V. I. Lenin: What Is to Be Done?(1902)

When Lenin tried to organize a Marxist revolutionary party in Russia he faced a dilemma. The ultimate goal of Marxist Communism was absolute freedom; but the only realistic vehicle for attaining that goal was a disciplined party. He was irritated by the dissent and controversy which raged in revolutionary circles. In this famous treatise he outlined his ideas on freedom in powerful words that to later generations read like a denunciation of freedom as it is normally understood. Implemented by Lenin himself after the 1917 revolution and exacerbated by Stalin, they transformed Marx's dream of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (absolute rule by the people, depriving the old ruling class of its power) into its opposite, a dictatorship over the proletariat. In later decades, the rationale for repression outlined here was advanced again and again by dictatorial Communist governments as they argued that the small "vanguard" of the proletariat was capable of leading the masses for their own good, even in opposition to their express will.

Why does he argue no criticism can be made of socialist ideology?


"Freedom"--it's a great word, but under the flag of "freedom of industry" the most rapacious of wars were conducted. Under the banner of "freedom of labor" workers have been robbed. The very same internal hypocrisy is contained in the contemporary phrase "freedom to criticize." People who are truly convinced that they have advanced the frontier of science would not demand freedom for new ideas to coexist next to old, but to replace them. . . .

We are walking in a small, tight group along a steep and difficult path, firmly joining hands. We are surrounded by enemies, and must continue almost always under their fire. We have freely and consciously decided to unite to fight the enemy and not stumble into the neighboring marsh, where dwell those who from the beginning have reproached us for separating into a special group and choosing the path of struggle, and not the path of compromise. And now some of us are beginning to cry: "Let's go into the marsh!" And when we start to shame them, they object: "What a backward people you are! And aren't you ashamed to deny us the freedom to call you to a better way? Oh yes, gentlemen, you are free not only to call us, but to go anywhere you like, even if it's into the marsh. We even consider the marsh to be the right place for you, and are ready to assist you as best we can to move you there. But just let go of our hands--don't clutch at us and soil the great word "freedom," because we too are "free" to go where we like--free to fight with the marsh and with those who turn to the marsh. . . .

We said that Social-Democratic consciousness could not exist among the workers. But it could be brought to them from without. The history of all countries testifies that workers left exclusively to their own strength can cultivate only a trade union consciousness-- that is the belief in the need to unite into a union, struggle against the bosses, press the government to pass needed labor legislation, etc. The doctrine of Socialism grew out of philosophic, historical, and economic theories which were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied class, the intelligentsia. The founders of modern scient ific socialism, Marx and Engels belonged themselves to the bourgeois intelligentsia. Just as in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose quite independently from spontaneous growth of a workers movement, but arose rather as a natural and inevitable result of the development of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. . . .

The lack of preparedness of the majority of revolutionaries, a completely natural phenomenon, could not provoke any particular dangers. Once the tasks were correctly organized, once there was the energy for the repeated attempts to execute these tasks, the temporary failures were only half of the problem. Revolutionary experience and organizational skill come with time only if there is a desire to cultivate the necessary qualities, and if there is a consciousness of one's shortcomings which in revolutionary activity is more than half-way towards their correction.

But what was only half of the problem became full-blown when this consciousness began to fade (although it was very alive in the previously mentioned groups), when there appeared people--and even Social-Democratic organs--that were ready to make shortcomings virtuous and even tried to theoretically substantiate their cringing and bowing before spontaneity. . . .

Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology developed by the working masses in the process of their movement, the only choice is: bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle way (for mankind has not developed any "third" ideology), and generally speaking, in a society torn by class opposition there could never be a non-class or an above-class ideology. Therefore any belittlement of socialist ideology, any dismissal of it signifies the strengthening of bourgeois ideology. There is discussion of spontaneity. But spontaneous development of the workers movement leads to its subordination to the bourgeois ideology. . . .

I could continue my exemplary analysis of the statutes, but I think that what's been said is enough. A small, tight, solid nucleus of the most dependable, experienced and hardened workers having trustworthy representatives in the main regions and connected by all the rules of secrecy with the organization of revolutionaries can quite capably, with the widest support of the masses and without any formal organization, fulfill all functions of a professional organization, in a manner desirable to a Social-Democratic movement. Only in this way can we secure the consolidation and development of a Social-Democratic trade-union movement, despite all the gendarmes.

It may be rejected that an organization that is so loose and not well formed, that it's membership is in no way enrolled or registered can even be called an organization. It can be. It's not the name I'm after. But this " memberless organization" will do everything required and guarantee from the very outset the solid connection of our future trade unions to Socialism. Who but an incorrigible utopian would want a broad organization of workers with elections, reports, and universal suffrage under absolutism?

The moral from this is simple: if we begin with a solid foundation of strong organization of revolutionaries, we can guarantee the stability of the movement as a whole and realize the goals of Social-Democracy and of trade unions. If we, however, begin wit h a wide workers' organization, supposedly the most accessible to the masses (but in fact is the most accessible to the gendarmes, and makes revolutionaries most accessible to the police) we shall not achieve one goal nor the other. . . ."

Translated by Jane Scales


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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Michael Blair, Douglas Hughes, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by American Heritage Custom Publishing.

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