Lars T. Lih's Look at Lenin's "What Is To Be Done" - Part IV & Looking Ahead

from Kritika

How a Founding Document Was Found, or 100 of Lenin's What Is to Be Done?

Part IV:

Marking Time, 1977-2002


After 1977 the bottom dropped out of the Iskra-period market. This period of relative neglect is my next and final period. The profession was understandably bored with the topic and felt there were other things to do. The reasons for this neglect are familiar and I will not say much about it, except to point out the following. The careful academic study of ideology and doctrine was rejected partly because it was elitist, top-down, the very opposite of social history, and so on. But it was also rejected because the topic had been done (it would seem) to death. Younger scholars needed new topics, and academic promotion in history departments was certainly not going to someone who neglected archival documents in order to read Lenin's Complete Works. Everybody therefore found it convenient to assume that not only had the subject been done to academic death, but also that it had been done thoroughly and competently.

The most prominent work of this period — for example, the Robert Service biographies — just played variations on Wolfe pack themes. 70 The opening of the archives in 1991 has paradoxically not been very good for the quest for the historical Lenin. The feeling has grown that Lenin was an awful person whose political project failed miserably, so that studying his political outlook — as opposed to simply dismissing it — is a waste of time. This attitude is combined with collapsing standards of factual scrupulousness (as I have tried to show in various reviews of new work on Lenin).

A less disheartening picture of the fourth and final period emerges when we look past Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov, Pipes, and Service and observe less prominent developments. 71 Most of this recent work does not directly challenge the textbook interpretation of WTBD (with the exceptions noted earlier in my discussion of countertrends). Nevertheless, the groundwork is being laid for a reconsideration of WTBD in its historical context. 72

A series of recent articles by Robert Mayer examines the ideological context of WTBD in a more historical manner than heretofore. Mayer's work is particularly valuable for the new source material that he puts into scholarly circulation. He leaves the textbook interpretation of WTBD itself untouched but challenges many other aspects of the standard account. He observes that after writing WTBD Lenin never used the argument that so many see as central to his outlook, namely, that the workers are "spontaneously" bourgeois. In order to square this observation with the standard reading of WTBD, Mayer argues that Lenin experienced a radical change of heart about the workers' revolutionary potential shortly before WTBD and another radical change in the opposite direction shortly after WTBD. This double flip-flop hypothesis may not find many adherents, but it represents a serious attempt to deal with genuine difficulties that need to be confronted. 73

Scholars interested in Russian labor history have not lost interest in the Iskra period. If I had to name one English-language book to read alongside WTBD, it would be A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia: The Autobiography of Semen Ivanovich Kanatchikov. The introduction by editor and translator Reginald Zelnik provides an essential analysis of the "conscious worker" so central to Social Democratic scenarios. Zelnik himself remains loyal to the textbook interpretation and presents Iskra and Bolshevism as overt defenders of intelligentsia hegemony. This leads him to ask the question: what is a nice worker like Kanatchikov doing in a faction like the Bolsheviks? Kanatchikov relates in his memoirs that he chose the Bolsheviks without hesitation because they were the ones most loyal to the traditions of the old Iskra. Zelnik dismisses this statement as clearly "disingenuous." 74

The question of intelligentsia-worker relations continues to fascinate scholars, with a Russian-Western conference being held on the subject in 1995. 75 Of particular importance for WTBD studies is Gerald Surh's detailed investigation of one group of Petersburg "Economists" or, as Surh argues that we should call them, "worker democrats." Igal Halfin takes the intelligentsia question up to literally cosmic heights. As valuable as all this work is, I worry that it reinforces an overestimation of the importance of the intelligentsia issue both for Lenin's outlook and for Soviet history. 76

