Lars Lih – against the ‘continuity thesis’

June 7, 2009

Chávez’s Gift to Obama: What’s to be Made of What Is To Be Done?

Lars T. Lih, June 4, 2009

Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, has just announced on Venezuelan
television that the next time he meets with President Barack Obama, he
will give the American head of state a short book written in 1902 by
one Lenin, entitled What Is to Be Done? (Chto delat’?).

A surprising announcement. The last time Chávez showed his
willingness to fill out Obama’s reading list, he gave him a topical
book on the situation in Latin America. But what topical interest can
be found in a book over a century old, written under the drastically
alien circumstances of tsarist Russia? Besides, many of us will
remember being taught about this book in a poli sci or history class.
Isn’t What Is to Be Done? a ‘blueprint for Soviet tyranny’? Isn’t
this the book in which Lenin expressed his contempt for workers— or,
in any event, his worry that the workers would never be sufficiently
revolutionary? These worries, so we are told, led Lenin to advocate a
party of ‘professional revolutionaries’ from the intelligentsia that
would replace a genuine democratic mass movement. All in all, isn’t
What Is to Be Done? something of an embarrassment for the Left— a book
much better forgotten than thrust into the hands of world leaders?

I am not privy to Chávez’s thoughts on the matter. But, having
recently spent several years of my life re-translating What Is to Be
Done? into English and recreating the historical context for Lenin’s
book, I feel qualified to clear up some of the confusions and
misconceptions that surround the book. In preparation for my study
Lenin Rediscovered, I read every piece of writing mentioned by Lenin
in What Is to Be Done?— and since Lenin was intensely polemical, I had
a lot of ground to cover. I had to become well versed, not only in
the intricacies of the infighting among the Russian revolutionaries,
but also in the ways in which the Western European workers parties
inspired Lenin and his comrades. I had to get a sense of the exact
political conjuncture in Russia in the few months in late 1901 and
early 1902 during which Lenin hastily penned his treatise.

A blueprint for Soviet tyranny? On the contrary, What Is to Be Done?
represents a heritage that had to be rejected before Soviet tyranny
could be established. An expression of elitist ‘worry about
workers’? On the contrary, Lenin goes way overboard in his sanguine
optimism about the workers’ revolutionary fervor. Lenin’s
organizational suggestions are all about reconciling the contradictory
imperatives of avoiding arrest in the underground while simultaneously
creating extensive roots in the Russian worker community. As for
topicality—well, we shall see.

At the turn of the twentieth century, tsarist Russia was run by a
religiously-sanctioned elite that was hostile even to the idea of
political freedom—that is, freedom of speech, of press, of assembly,
of autonomous organization. The tsarist regime showed itself unable
and unwilling to adjust to the challenges imposed by a world that was
rapidly globalizing and putting pressure on Russia in terms of
military rivalry, economic performance and the subversive political
ideals wafting in from the west. To prove how incompetent they were,
the tsarist government got itself involved in a war with Japan and
bungled it big-time. More and more social groups in Russia were
losing patience with the tsar’s pretentions—not only such traditional
troublemakers as the intellectuals or the national minorities, but
also groups that the government had always assumed to be highly loyal,
such as the peasants and even many opposition-minded landowners and
businessmen. The industrial workers in particular were rapidly being
politicized, thus becoming the most dangerous opposition force.

All this inchoate and uncoordinated discontent could explode if the
right spark fell in the right place—which is why Lenin and his friends
called their underground newspaper The Spark (Iskra). The ultimate
aim of their newspaper was to make the anti-tsarist revolution
happen. An underground newspaper published abroad could hardly
provide directly leadership to the many discontented groups throughout
the Russian empire. What it could do was make people aware that they
were not alone, that discontent everywhere was growing, that tsarism
was becoming desperate, and that one group at least—the industrial
workers—was increasingly ready to take to the streets, not only for
their own sectional economic interests, but to obtain political
freedom for all of Russia. Once society as a whole was imbued with
this awareness, tsardom was doomed. Such was the reasoning of Lenin
and his friends. Today, of course, any such strategy would have to be
adapted to forms of communication not dreamt of in 1902.

