A reading group in Brisbane is currently studying Lars Lih's Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done In Context. These are some notes from its discussions.
Lih's book has formidable documentation (867 pages). Its basic idea is simple. Lenin's argument in What Is To Be Done? is for urgency and decisiveness in the creation of a working-class socialist party in Russia on the model that the German Social Democratic Party had mapped out at its Erfurt Congress of 1891. His charge against other socialists is not that they over-estimating workers' political awareness, but that they under-estimate workers' political awareness and openness to socialist political education, and thus license themselves to be less urgent about their activity for socialism.
The conventional interpretation of What Is To Be Done? is the very opposite of the truth. That interpretation says that What Is To Be Done? was an argument for creating a new sort of party in which, because workers' own political aptitude is limited, socialist awareness will be concentrated among select activists who will (somehow: it is never explained how) be able to lead the workers.
There is arguably quite sufficient evidence for Lih's thesis in the text of What Is To Be Done? alone, even in the usual English translations.
Lih, however, makes the evidence overwhelming by a detailed discussion of Lenin's writings and polemics, and the writings of those with whom he clashed within the Russian scientific-socialist movement.
("Scientific-socialist" is probably the term nearest in meaning to Lenin's term Social-Democrat, which today has different connotations. "Social-Democrat" was narrower than "socialist", because the Russian populists were also socialists in a generic sense. "Social-Democratic" was narrower even than "Marxist", since many of the populists were Marxists in a generic sense. "Social-Democrat", for Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, means something like "socialist armed with the strategic conceptions outlined by documents like the Erfurt Programme and Plekhanov's classic polemics against the populists").
Lih shows that many of the passages in What Is To Be Done? famously adduced as proof of the conventional interpretation can be used that way only because of mistranslation or being taken out of context.
The Russian word usually rendered in English translations of What Is To Be Done? as "spontaneity" does have "spontaneity" listed as a possible translation in dictionaries. But the Russian word is from an adjective meaning "elemental", and signifying activity of an instinctive sort, not purposefully linked to long-term aims and strategies. It connotes lack of control by the person over the activity. The English word "spontaneous", by contrast, connotes lack of external control over the person who is active.
Different Russian words are rendered in English translations of What Is To Be Done? as "conscious" or "consciousness". Often a more precise equivalent would be "purposive".
The Russian term "tred-unionizm", usually rendered as "trade-unionism", actually means "the ideology that urges workers to limit themselves to trade unions".
The passage where Lenin says that "the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness" has to be read in the context of a dispute between Lenin and others over whether the workers' strike wave in Russia in the 1890s could have led to the emergence of a mass scientific-socialist workers' movement if only the socialists had been organised and active enough. Lenin thinks it could.
Yes, he concedes, the workers' movement did not in fact develop that far. But in no country had the workers' movement developed into a mass scientific-socialist movement without the previously convinced scientific-socialists, the people who had had the chance to read Marx's books and so on, organising themselves efficiently to bring the theory to the workers. In other countries the workers have proved able to assimilate the main ideas of that theory with tremendous aptitude. The Russian workers could have done the same, if only the previously convinced scientific-socialists had been organised and active enough.
Lenin makes clear in the immediately preceding paragraph that his argument is about the insufficient responsiveness of the scientific-socialists, not about the insufficient responsiveness of the workers: "the strength of the present-day movement lies in the awakening of the masses (principally, the industrial proletariat) and... its weakness lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders".
"The failure [at the time] merely showed that the Social-Democrats of that period were unable to meet the immediate requirements of the time owing to their lack of revolutionary experience and practical training... [But then] there appeared people — and even Social-Democratic organs — that were prepared to regard shortcomings as virtues, that even tried to invent a theoretical basis for their slavish cringing before spontaneity... Economism".
The passage which Lenin quotes from Kautsky about scientific-socialist consciousness being brought into the working class "from without" is no snootiness. It is a plain and simple statement that Capital did not originate as a strike committee bulletin, or the Communist Manifesto as a trade union branch circular, solely through instinctive responses to economic grievances. The theory is a theory based on and of the class struggle, but it is a theory, existing in books and relatively complicated arguments. Workers take part in developing the theory, but, of course, "as socialist theoreticians... in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge".
"The workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only a few (bad) intellectuals believe that it is enough 'for workers' to be told a few things about factory conditions".
The snootiness is not with Lenin, but with those he argues against, who have read scientific-socialist theory, but say it is inopportune or sectarian or hopeless to take such ideas into the working class.
If we expand the historical background a bit beyond what Lih gives in his book, the argument is strengthened.
Mass socialistic ferment had existed among the "intelligentsia " (educated young people) in Russia ever since soon after the abolition of serfdom in 1861.
In summer 1874 it reached sufficient scale that many hundreds of students abandoned their studies to "go to the people", hoping to rouse Russia's peasants to throw off the Tsarist regime and create a socialist Russia based on the peasant communes.
The peasants were hostile or uncomprehending, and usually beat the students or turned them over to the police.
By 1876 the remaining activists regrouped in the famous Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) organisation. It was tighter-knit, and planned to appeal to the peasants by demanding redistribution of the land rather than immediate socialism.
By 1879 Zemlya i Volya too was at a dead-end. It split. The majority supported a new group called Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), which now aimed as a first stage to disorganise the regime by killing the Tsar and other officials and so force the granting of a democratic constitution within which progress to socialism could later be made.
Narodnaya Volya never had more than a few hundred activists. It killed the Tsar in 1881. There followed, not democracy, but police repression which by 1883 had reduced Narodnaya Volya to fragments.
The leading members of the minority from Zemlya i Volya, George Plekhanov and his comrades, rethought their ideas, and founded the Emancipation of Labour Group, dedicated to the idea that socialists must aim to merge their movement with that of the working class to create a working-class socialist party which could then lead the whole of the working people in a democratic revolution.
At first Plekhanov and his comrades were isolated. But in the 1890s there was a surge both of radicalisation among Russian youth, and of struggle among Russian workers.
Marxist (Plekhanovite) influence grew rapidly. New people such as Lenin and Martov and Trotsky became active.
Simultaneously, in Western Europe, the German Social Democratic Party emerged triumphant from 12 years of being banned under Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws. It was stronger than it had been when Bismarck had banned it. It was also now Marxist, committed to a strategy based on the Communist Manifesto, where in 1878 it had been an amalgam of disparate strands of socialistic thinking.
Lenin in What Is To Be Done? advocates urgency and decisiveness in the creation of a working-class socialist party in Russia on the Germann model; but all scientific-socialists in Russia shared that general aim.
The idea, common among bourgeois commentators on Lenin, that Lenin would have looked back to the failed methods of Narodnaya Volya as a model instead, makes no sense at all.
The remaining "Narodniks" - populists, people who looked to the tradition of Narodnaya Volya - were also energised and brought new recruits by the ferment of the 1890s. But when they finally reorganised themselves - into the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) party, in early 1902, only weeks before What Is To Be Done? was published - their new party was much nearer the German model than the Narodnaya Volya model.
The SR party had a "military wing", dedicated to assassinating Tsarist officials. But that was kept separate from the main party, which produced newspapers and agitated about daily political and economic issues. The SRs recognised the working class as an equally important factor with the peasantry. They advocated a two-stage revolution in which first political democracy would be won, and then a direct struggle for socialism could start.