Little has been added during Period IV to either Menshevik or Bolshevik prewar party history, but real progress has been made in understanding the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the liberals. Better knowledge of these parties can help us break loose from the obsession with the Menshevik-Bolshevik split. Indeed, the Menshevik-Bolshevik split itself is better understood when we focus on Iskra's claim of Social Democratic "hegemony" within the overall revolutionary movement — that is to say, its relations with other parties — than when we focus on Lenin's attitude toward "spontaneity." Political party history is valuable for WTBD studies even when it focuses on later periods. I call particular attention to a recent essay by Michael Melancon about the alleged "spontaneity" of the February revolution in 1917. Melancon moves away from a social history perspective on the workers toward a political analysis of the way underground leadership works — a topic on which fresh perspectives are badly needed. 77

Lenin and his fellow Russian Social Democrats were not primarily inspired by theories about base and superstructure or historical inevitability, but rather by a powerful and prestigious political movement. Just as useful for understanding WTBD as any work done by specialists in Russian history is new English-language work on Marxism, the SPD, and Social Democracy in general. The authors of these studies are mostly unaware of the radical implications of their own work for understanding Lenin and WTBD. Their great service is to burst the conceptual barriers set up by the simplistic dichotomies of the Wolfe framework. 78

We conclude our survey by returning to Soviet scholarship. Perhaps in the Soviet context a better date for the boundary between Period III and Period IV is 1970, the centennial of Lenin's birth and the signal for a flurry of Lenin scholarship. What we might call the post-post-Stalin period allowed historians to use a wide range of new source materials, in particular three volumes of the correspondence between the Iskra editorial board and its agents in Russia. 79 All sorts of detailed case studies on important and not-so-important aspects of the Iskra period were produced in the last two Soviet decades. Although working within well-known constraints — in particular, the figura molchaniia that air-brushed inconvenient individuals from the historical portrait — the best work in this period was of a professional quality that certainly does not suffer from comparison with Western monographs on the same subject.

The last word (in both senses) from Soviet historians about WTBD is Konstantin Nikolaevich Tarnovskii's monograph Revoliutsionnaia mysl´, revoliutsionnoe delo (1983). This is the best available book about the historical context of WTBD precisely because it does not use WTBD as its narrative hinge. Tarnovskii's subject is the Iskra period as a whole in all of its various aspects, only one of which was the appearance of WTBD in early 1902.

In his section on WTBD, Tarnovskii does not use the phrase "party of a new type." He does repeat the old line about WTBD laying the ideological foundations of Bolshevism, but this foundation turns out to be "the merger of socialism and the worker movement" (Kautsky is again left uncredited). The real thrust of Tarnovskii's analysis is to show how WTBD was a response to the practical needs of the time. WTBD does not found a movement, it crystallizes a mood. Lenin does not enunciate a new philosophy but provides a practical — and therefore a time-bound — set of suggestions. Given the date of publication — 1983 — the following paraphrase of Lenin's views is of special interest: "Full glasnost´, election of all functionaries, and universal kontrol´ — such are the necessary conditions for the realization of the democratic principle [within the party]. To implement them in an autocratic country is impossible." 80

None of this late-period Soviet work had any impact whatsoever on Western scholarship, which remains fixed in its old pose of refuting Stalinist distortions and undisturbed in its loyalty to the "party of a new type" paradigm. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian historians interested in the Iskra period had more urgent tasks than to reconsider WTBD, since all sorts of other gaping "white spots" had to be filled. New biographies of Martov and Plekhanov were published and many valuable collections of primary source material from non-Bolshevik factions and parties have become available. In some cases, textbooks have freed themselves from the old party line only to fall into the embrace of the Wolfe framework. 81 Publitsistika debates over Lenin during the Gorbachev and post-Soviet eras focused on his years in power and on his personal moral qualities, while barely mentioning his putative founding document. This relative absence of WTBD may help account for the paradox that American intellectuals despise Lenin because he wanted to put intellectuals in power while Russian intellectuals despise Lenin because he wanted to exclude intellectuals from power. 82