But this strategy leads to a paradox. Lenin, the committed Marxist
socialist, the future head of the Soviet one-party state, making
political freedom in Russia his most urgent priority? Strange as it
may seem—and ignored as it by most Western historians—this is exactly
the case. Lenin made political freedom his top priority precisely
because he was a dogmatic Marxist socialist. Like many other Russians
of his generation—both the intelligentsia and the workers—Lenin was
inspired by the stirring example of the massive and powerful German
Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD was a mass, worker-based
party, officially committed to a Marxist brand of socialism, showing
radical opposition to the German establishment, and growing in numbers
and influence all the time.

The outlook of the German party was based on the core Marxist
proposition that socialism can only be introduced by the workers
themselves, and so the main activity of the party consisted of a
ceaseless round of propaganda and agitation, both aimed at spreading
the socialist word among the workers. Russian Social Democrats were
green with envy at the massive Social Democratic press, the noisy and
crowded rallies, the eloquent denunciations by elected socialist
deputies in parliament. But in order to emulate the German
socialists, they needed something that didn’t exist in Russia:
political freedom.

Strange but true: the central aim of Lenin’s political career, at
least up to the outbreak of war in 1914, was obtaining political
freedom for Russia by revolutionary overthrow of the tsar. In a short
book written around the time of What Is to Be Done? in which he
explained the platform of Russian Social Democracy to a popular
audience, Lenin entitled one section ‘What Do the Social Democrats
Want?’ and answered his own question thusly: ‘Russian Social
Democrats, before anything else, aim at achieving political
freedom’ (Lenin’s emphasis). As Lenin further explained in a
newspaper article, ‘without political freedom, all forms of worker
representation will remain pitiful frauds, the proletariat will remain
as before in prison, without the light, air and space needed to
conduct the struggle for its full liberation.’

Lenin’s commitment to this goal was no secret to his political
rivals. One of the first reviews of What Is to Be Done? appeared in
the underground journal of anti-tsarist liberals. The anonymous
author (possibly the liberal party’s most famous leader, Paul
Miliukov) explained why Lenin opposed the so-called ‘economists’
within the Russian socialist movement:

‘The Russian proletariat— said the advocates of [economism]— had not
yet matured enough to understand specific political demands; all that
it was capable of now was the struggle for its economic needs. The
Russian worker did not yet feel any need for political freedom. [But]
in a country that has a despotic regime such as our Russian one, in a
country where such elementary democratic rights as the right of free
speech, assembly and so on, do not exist, where each worker strike is
accounted a political crime and workers are forced by bullets and
whips to return to work—in such a country, no party can restrict
itself to the narrow framework of an exclusively economic struggle.
And Mr. Lenin justly protests against such a program.’

Lenin’s Mensheviks critics even accused Lenin of going overboard about
political freedom and thereby increasing the danger of letting the
workers be politically exploited by the bourgeois liberals.

In order to make his strategy plausible, Lenin had to make a strong
case that the Russian workers were champing at the bit to fight the
tsar and demand political freedom. And in fact, at the very time
Lenin was writing What Is to Be Done?, the growing militancy of the
workers was evident to everyone—not least to the tsarist authorities,
who even tried setting up their own loyal worker movement in order to
combat more revolutionary-minded organizations. If Lenin really
expressed the views attributed to him in standard textbooks—
pessimism, even despair, about the revolutionary mood of the workers—
no one would have taken him seriously. As it was, in the words of the
anonymous liberal reviewer, ‘this book is being read with passion, and
will continue to be read, by our revolutionary youth’.

For many readers, all of this will seem literally unbelievable, like
arguing that Adolf Hitler was a philo-semite. We are talking about
the Lenin, aren’t we, the one who founded a state noted for its lack
of political freedom and its oppression of workers as well as all
other groups? Yes, it’s the same Lenin alright—which means that What
Is to Be Done? does not provide a ready-made explanation for the
evolution of the Soviet system. Indeed, an accurate reading of
Lenin’s 1902 book makes developments after 1917 harder to explain.

