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What Is To Be Done to Create Revolutionary Consciousness?

Do workers become revolutionary when they organize and struggle? Or does revolutionary consciousness come from outside the working class? Lots of debates — and lots of misunderstandings — revolve around Lenin’s 1902 work “What Is To Be Done?”

Nathaniel Flakin

May 5, 2020
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Lenin and manifestation by Isaak Brodsky

How does revolutionary consciousness develop in the working class? It should be clear that revolutionary consciousness does not develop automatically in the working class. Otherwise, we would have had a socialist world revolution a long time ago!

There are two fundamental reasons for this — one general to class society and one specific to capitalism. Marx famously wrote that “In every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.”

But more than in any previous society, capitalism by its very nature hides the exploitation of the working classes, since wage laborers are “doubly free”: they are both free in a legal sense and “free” of the means of production, i.e. they do not own the tools the need to work.1Marx referred to the free laborer as “free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale.” Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One. So, as Marx observed, “The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature.”

Every slave uprising in ancient Rome demanded the end of slavery — but workers’ revolts under capitalism usually call for higher wages and not for an end to the wage system. It would have been as if Roman slaves demanded better treatment as slaves!

Workers under capitalism often see themselves as equal (at least legally equal) partners of the capitalists. This false consciousness is reinforced by the agents of the bourgeoisie (mass media, reformist apparatuses etc.), but it is fundamentally a product of the capitalist mode of production itself.

Lenin and “What Is To Be Done?”

In the polemic “What is to be Done?,” which was published 1902, Lenin developed the idea that workers under capitalism necessarily have a bourgeois consciousness (which he referred to as “trade unionist consciousness”). This polemic was directed against the “Economists” in the Russian Social Democracy who, following Eduard Bernstein’s “Revisionism” in Germany, argued that Marxists should limit themselves to pushing forward economic struggles, from which political struggles would automatically develop. Lenin countered:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.

This idea has often been presented as the central idea of Leninism: that revolutionary consciousness comes exclusively “from outside” the working class. Bourgeois critics use it to prove that Lenin had “no faith in the working class,” while many Stalinist and a few Trotskyist currents use it to justify their isolation from the real workers’ movement — they are happy with revolutionary credentials that come from outside the working class as well.

However, it should be noted that Lenin never repeated the idea in this form. In fact, he said quite the opposite in the introduction to a collection of his writings from five years later :

The basic mistake made by those who now criticise What Is To Be Done? is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party. … What Is To Be Done? is a controversial correction of Economist distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light.

Text Analysis

Let’s observe the text more closely. Lenin based his argument on a long quote by the German Marxist Karl Kautsky, referred to as the “Pope” of the Second International. Kautsky wrote that socialist theory could only develop on the basis of modern science. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia. He concluded:

The old … programme quite rightly stated that the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose of itself from the class struggle.

Lenin quoted this passage, but he immediately added a footnote. He wrote “there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves”, but added, 

This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians …; in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge.

A page later he added a second footnote: 

It is often said that the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism. This is perfectly true in the sense that socialist theory reveals the causes of the misery of the working class more profoundly and more correctly than any other theory, and for that reason the workers are able to assimilate it so easily, provided, however, this theory does not itself yield to spontaneity, provided it subordinates spontaneity to itself. … 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.

Two Conceptions

Based on these pages, we can compare the conceptions of Kautsky and Lenin.

As history proved some 13 years later, Kautsky lacked a conception of revolution — he believed that the proletariat would grow in size, consciousness, and organization until power fell into its lap — and this pushed him to the side of the bourgeoisie during the First World War. But already in this text, he showed a mechanical conception of the development of revolutionary consciousness, moving from the bourgeois intelligentsia to the proletariat like on a conveyor belt.

Lenin, in contrast, grasped the contradictions in the process: the workers gravitating “spontaneously” towards socialism, while bourgeois ideology imposes itself “spontaneously” on them. In the midst of this contradiction, Marxist forces need to intervene to fight bourgeois ideology and to give the workers’ revolutionary  “gut feeling” a clear political expression.