Looking Ahead

The best products of the Iskra monograph cycle (which in my opinion are the contributions from Robert Daniels and Samuel Baron) are impressive achievements indeed. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that the necessary spadework needed to support any informed reading has not been done. This situation is not primarily the fault of the pioneering authors of the monograph cycle, since they put much more effort into this task than the rest of us. But given the authority of the textbook interpretation, it is necessary to point out that the Iskra-period monograph cycle has three grave deficiencies. The first is the restricted range of source material. The lonely splendor of the English translation of Akimov only accentuates the absence of other voices, including both Lenin's friends and foes. To take just one example: much of WTBD's polemic is aimed at articles in the issue of Rabochee delo that came out in September 1901. Nowhere in the literature is there a minimally accurate account of the issues in dispute. A second deficiency in the secondary literature is the absence of any feel for what international Social Democracy was all about — a crucial defect when studying people for whom "revolutionary Social Democrat" was at the core of their political identity. It is indicative that Kautsky's The Erfurt Program — the book that defined Social Democracy for Russian activists — is available in English only in a bowdlerized abridgment from 1910. The third and really fatal deficiency is the absence of any sense that the interpretation of WTBD is contentious or problematic — and consequently the absence of any sustained scholarly discussion or debate. The dominant attitude has been recently expressed by Igal Halfin: "Even a cursory examination of What Is to Be Done? (1902) shows that, in Lenin's view, the vehicle of universalist consciousness was 'not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia.'" 83 Perhaps we should replace "even" by "only"?

What is the explanation for this total lack of genuine scholarly discussion? Some will say the answer is simple. Career academics cannot afford to be perceived as pro-Lenin in any way and therefore will never think it worth their while to correct certain kinds of distortions: the stick can be bent in only one direction. This is the answer suggested by Hal Draper, who is justly indignant that those he calls "Leninologists" simply refuse to acknowledge massive textual evidence from Lenin's easily available writings. 84 A less unsettling explanation is simply the finitude of scholarly resources in comparison to the vast complexities of Soviet history.

The real failure consists of the belief that such a challenging question can be resolved without adequate investigation or genuine debate. As a result, we have allowed crucial choices in textual interpretation to be made by the British Communist Joe Fineberg, who translated WTBD in the late 1920s. Fineberg translated stikhiinost´ as "spontaneity," so scholars ponder the question of Lenin's attitude toward spontaneity (a word with only a tangential relation to stikhiinost´). We have allowed an energetic group of bright graduate students in the 1950s and 1960s to give us the final word about the meaning of Bolshevism. We have cheerfully elevated a Stalinist slogan — "party of a new type" — into textbook status. Fitting punishment indeed.

As it is, my own sense of scholarly progress has suffered some rude shocks. On the specific issue of WTBD, I find the Short Course to be superior to official post-Stalin historiography; the best of the Soviet monographs to be superior to the best of the Anglo-American monographs; the scholarship from the bad old days of the Cold War to be superior to the sophisticated and archive-based scholarship of the 1990s. I hope and pray that this perverse hierarchy is an isolated one.

In hopes of provoking some needed debate, I will briefly set out the picture of WTBD that emerges from my own research (with the proviso that a full defense is yet to come). My interpretation is not tremendously novel. Despite differences on this or that issue, my WTBD would be recognizable to Dzhugashvili and Potresov, to the soratniki of the 1920s, and to Plamenatz and Tucker.

WTBD can best be seen as a pep talk to the praktiki. It is half-time and the team is not doing as well as it should, so the coach tells them in the locker-room: come on, guys, you look terrible out there! I know you can do better than that — I know you can accomplish miracles! All it takes is some attitude adjustment. Think big, dare to win! We can't afford to lose this one, so get out there and show me what you can do!

Thus the key sentence of WTBD is: "You brag about your practicality and you do not see (a fact known to any Russian praktik) what miracles for the revolutionary cause can be brought about not only by a circle but by a lone individual." 85 Lenin's practical suggestions (conduct wide-ranging political agitation, improve your underground skills, use Iskra as a tool for building the truly national organization desired by all) show the praktiki the ways and means for accomplishing these miracles. But underneath the practical suggestions is the constant injunction: think big! The key term of reproach in WTBD is "narrowness."