This is not the place to tackle the necessary explanations. But
here’s a suggestion. The same exalted estimate of worker creativity
and revolutionary fervor found in his writings of 1902 lead Lenin in
1917 to believe that the dire economic crisis of that year could be
easily solved simply by letting the workers smash the repressive state
and forcing the capitalists to do their proper job. The result was an
accelerated leap into complete economic collapse, and this in turn
necessitated some dictatorial back-pedaling.

I merely throw this out, but I believe that this kind of explanation
is superior to the typical B-movie script in which Lenin rubs his
hands, Boris Karloff-style, and cries ‘At last—my chance to take
political freedom away from the workers, as I have always dreamed!’

Lenin’s organizational suggestions only make sense in the context of
the aims that I have just outlined: spreading the word under
repressive conditions. Thus Lenin’s central organizational value was
not conspiracy, but konspiratsiia. The aim of a conspiracy (zagovor
in Russian) is to be invisible until the proper time. The Russian
word konspiratsiia— one that had been used in Russian socialist
circles for over a decade— means the fine art of avoiding arrest,
while spreading the word as widely as possible. The konspiratsiia
underground was an underground of a new type, worked out bit by bit by
local Russian praktiki who dreamt of applying the logic of the German
SPD under the inhospitable conditions of tsarist repression. Lenin’s
organizational plan was not an original creation out of his own head,
but rather a codification of the logic inherent in the konspiratsiia
underground improvised by local activists.

This applies in particular to Lenin’s most notable terminological
innovation, the ‘professional revolutionary’. In my new translation,
I render Lenin’s term as ‘revolutionary by trade’, which brings out
the underlying metaphor better. But the essential point is that the
professional revolutionary was a functional necessity of a
konspiratsiia underground, and thus all Russian underground parties
adopted the term and relied heavily on the type, that is, on activists
devoted full-time to underground activity and ready to move from place
to place so that local organizations did not fall into demoralizing
isolation. The concept of ‘professional revolutionary’ has nothing to
do with the intelligentsia vs. the workers. The reliance on
professional revolutionaries is precisely what does not separate
Lenin’s Bolsheviks from other underground factions.

A famous line from Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? is: ‘give us an
organization of revolutionaries—and we will turn Russia around!’.
This is a reference to Archimedes’s lever, a device able to give
almost infinite power under the right circumstances to a single
person: ‘Give me a place to stand and I can move the earth!’. In
Lenin’s application, a properly organized party was the place to
stand, but the lever itself was the cascading revolutionary awareness
that would amplify the message of a small group of activists and turn
it into a revolutionary onslaught against the autocracy. Lenin
focused on organization because everything else— the enthusiasm of the
masses, the universal hatred of the autocracy— was at hand.

How topical are the suggestions found in Lenin’s 1902 book? Let the
reader judge. The situation Lenin faced was something like this:
there existed a potentially wide social consensus in opposition
against a religiously-sanctioned regime noted both for its hostility
to political freedom and its growing inability to respond to paramount
social needs in a globalizing world. Some of the potential opposition
groups have a greater capacity than others to combine militant
activity on the streets with focused political aims that can unite the
opposition. There also exist committed group of activists with
international contacts, ready to go underground to spread the word.

These are the parameters of the problem as Lenin saw it. Of course,
any solutions to similar problems today cannot follow the details of
the one Lenin came up with. But they can emulate the creative
communication strategies and the focused organizational improvisations
that made Lenin’s book such a hit, not only for the Russian
undergrounders in 1902, but for the likes of Hugo Chávez.

(Lars T. Lih lives in Montreal, Canada. He can be reached at larslih@…
. His book Lenin Rediscovered was published by Brill in 2006 and
republished in 2008 in paperback by Haymarket Books, where it can be
ordered at


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