Kautsky’s static conception is empirically shown to be nonsense: central aspects of modern Marxist theory are based on concrete experiences of the workers’ movement (which took place without Marxist leadership) that were posteriorly theorized by intellectuals.

Marx’s theory of the state developed from the Paris Commune — before that, he and Engels could not say what form the dictatorship of the proletariat would take, despite all their scientific investigation (since there were simply no experiences to investigate!). In 1871, Marx referred to the Commune as “the political form at last discovered.” 

Similarly, the ideas of the mass strike and workers’ councils were practiced by the Russian workers in 1905 before they were integrated into Marxist theory. 

When Lenin argued against spontaneism, he was arguing against subordinating Marxist theory to the spontaneous movement of the workers. In no way was he against integrating these spontaneous experiences into Marxist theory.

In 1905, when the working class first formed Soviets, the Bolshevik leaders in Russia called on the Soviets to accept their party’s entire program. When the Soviets refused, the Bolsheviks left (since Soviets were not yet integrated into their program). Lenin had to carry out a bitter struggle within his party to show that Soviets could form the basis of a revolutionary workers’ government.

In the same way, in 1917, when the working class toppled tsarism, the Bolshevik leaders in Russia (such as Kamenev and Stalin) argued that the provisional government should be critically supported — this corresponded to their deterministic theory of history and also to the program of the Bolshevik party. Lenin argued for a radical turn, for transforming the bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution on the basis of Soviet power. Lenin was able to win a majority of the party for this turn because it corresponded to the “gut feelings” of the party’s working class base which was in violent conflict with the bourgeois government and particularly its policy of continuing the war.

Minimum and Maximum Program

In synthesis, there needs to be a link between revolutionary theory and the concrete development of class struggle. What is the system for connecting the Marxist program to the experiences of the working class?

Historically, the program of the Social Democracy was based on the division of the program into minimum and maximum sections: a minimum program covering basic democratic and economic demands that could be realized within capitalism; and a maximum program calling for socialism. Social democracy was based on a profound division between the day-to-day work of the trade unions and the parties, entirely centered on minimum demands, and the Sunday speeches for socialism, which were the only real expression of the parties’ maximum demands.

One attempt to overcome this division was represented by the “Revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein who famously said “the movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” In his opinion, a consistent fight for minimum demands would automatically lead to socialism. But the leadership of the Social Democracy, Kautsky’s “Centre,” maintained the contradiction between reformist practice and revolutionary propaganda. This contradiction exploded with the outbreak of the First World War, when capitalism itself posed the question of revolution — it became absolutely clear that there was no prospect of a peaceful development of capitalism into socialism. The vast majority of Social Democracy abandoned even a propagandistic call for revolution and became entirely pro-capitalist.

When the Communist International was founded, large sections of it (referred to as the “Ultra-Lefts”) felt that Communists should call for revolution and reject all “compromises,” and thus reject any struggles not immediately connected with workers’ revolution. As a result of this, many communist parties in their early years were profoundly isolated from the masses of workers. In a sense, this ultra-leftism is just the flip side of Kautsky’s opportunism: in both cases, socialists are opposing the method of linking workers’ day-to-day struggles with a struggle for political power.

The Transitional Program

In opposition to opportunism and ultra-leftism, the first four Congresses of the Communist International began to develop a system of “transitional demands.” Rather than counterposing every struggle to the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, Communists needed to fight for the leadership of struggles — including struggles for minor reforms — while raising demands that went beyond that struggle and towards the seizure of power by the proletariat. This meant, in every struggle, developing the self-organization, self-defense, control of production, and class independence of the workers.

This method was systematized by Leon Trotsky in the Fourth International and its predecessors, for example in the “Action Program for France” and the “Transitional Program.” These programs responded to the immediate needs of the workers but linked them to the goal of workers’ power. So in response to low wages, the program did not limit itself to demanding higher wages (with an abstract call for socialism) but instead called for a sliding scale of wages and hours, for inspection of the capitalists’ books by the workers, and for the expropriation of capitalists who threatened to close their factories. In response to the threat of fascism, for example, the Transitional Program called for:

“systematic, persistent, indefatigable, courageous agitational and organizational work always on the basis of the experience of the masses themselves … to root out from their consciousness the traditions of submissiveness and passivity; to train detachments of heroic fighters capable of setting an example to all toilers; to inflict a series of tactical defeats upon the armed thugs of counterrevolution; to raise the self-confidence of the exploited and oppressed; to compromise Fascism in the eyes of the petty bourgeoisie and pave the road for the conquest of power by the proletariat.”