What assumptions about the workers and their drive for revolution animate this pep talk? Lenin tells his audience: the fault is not in the workers, dear praktiki, but in ourselves! Do not excuse your inactivity by pointing to the workers. Last year, the workers went out on their own and defended the students — while you sat around worrying "oh dear, will the workers understand political slogans?" You just do your job of getting the message out and providing an effective organizational framework, and then maybe you can catch up with the workers!

Lenin paints a dire picture of what will happen to the worker movement if the praktiki do nothing, but his purpose is to ensure they act in order to make the dire picture irrelevant. He also paints a dire picture — in WTBD's polemics against terrorism — of what will happen if the revolutionary intellectuals lose faith in the revolutionary potential of the workers and in the possibility of a genuine mass movement under the autocracy.

In truth, the textbook interpretation is not very interested in the message WTBD was sending to its first readers, but rather in certain general propositions that Lenin threw off while pounding his rostrum. Consequently, it gets even these general propositions wrong. Loss of faith in the workers? No, Lenin has great confidence — not so much in the workers, as this might imply he thought they were incapable of being mistaken or misled — but confidence that the workers will respond to the message (if properly presented) and will carry out their great historical mission. "Plekhanov was a thousand times right when he not only identified the revolutionary class, not only proved the inevitability and unavoidability of its stikhiinyi awakening, but also presented to the worker circles a great and noble political task." 86

This attitude is not merely consistent with European Social Democracy — it is Social Democracy. The theory and practice of the Social Democratic parties centered on preaching the good news about the workers' great mission in the confident expectation that the workers would respond enthusiastically. If having strong opinions about the class interest of the workers is arrogant, then Social Democracy was arrogant indeed. But the distinguishing feature of Marx-inspired Social Democracy as compared to almost all other competing socialist trends of the day was its insistence that the workers could and must understand their class interest before it could be realized. From this followed the imperative of winning political liberties — an imperative that was crucial for European Social Democracy and even more so for Iskra.

WTBD exhibits Lenin's encyclopedic knowledge of European Social Democracy, in striking contrast to the few quite general references to the Russian revolutionary tradition made for inspirational purposes. His overall revolutionary tactics are correspondingly based on Western models. Let us build a party as much like the SPD as possible under absolutist conditions so we can overthrow the tsar and obtain the political liberties we need to make the party even more like the SPD! Far from being inspired by the populist Petr Nikitich Tkachev (a figure beloved by the Wolfe pack), WTBD is a book-long refutation of one of Tkachev's central points. Tkachev insisted over and over again that revolutionaries would never be able to propagandize the masses under tsarist repression and any such attempt was a lily-livered excuse to avoid genuine revolutionary action.

WTBD is a moderately important document in party history — along the lines, say, of On Agitation in 1896. Both these pamphlets crystallized a prevailing sense that change was needed and thus helped precipitate the change. But in no way can WTBD be called a founding document. Its controlling assumptions were widely shared ones — ones that Lenin himself had adopted long before writing his book. WTBD is far from a complete discussion even of Lenin's Iskra-era outlook. His response to the tough questions of political tactics — relations with the peasants and the liberals — must be found in other writings. Lenin's views on organizational questions (a topic much less central to him than usually assumed) also find better treatment elsewhere. WTBD is a proposal about how to constitute a Russian party, not a proposal about how to organize a constituted party.

The textbook interpretation creates a picture of Lenin that makes it impossible to understand the crucial decisions of his later career (the widespread invocation of "two Lenins" is a reaction to this incoherence). The monograph cycle investigated the "origins of Bolshevism" in order to better understand Soviet history and culture. By positing lack of faith in the worker and intelligentsia hegemony as the heart of Bolshevism, it only made Soviet culture — hostile to the intelligentsia and enraptured by proletarian instinct — harder to understand.

