Is Just Reformism in Disguise

The bulk of the Lenin’s text confronts what was then known as “economism,” the “fundamental political tendency” of which Lenin summarizes this way: “let the workers carry on the economic struggle (it would be more correct to say the trade unionist struggle, because the latter also embraces specifically working class politics) and let the Marxist intelligentsia merge with the liberals for the political ‘struggle.’” Lenin is saying that by abstaining from the fight against Bernstein’s ideas taking hold among Russian academic Marxists, the supporters of economism are accepting reformism. 

As Lenin points out, Rabochaya Dyelo’s argument that “every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programs,” echoes Bernstein’s reformism: “To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” Lenin argues that program is the most important tool of socialists. It lays out what we fight for. The tactics groups adopt within “the real movement” are derived from a plan to realize that socialist program. 

Rabochaya Dyelo’s movement-based perspective argues that workers can grow in leaps and bounds in their socialist consciousness within the movement. This is entirely true. But, it also underestimates the role of bourgeois ideology and institutions in the working class (such as capitalist parties seeking working-class votes, or the union bureaucracy). Lenin says, “The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, most widespread (and continuously and diversely revived) bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.”

Today, we see bourgeois ideology imposed in school, on TV, through social media, and so on. Bourgeois politicians of the two capitalist parties limit political imagination. Clearly, workers will not shed all this as soon as they join the struggle. Workers need both politics and theory to fight for socialism.  That’s why it’s so important for socialists to fight alongside the working class against the bosses, as well as provide a political and theoretical perspective for rank-and-file struggle. Socialists should also organize against and expose the capitalist institutions that hold sway over the working class such as bourgeois parties seeking working-class votes, or the union bureaucracy. 

Lenin’s lesson about economism is relevant today. Take electoral politics. Some who correctly argue that elections are the terrain of the capitalists nevertheless counterpose electoral struggle to a vague notion of rank-and-file activism as “base building.” They’re making the same mistake Lenin pointed out — failing to provide a clear programmatic goal for the struggle. Base building is, in many ways, the quintessential example of “tactics as plan,” which Lenin argues “contradicts the fundamental spirit of Marxism.” Despite agreeing that a revolution is necessary and that an independent political organization may be needed, these groups refuse to confront Sanderism and fight for the political independence of the working class — which is what we need right now. 

In the wake of the failed Sanders campaign, many have correctly concluded that the Democratic Party is not an effective tool for socialists. Many others are abandoning the political struggle altogether and have instead moved towards mutual aid and community organizing. This is also a mistake of “tactics as plan”: certainly, socialists should be involved in community organizing, but without also fighting for the independent organization of the working class, without a political and programmatic perspective, it is reformism — and cedes the political terrain to the capitalists. 

Fight Against Oppression

Lenin notes that it may not necessarily be the narrower demands of economism that bring the masses into the struggle. So, he argues, socialists need to expand our struggle to fight against all forms of oppression, and calling for socialists to take up issues such as “ the flogging of peasants, the corruption of the officials and the police treatment of the ‘common people’ in the cities …”. If “we do not undertake the organization of the political exposure of the autocracy in all its aspects,” he argues, socialists are not “fulfilling our task of developing the political consciousness of the workers.”

Socialists must point the way to confronting all forms of exploitation, developing socialist worker leaders who help expose how all oppressive aspects of society are connected, and then fight against them. Lenin calls these leaders  “tribunes of the people” who are 

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 generalize 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. 

This has deep implications for us today. Only the proletariat can bring about the emancipation of all oppressed sectors in society, so the working class must make the fight against oppression central to our program.

In the United States, the struggle against oppression must also include a struggle against imperialism. This is another reason why socialists have no business supporting a Democratic Party candidate, including Bernie Sanders — whose record on foreign policy is abysmal. Socialists should build an anti-imperialist pole in the working class that denounces every aspect of U.S. capitalism, including the destruction it inflicts in other countries. 

Socialists in the Working Class

Lenin speaks extensively about the role of socialists in the working class and the class struggle. Moments of radicalization are opportunities to convince people of a socialist program. He argues against accepting the consciousness of workers as it is. Rather, socialists should fight within the working class to advance socialist consciousness.

Lenin correctly understood that there is no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory. In his polemic against economism, he gave a great deal of weight to the role that Marxist intellectuals and a newspaper could play in disseminating socialist ideas among the working class. He thought that students and petty-bourgeois intellectuals who industrialized to agitate among workers were vital in radicalizing the working class. In this sense, What Is To Be Done is often criticized for giving too much weight to the role of intellectuals. However, in this text Lenin also argued that workers, through struggle and study, could and must become socialist tribunes of their class. It was only after the 1905 revolution that he developed a more sophisticated understanding of the dialectic between a radicalized working class and a Marxist intelligentsia. The party Lenin built was not about intellectuals teaching workers, but rather a fusion between revolutionary Marxist intellectuals and organic intellectuals of the working class.

Lenin also underestimated the independent creativity of the working class at intensive moments of class struggle. In reality, the working class can, independent of all organized socialists, form bodies capable of going much further than the economic struggle. The working class can form soviets, bodies for organizing the revolution and governing after it. From intensive class struggle, these organs emerged in the 1905 Revolution and again 1917. Their existence is are not “declared”  by Marxists. Rather, they emerge from the workings of class struggle at its peak. A party’s necessary role, as an organized socialist vanguard of the working class, is to push these advanced working-class bodies towards socialism— a dynamic achieved in the October Revolution of 1917, but not in the Spanish revolution. 