In this way, the program was able to link the most immediate needs (self-defense against fascists, strike-breakers, police etc.) with the formation of workers’ militias as a concrete step towards socialist revolution.

This is the method socialists should employ today. Even when we are confined to small groups, we can develop exemplary interventions into the struggles of workers and youth, propagating demands that take up the “spontaneous” claims of the oppressed but link them to the need for a proletarian revolution.

A current example of this is our program against factory closures. Our immediate demand must be for the occupation of the affected factory in order to prevent the closure. But if the occupation is successful and production is resumed, we can link this to an intermediate demand for workers’ control of production in order to safeguard jobs and conditions. (If the capitalist still insists on closure, we can use the intermediate demand for production under workers’ control, without the capitalist.)

This in turn must be connected to our strategic goal which is the only long-term solution for the affected workers: the nationalization of the factory under workers’ control. This is logically linked to the question of the nationalization of all factories and production according to a plan developed democratically by the working class. In this way, we can form a bridge between limited struggles against mass layoffs and the goal of the expropriation of the means of production.

After World War II, some of Trotsky’s followers watered down the transitional method so much that they would raise purely reformist demands with no mention of the need for a workers’ revolution. They felt it was necessary to adapt the program to the reformist consciousness of average workers — this is the exact opposite of what Trotsky himself emphasized:

We have repeated many times that the scientific character of our activity consists in the fact that we adapt our program not to political conjunctures or the thought or mood of the masses as this mood is today, but we adapt our program to the objective situation as it is represented by the economic class structure of society. The mentality can be backward; then the political task of the party is to bring the mentality into harmony with the objective facts, to make the workers understand the objective task. But we cannot adapt the program to the backward mentality of the workers, the mentality, the mood is a secondary factor – the prime factor is the objective situation … This program is a scientific program. It is based on an objective analysis of the objective situation. It cannot be understood by the workers as a whole.

These kinds of demands are directed towards the vanguard of the workers. This is an easily misunderstood term. We do not use the term “vanguard” to refer to ourselves as revolutionary Marxists. Rather, every workers’ struggle creates a “vanguard,” by which we mean the workers leading the struggle and pushing it forward. So the “workers’ vanguard” is not a static, fixed group but depends on these leaders’ role in the class struggle. Our demands are principally directed to vanguard sectors who we attempt to unite around a Marxist program.


There is a dialectical relationship between theory and practice. This dialectal mediation is what creates revolutionary consciousness — and a Marxist organization is necessary to carry out this mediation.

Lenin never denied the primacy of theory, famously declaring “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

At the same time, Lenin left no doubt that revolutionary theory itself needs to be based on the experience of the working class and its vanguard: “a correct revolutionary theory … is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.”

The mass of the working class necessarily has a bourgeois (reformist) consciousness. Therefore, its most advanced parts need to organize on the basis of the theoretical conquests of revolutionary theory and experiences of the entire history of the workers’ movement — a vanguard party serves as the “historical memory” of the whole class. However, a vanguard party, while necessarily a minority of the class, must fight at all times to win the leadership of the masses, in order to unite the decisive sectors of the class in a revolutionary situation.

The normal functioning of capitalism does not create revolutionary consciousness — but capitalism does not function “normally”: it is plagued by economic crises, wars rebellions, uprisings etc. These crises can lead sectors, even large sectors, of the working class to question bourgeois rule. However, posing a consistent alternative (i.e. not only an uprising, but soviet power to replace the institutions of the bourgeoisie) can only be formulated based on a scientific understanding of revolutionary theory and the 200-odd years of experience of the workers’ movement.

Therefore, organizing the workers’ vanguard around a Marxist program is our strategic task.

This article is based on a talk given by Nathaniel Flakin on August 4, 2010.


1 Marx referred to the free laborer as “free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale.” Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.


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