I conclude by quoting Lenin's cry at the end of WTBD: liquidate the third period! 87 Liquidate the "party of a new type" textbook interpretation that grew up during Period III in both Soviet Russia and the West. Return to the participant testimony of Periods I and II; mobilize the new research of Period IV. Take more seriously the countertrends in Period III and listen more attentively to the doubts and hesitations found in the Wolfe-inspired monograph cycle itself.

The paradox of research on WTBD is that an extraordinary amount of attention must be given to the book in order to show that it is not worth the extraordinary amount of attention it has received. But the outcome of such research will not just be negative: the immense side benefit of putting WTBD into context is learning about that context. The quest for the historical Lenin has only begun.

70. Robert Service, Lenin, A Political Life, 3 vols. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985-95); idem, Lenin — A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

71. Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov, Lenin: Politicheskii portret v dvukh knigakh (Moscow: Novosti, 1994); Richard Pipes, The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

72. Space does not allow discussion of the work by the French historian Claudio Sergio Ingerflom, Le citoyen impossible: Les racines russes du léninisme (Paris: Bibliothèque historique Payot, 1988), a book that is in many ways the most substantive contribution to Lenin studies during this period. While throwing much light on the Russian context of Lenin's outlook, Ingerflom completely ignores the Social Democratic dimension.

73. Robert Mayer, "The Status of a Classic Text: Lenin's What Is to Be Done? After 1902," History of European Ideas 22: 4 (1996), 307-20. The double flip-flop hypothesis is only an extension of a single flip-flop hypothesis found in the monograph cycle; for example, Leonard Schapiro writes that between the summer of 1899 and the end of the year there occurred "a complete transformation in Lenin's outlook" ("Lenin's Intellectual Formation and the Russian Revolutionary Background," in Schapiro, Russian Studies [New York: Viking, 1987], 234-35. The article was written in 1969 and first published in this volume.)

74. Semen Ivanovich Kanatchikov, A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia, ed. Reginald E. Zelnik (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986); Zelnik, "Russian Bebels," 441. In the translation of and commentary to WTBD that I am now preparing, I translate soznatel´nyi (usually translated as "conscious") as "purposive" and soznatel´nost´ as "purposiveness." Translators usually render both soznanie and soznatel´nost´ as "consciousness," even though the two words are quite distinct in meaning; I render soznanie as "awareness." Existing translations obscure the fact that Lenin does not say that soznatel´nost´ comes from without.

75. Conference papers are presented in Zelnik, ed., Workers and Intelligentsia in Late Imperial Russia: Realities, Representations, Reflections (Berkeley: University of California, 1999). The full conference proceedings are available in Russian.

76. Gerald Surh, "Recent Work on Russian Labor History in the U.S.," in Problemy vsemirnoi istorii (St. Petersburg: Akademiia Nauk, 2000), 115-24 (see also Surh's article in Workers and Intelligentsia, ed. Zelnik); Halfin, From Darkness to Light.

77. Michael Melancon, Rethinking Russia's February Revolution: Anonymous Spontaneity or Socialist Agency? Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, no. 1408 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).

78. For example, without knowing it, Gary Steenson endorses the orthodoxy of Erfüllungstheorie when he describes the basic SPD assumption: "while the conditions of their experience might predispose workers to adhere to social democracy, specifically socialist consciousness had to be taught and learned" ("Not One Man! Not One Penny!": German Social Democracy, 1863-1914 [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981], 130). Robert Stuart's Marxism at Work: Ideology, Class and French Socialism during the Third Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) can be particularly recommended as the best available guide to the assumptions and discourse of "revolutionary Social Democracy."

79. Perepiska V. I. Lenina i redaktsii gazety "Iskra" s sotsial-demokraticheskimi organizatsiiami v Rossii, 1900-1903 gg., 3 vols. (Moscow: Gosizdat. politicheskoi literatury, 1969-70).

80. Konstantin Nikolaevich Tarnovskii, Revoliutsionnaia mysl´, revoliutsionnoe delo: Leninskaia "Iskra" v bor´be za sozdanie marksistskoi partii v Rossii (Moscow: Mysl´, 1983), 150. The phrase "party of a new type" occurs in the book's final summary (239, 242), but these have the look of editorial interventions.