An All-Russian Newspaper

A key part of Lenin’s plan for winning over workers to socialist politics involved launching Iskra,  an “all-Russian social democratic paper” that he believed would lay the groundwork for a revolutionary organization. Lenin saw the paper as a “collective organizer” for building a national network of socialists that would exchange politically and learn to work together. He hoped to build a national force to fight tsarism, independent from the liberal bourgeoisie. 

Lenin ascribed enormous importance to the newspaper as a way to generalize the theoretical foundations that would inform interventions in the processes of class struggle. He pushed back against the idea that this is merely ‘armchair socialism,’ arguing that, activism and organization without strategy is easily waylaid by the capitalists:

Pray tell me, when bricklayers lay bricks in, various parts of an enormous, unprecedentedly large structure, is it “paper” work to use a line to help them find the correct place for the bricklaying; to indicate to them the ultimate goal of the common work; to enable them to use, not only every brick, but even every piece of brick which, cemented to the bricks laid before and after it, forms a finished, continuous line? … it is unfortunate that as yet we have no experienced bricklayers trained for teamwork, that bricks are often laid where they are not needed at all, that they are not laid according to the general line, but are so scattered that the enemy can shatter the structure as if it were made of sand and not of bricks. 

As I write this, we are witnessing the Sanders organization being shattered by the Democratic Party, the media, and Sanders himself. The networks built for canvassing are not being repurposed for class struggle. What appeared to the Sanderists to be a sturdy structure is flying into the wind.

That same dynamic happens, albeit on a much smaller scale, in countless activist collectives not built on strong political discussion and agreement. They go from action to action, event to event, often eventually burning out and leaving behind resentment and cynicism. Lenin’s goal was to organize a group based on deep political agreement that could strategically organize struggle, not have workers who are won to socialism spinning their wheels. Certainly, socialist groups are not immune from these, but firm agreement on program and strategy, engagement in class struggle and comradely and political discussion are central ways to guard against this. 

Left Voice and our international network of websites are inspired by Lenin’s concept of how to build revolutionary organizations. Right now, in the United States, we are a website, not a political party. The pages of our website are dedicated to highlighting the barbarity of capitalism and imperialism and fighting against the authoritarian two party system that has kept the working class without political representation for a century. We use our revolutionary journalism as a “collective organizer” to meet new people and build the scaffolding for a party of combat, deeply ingrained in the working class, of which we are a part. 

Lenin After What is to Be Done?

Only a year after the publication of What is to Be Done?, the RSDLP split, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in favor of a political party with stricter and clearer political agreement and political responsibilities. The Mensheviks were more influenced by Bernstein’s ideas, and wanted a broader based membership, including academic Marxist who were neither committed to the party in their day-to-day nor held deep political agreement. Later, the Mensheviks would make clear that they favored first a capitalist revolution to develop the means of production in Russia, and later — in some undetermined future — a socialist revolution. When the Mensheviks held the majority in the soviets, Lenin encouraged them to take power, but they did not. And they ended up opposing the October Revolution.

Perhaps Lenin’s most ingenious contribution was that even in What is to Be Done?, and later in the split with the Mensheviks, he knew to build a political party of workers based on key agreements that were written about, discussed, and debated in a publication. Trotsky and Luxemburg, great revolutionaries who made key contributions to Marxism, did not have this same insight about the role of a party. In fact, Trotsky spent years arguing for the unification of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Even though Rosa was the first to realize the danger of Bernstein’s deviation from Marxism and put up a fight against it within the SPD against it, she didn’t take organizational measures alongside her political conclusions. She didn’t build a group founded in revolutionary socialist ideas, counter-posing them to Bernstein and later Kaustky. As a result, the revolutionary Left was unprepared for the 1919 German Revolution and was crushed.

And for us, what is to be done? 

In the wake of the implosion of the Sanders candidacy, the economic crisis, and the massive health crisis, the question of what is to be done is as relevant as ever. What Lenin provides in this text is a way to move forward that is neither electoralist and reformist, nor movementist and thus de-facto reformist. 

Lenin makes clear the one important contribution of economism which we have lost today: be with and in the working class. This is especially important for socialists now, as class struggle unfolds without any major input from socialist organizations. But as What is to be Done? Illuminates, being in the working class is not enough. 

Lenin built a combat party to confront capitalist influence within the working class and, by extension, other socialist organizations. In the United States today, many socialist groups — the DSA, Socialist Alternative, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, for example — have actively supported capitalist politicians rather than running independent socialist candidates who could denounce the undemocratic two party system. Others, like the economists, fall into de-facto reformism by abstaining from political struggle, like the Marxist Center, but also countless mutual aid and activist collectives. A party of combat does not fight only rank-and-file struggles, but also fights for revolutionary politics, program, and theory.  It develops theoretical and programmatic clarity by discussing, rediscussing, writing, and generalizing for the working class in the light of current events. 

And so, taking lessons from Lenin, there is a great deal to be done. We must unite our disparate activism and the vast network of socialists in a party of the working class— really of the working class, separate from the capitalists. But we must unite under a revolutionary socialist program, deeply discussing politics and theory.  We need to form a party of combat: which is an organic part of the class struggles going on right now in workplaces around the country, as well as against the Democrats and Republicans, Trump, and the ultra-right-wingers attempting to open the government. We have a world to win and in order to do so, our theory, our politics and our struggle on the ground must move in unison towards that goal. 

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.