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What we should not do

A hundred years ago this year was published the most notorious work in praise of political manipulation since Machiavelli's The Prince—Lenin's What Is To Be Done?    

Crime . . . and Punishment?

Lenin's What Is To Be Done? is one side of a polemic amongst Russian Social Democrats in exile at the turn of the 19th century. The Russian Social Democratic movement emerged when a section of the established anti-Tsarist revolutionary movement turned away from terrorism and going to the peasants and directed its attentions instead to the newly-emerging working class as the main potential anti-Tsarist force. They embraced Marxian ideas, but their primary aim remained the overthrow of Tsarism, i.e., as they themselves were fully aware, the carrying out of the equivalent in Russia of France's bourgeois revolution.

There was always a potential for tension here between commitment to further the interests of the working class and to furthering the interests of the anti-Tsarist revolution. Lenin's pamphlet is directed against what he called “Economism”. This was the term, coined by those who argued that the aim to which everything else should be subordinated was the overthrow of Tsarism, to describe the “deviation” which consisted in giving priority to the immediate struggles of the working class.

Lenin's opponents accused him of being a “Narodnaya Volya-ist” after an earlier Russian revolutionary group, Narodnaya Volya (“People's Will”). By this they meant people who favoured Social-Democrats in Russia organising as a centralised vanguard of professional revolutionaries whose aim was the overthrow of Tsarism. Lenin willingly pleaded guilty to this charge:

“I assert: (1) that no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organisation of leaders that maintains continuity; (2) that the wider the masses spontaneously drawn into the struggle, forming the basis of the movement and participating in it, the more urgent the need of such an organisation, and the more solid this organisation must be (for it is much easier for demagogues to side-track the more backward sections of the masses); (3) that such an organisation must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity”.

For him, the “masses” were incapable of evolving a revolutionary consciousness on their own, or “spontaneously” as he put it; this could only be brought to them by an elite which should seek to direct their spontaneous discontent against, in Russia in the first instance the Tsarist regime, and, in developed capitalist countries, against the capitalist state. The elite, therefore, had to train itself in the techniques of manipulating mass discontent and channelling it in the direction they desired; they had to learn how to out-demagogue the demagogues. In an autocracy such as Tsarist Russia this elite had to be organised (to avoid detection and infiltration by the secret police) on a top-down, military-style basis with a small central committee as the body issuing the commands.

There is some room for discussion as to whether or not at this time Lenin considered such a top-down command structure appropriate as an organisational form also for socialists in developed capitalist countries. But there is no doubt that he considered that even in these countries the “masses” were incapable of coming to a revolutionary, socialist consciousness on their own and that this had to be brought to them from outside by a group who should seek to act as their leaders.

Even if in 1902 Lenin had accepted that, in such countries, political conditions would not require this elite to organise on so conspiratorial a basis as in Tsarist Russia, after 1917 he decreed that in all countries this elite should organise itself on the same basis as the Bolsheviks had under Tsarism. Hence was born Bolshevism-Leninism as a doctrine of manipulation of mass discontent by a self-appointed vanguard as a means for it to come to power and establish its rule, a curse we still have to deal with every time we meet a Trotskyist, Maoist or other Leninist.

In arguing that the “masses” were incapable of evolving a revolutionary, socialist consciousness on their own, Lenin saw himself as merely echoing the views of Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party. In 1900 the Austrian Social Democratic Party adopted a new programme which stated (innocuously enough) that “the more capitalist development increases the numbers of the proletariat, the more the proletariat is compelled and becomes fit to fight against capitalism. The proletariat becomes conscious of the possibility and of the necessity for Socialism”.

Kautsky didn't agree and wrote:

“In this connection socialist consciousness appears to be a necessary and direct result of the proletarian class struggle. But this is absolutely untrue . . . Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia; it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern Socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow this to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously” (quoted by Lenin).

