‘What is to be Done’ is often thought of as Bolshevism’s orginal sin document. The bit where Lenin admits his elitism unashamedly, and sets his followers down a road that leads inevitably to the gulag. You see, it contains this notorious passage:
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 to the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass this or that necessary labour law, etc. The doctrine of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.
It is easy to see how this might be interpreted as sanctioning elitism (and it would be silly to ignore that many have approvingly quoted it to sanction their own). However, in the context of the rest of this pamphlet this interpretation doesn’t stand up. Lenin is involved in a faction fight with a group of people who are arguing for only agitating around trade union issues. Lenin is arguing, throughout, that socialists need to put politics with a capital P at the forefront of agitation. We need to always move beyond mere trade union struggles, and sometimes this has to mean from ‘outside’.
Some of this is part of an argument about reform or revolution, since the people he is polemicising against were already on the road to rejecting the case for revolution and confronting the state. More interesting though is the guide it offers to action today.
Re-reading it the following passage leapt out:
In the spring of this year, when it was so important to utter a note of warning against infatuation with terrorism, Rabocheye Dyelo stood in amazement, confronted by a problem that was ‘new’ to it. And now, six months after, when the problem has become less topical, it, at one and the same time presents us with the declaration: ‘We think that it is and it should not be the task of Social Democracy to counteract the rise of terroristic sentiments’, and the congress resolution: ‘The congress regards systematic and aggressive terror as being inopportune’. How beautifully clear and coherent this is! Not to counteract, but to declare inopportune…
Maybe its just me but this reminded me of the reaction of certain sections of the left to the construction strikes and the British Jobs for British Workers slogan: Wide eyed amazement that anything is happening, a formal criticism, but rabid denunciation of anyone who criticises too vocally. In some union meetings it has been reported that people who formally reject the British Jobs line have actually been arguing against openly criticising it.
What is to be Done is a useful document. It reminds us that class struggle can erupt in a wide variety of forms, and that socialists should be awake to this. With low levels of unionisation and organisation, often these forms will be unfamiliar, and they will certainly be more volatile. The temptation to merely tail them will be strong. This is a temptation we cannot submit to. From within and without socialists need to argue for politics and direction.