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Book Review: Lenin’s What is to be Done?

Review by Mick Kelly |
April 17, 2020
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Why review a book that the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin began in 1901 and finished in 1902? The short answer is the book is just that good and it has endured the test of time, and the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth is a good occasion for it.

A more complete answer is as follows – we are in a period where monopoly capitalism has shown itself to be a failed system. Not only has it failed to deal with the challenges of a pandemic, capitalism is a people-destroying economic system that is making the pandemic worse. Add on the facts that we are in the onset of a large-scale economic crisis and millions of people, including a section of the working class are turning towards socialism. So, a book that laid the ideological basis for the political party that organized and led the first successful socialist revolution is timely to say the least. It helps us figure out what we need to do in the U.S. today.

Some might object by saying what relevance could a polemic have - whose target audience was an illegal, underground movement that did battle with Russia’s Czar, capitalists and landlords a century or more ago? The answer to that question can be found in looking at the overall lessons and conclusions Lenin makes in his trailblazing work. So, here’s some of the main points Lenin addresses.

Lenin starts out What is to be Done? by talking about the importance of the theoretical struggle, of the need for debate and clarity around fundamental questions of political and ideological line. Some people don’t like this and see it as disunity or ‘left infighting’ that needs to be overcome. Veterans of Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), and other Marxist-Leninist organizations know better from our own experience.

In the case of FRSO, we had a struggle with right opportunists in our ranks 20 years ago. We faced a group of petty bourgeoisie radicals who claimed to be Marxists but rejected Marxism-Leninism, the need for a working class revolution, and the socialist countries. We debated with them until it became clear we did not really agree on anything, and they split from our organization. That struggle for Marxist clarity and the break with opportunism allowed us to build a U.S.-wide Marxist-Leninist organization that is multinational and growing rapidly.

In What is to be Done? Lenin uses a wonderful literary construction – “the marsh.” Lenin stated, “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 neighboring 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.”

To put this another way, Lenin was saying let’s not head into the swamp of right opportunism and do battle with all who say we should, concluding, “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!”

Theory matters. For example, let’s take the issue of fighting for reforms. We fight for reforms because it creates a favorable context for people to learn about society, what laws govern its development and what kind of change is needed. Reforms can improve people’s lives, but are limited. We live in the heart of a declining imperialist power where our way of life, our very mode of existence is going to get worse.

But one thing for sure is that we cannot reform our way to socialism, where the working class is in charge. For that you need a revolution – not a Bernie Sanders ‘political revolution', but a real one, where one class takes away the power of another. Examples include the French Revolution, where the aristocrats met the guillotine or more recently, the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions.

Revolution will be a practical question in the U.S. to be sure, but it also deals with questions of theory, such as what the nature of the capitalist state is. The capitalist state cannot be reformed into a socialist one; Lenin’s prescription is that it needs to be “smashed to atoms.” How one answers basic issues of theory like these are critical to what kind of organization we should build and what strategy we should employ.

In What is to be Done? Lenin does battle with a confused political tendency in the Russian socialist movement known as the Economists. As it was not a label they picked for themselves and the issue of ‘Economism’ still peppers debates around socialist strategy, it is helpful to be clear about who Lenin was talking about. He wasn’t talking about workers fighting for economic gains or a general trade union problem. He was talking about a trend, a group of people in the socialist movement made up of some workers and quite a few intellectuals. The Economists viewed themselves as socialists, but in practice they were not.

Trade unions are great, and we need more of them. The problem with the Economists was they made trade unionism – which is in essence getting a better deal for workers under capitalism – their everything. To them, politics was not overthrowing the Czar and his ruling-class backers, nor revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or socialism. Instead it was legal rights for unions or protective measures for labor. As a result, they saw no real need for a tight, centralized revolutionary political party, and they advocated for a form of political organization that was a hodgepodge mix of labor union and socialist organization that in fact was not socialist at all.

That a trend like this could get any traction might seem odd at first but it wasn't that strange at all. At the time, all forms of trade union activity could land you in jail, as could passing out a leaflet, or organizing study groups. So, all these activities were underground, and, when you combine inexperience with ‘socialists’ who made a fetish of their ignorance of what actual tasks of socialists are, you get forms of organization that are not good for trade unions and are not revolutionary either.

When the Economists thought about the international socialist movement, they tended to identify with the most conservative, non-revolutionary sections of it that said the “movement as everything, and the goal as nothing.”

In What is to be Done? Lenin points out that at the root the Economists’ right-opportunism was their worship of the spontaneous movement and the belittling the role of socialist consciousness. And Lenin forcefully made the point that a socialist understanding of the world, or Marxism, arose outside the working class and had to be taken to its proletarian home.

Here is how Lenin put it in What is to be Done?: “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 labor 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.”

Marxism is a science, a science of revolution that built itself on most advanced currents of thinking at the time it arose. Science is not something that spontaneously pops into people’s heads. It never has been and never will. We all live in the physical world; to understand it we need to study some physics. Likewise, if we want to change the society, we need to study some Marxism. Scientific socialism uncovered the principles by which human society developed and the inevitability of a society without classes: communism. It is a road map forward for the struggle of our class.

What is to be Done? Is a book that is filled with important insights about a range of topics including how to fight the forces of repression, and methods of work to raise the level of understanding of working people. But if you want to do a thumbnail sketch of what the book is all about here it is. Socialist theory, or scientific socialism, arose independently of the workers’ movement, the task is to fuse the two, to unite them, to bring them together. And this union of Marxism and the working-class movement shows itself organizationally in the creation of revolutionary socialist, or what we would now call a communist, organization. Lenin then lays out a plan to build that organization, the party that came to be known as Bolsheviks, who decisively shaped the course of world history.

For revolutionaries in the U.S., What is to be Done? is super relevant because we still have the task of fusing Marxism-Leninism and the workers’ movement. We are trying hard to build a new communist party that can lead a successful fight for socialism. This means helping the advanced of our class, the activists and leaders, take up Marxism-Leninism.

FRSO is working to do that day in and day out by carrying out three tasks. First, we are building the day-to-day struggle of the masses of people, be it on the job or in the communities. Second, we are trying to raise the general level of political understanding and organization. And finally, just like Lenin was talking about in What is to be Done? we are trying to build a serious organization of working and oppressed people that has the capacity to contend for power.

Given that many people are considering alternatives to the existing order of things and exploring the implications of what it means to be a socialist who really wants change, let’s talk (or better, let’s work) together to put our ideas into practice.

When Lenin wrote What is to be Done? the Economists could see nothing more than a growing trade union movement. Three years later, in 1905, workers were fighting in the streets to bring down the Czar. In less than a score of years proletarian political power would be established in what was the Russian empire. Lenin was right about what our class can do.

One thing about monopoly capitalism is that it is good at producing oppression and better at producing enemies. So, here is what needs to be done. We need to build a new communist party to get rid of this monster. We need to unite all who can be united to do so. The U.S. holds African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native peoples in the chains of inequality, so at the core of this united front against monopoly capitalism, we need a strategic alliance of the multinational working class and the movements of oppressed nationalities.

Is all this easier said than done? For sure. But reading a book like What is to be Done? and putting Marxism-Leninism into practice makes it all possible.

Mick Kelly is an editor of Fight Back! and a leading member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO).

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