Thus, when Lenin notoriously wrote the following he was only echoing Social Democratic orthodoxy as expressed by Kautsky:

“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 that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. According to their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.

“There can be no talk of an independent ideology being developed by the masses of the workers in the process of their movement . . .

“The spontaneous working-class movement by itself is able to create (and inevitably creates) only trade-unionism, and working class trade-unionist politics are precisely working-class bourgeois politics.”

Kautsky, however, had got his history wrong. Marx certainly added to socialist theory and made a major contribution to its elaboration, but he did not invent it and then bring it to the workers. It was rather the other way round. Marx learned his socialist ideas from the communist workers he met when he lived in Paris in 1843 and 1844. They taught him both what communism – an already existing current – was and the view that it should be achieved by the political action of the “proletariat”, a view derived from the experience of the most radical plebeian elements during the French bourgeois revolution. When he took up the study of economics he started out from the anti-capitalist theories which had already been developed by working-class thinkers involved in the Chartist and trade union agitation in Britain in the 1820s and 1830s.

Lenin, who was aware of this, tried to get out of the implications by the feeble argument that workers who had contributed to socialist theory such as Weitling and Proudhon (he could have added Babeuf, Owen and Fourier, who also came from humble backgrounds and never had a university education) did so not as workers but as “intellectuals”.

The only element of Marx's thinking which he did not derive from the working class were his philosophical theories; he learned these from his time at university and they had indeed been developed by “the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals”. However, even if in a much cruder form, materialist, atheist and even evolutionist ideas were widely held by working class activists while Marx was still in short trousers.

Socialist ideas arose when some workers began to reflect on the general position of the working class within capitalist society. They do then have to be communicated to other workers, but not (and this was Lenin and Kautsky's crucial mistake) from outside the working class as a whole. They have to be communicated by other workers who, from their own experience and/or from absorbing the past experience of the working class, have come to a socialist understanding. Socialist theory can in fact be said to be the distilled experience of the working class of capitalism since the time it came into being and which is transmitted not only from generation to generation but also amongst contemporary workers. It is thus not a question of enlightened outsiders bringing socialist ideas to the benighted workers but of socialist-minded workers spreading socialist ideas amongst their fellow workers.

Lenin was not alone in holding Kautsky in high regard at this time. So did we. The first three pamphlets published by the Socialist Party after we were founded in 1904 were translations of his introduction to the 1891 Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democratic Party. Much of his stuff is still worth reading (certainly more than most of Lenin's) but it has since become evident that Kautsky – and the European Social Democratic movement generally – shared Lenin's view of the basic incompetence of the “masses” to act in their own interests. Thus we find Kautsky writing a couple of years before Lenin's What Is To Be Done?:

“ . . . the totality of the members of a class have never been seen to take part in social struggles. Everywhere we find only an elite fighting in the front rank whose political skills testify to the state of maturity of the party. In each class the mass partly follow the elite without showing any initiative and partly abstain from taking part in the struggle. The political sovereignty of the proletariat thus means in fact the sovereignty only of its elite–as we see for the bourgeoisie, for the nobility, for any ruling class. And it should not be expected that the Socialist party will come to power before this elite, joined to the masses following it, has become strong enough to conquer it” (Kautsky, Le Marxisme et son critique Bernstein, Paris, 1900, pp. 358-9).

In other words, Kautsky – and European Social Democracy – also held a manipulative view of politics. The only difference between them and Lenin being that, whereas Lenin thought this manipulating elite should be a self-appointed vanguard of professional revolutionaries, they thought it should be the leaders of a parliamentary party.

Both of them were miles away from Marx's view (incorporated into our declaration of principles) that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”. And both views, when applied, failed to advance the cause of socialism and only “achieved” state capitalism in one form or another. Indeed, a case can be made for seeing neither of them as working-class currents, but essentially as the ideological reflection of the tendency towards state capitalism evident in the first three-quarters of the last century.