81. For an example of new textbook treatment of WTBD, see Nashe otechestvo: Opyt politicheskoi istorii, 2 vols. (Moscow: Terra, 1991), 1: 301.

82. A representative sample of mostly hostile publitsistika can be found in Vozhd´: Lenin, kotorogo my ne znaem (Saratov: Privolzhnoe knizhnoe izdatel´stvo, 1992). For a useful survey and discussion, see Elena Anatol´evna Kotelenets, V. I. Lenin kak predmet istoricheskogo issledovaniia: Noveishaia istoriografiia (Moscow: Izdatel´stvo rossiiskogo universiteta druzhby narodov, 1999).

83. Halfin, From Darkness to Light, 167. Halfin leaves the impression that the quoted words are Lenin's, whereas in fact they come from Kautsky who, contrary to Halfin, certainly did not believe that the bourgeois intelligentsia was the vehicle of universalist consciousness. For Kautsky's views on the intellectuals, see John Kautsky, Karl Kautsky: Marxism, Revolution and Democracy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).

84. Hal Draper, "The Myth of Lenin's 'Concept of the Party,' or, What They Did to What Is to Be Done?" (1990). Available on the web site of the Center for Socialist History in Berkeley, California at Click on "Archive" and then on "Lenin andLeninism."

85. Lenin, What Is to Be Done, in PSS, 6: 107.

86. Ibid., 106.

87. Ibid., 181-83. For Lenin, the third period in the development of the Social Democratic movement was "the period of disarray, disintegration, waverings" that started in 1898 and had not ended when he completed his book in early 1902.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - jp

    brecht on correctly interpreting lenin:

    The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin

    Often he was honoured and profusely
    The Comrade Lenin. Busts there are and statues.
    Cities were named after him and children.
    Speeches are made in numerous languages
    Rallies there are and demonstrations
    From Shanghai to Chicago, in honour of Lenin.
    But thus they honoured him
    The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
    A small village in southern Turkistan:

    Twenty carpet weavers stand there in the evening
    Shivering with fever, in front of their humble loom.
    Fever runs riot: the railway station
    Teeming with buzzing mosquitoes – a thick cloud
    Arising from the swamp behind the old camel cemetery.
    But the train, which
    Once in two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
    Also the news one day
    That the day for honouring Lenin lies ahead
    And so decide the people of Kuyan-Bulak
    Carpet weavers, poor folk
    That for the Comrade Lenin also in their village
    A gypsum bust would be installed.
    But as the money is collected for the bust
    All of them stand
    Trembling with fever and contribute
    Their hard earned kopecks with wobbling hands.
    And the Red Army soldier Stepa Jamal, who
    Carefully counts and meticulously watches,
    Sees the readiness, to honour Lenin, and is filled with joy.
    But he also sees the uncertain hands.
    And all of a sudden he makes a proposal
    To buy petroleum with the money collected for the bust
    In order to pour it on the swamp behind the camel cemetery
    From where the mosquitoes come, which
    Cause the fever
    Thus to combat the fever in Kuyan-Bulak, and indeed
    To honour the late, but
    Not to be forgotten
    Comrade Lenin.

    This was agreed to. On the day of paying respect to
    Lenin they carried
    Their battered buckets, filled with black petroleum
    One behind the other
    Over there and spread it on the swamp.

    So they benefited themselves, in paying homage to Lenin and
    Paid homage to him, in that they benefited themselves and had
    Therefore understood him well.


    We have heard how the Kuyan-Bulak folk
    Paid their respect to Lenin. As now in the evening
    The petroleum had been bought and discharged over the swamp
    Stood up a man in the assembly, and he demanded
    That a commemoration stone be erected at the railway sStation
    Reporting these events, containing
    The altered plan and the exchange
    Instead of Lenin’s bust the fever eradicating petroleum barrel,
    And all this in honour of Lenin
    And they did that too
    And mounted the slab.

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