“What Is To Be Done?” In This Post?

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Original Cover of “What Is To Be Done?”

Before the Revolution of 1905, Vladimir Lenin rose up as a leader of the revolution. When the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was formed in 1898, Vladimir Lenin was part of the process from the get go. Lenin was active with the Marxist group, however he had his own ideas about how to achieve a revolution that differed from other Marxist groups. In a 1902 work titled “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin revealed his stance on the subject of how a party of revolutionaries should be organized for a successful revolution.

In “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin does seems to write for the socialist movement as a whole, but he also seems to write to particular socialist revolutionaries as he addressed his idea of the correct form of organization in a party. Lenin states that the revolution cannot become dependent upon the uprising of the workers, for to do so would mean that no revolution would occur. Lenin emphasized this point by stating that “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.” Therefore, the employees may rise against their employers and develop trade unions as a result, however they would stop there. Lenin believed that the working class may rise, but they will only get as far as forming trade unions, which does not come close to reaching the scale of an uprising that is needed for a revolution.

Vladimir Lenin

Therefore, Lenin came to the conclusion that “the more widely the masses are spontaneously drawn into the struggle and form the basis of the movement and participate in it,” the more necessary it is that there remain “a stable organisation of leaders to maintain continuity.” Lenin believed that there needed to be revolutionary leaders at the top of the party. These leaders must be people who are solely focused on the revolution and live for it. For example, they could not participate as a leader part time after they finished their shift at work. Lenin believed there needed to be leaders who were “engaged in revolutionary activities as a profession” in order for a revolution to rise.

In his work, Lenin also strongly asserts that groups, such as Rabochaya mysl (The Workers’ Thought) and Rabocheye Dyelo, who “’defended’ the Economists,” that approve of dragging on the movement in a gradual manner would “be of no service to the movement.” This is where the term “tailism” comes from as Lenin argues that those “who are determined always to follow behind the movement and be its tail are absolutely and forever guaranteed against ‘belittling the spontaneous element of development.'” Just as Lenin scorns the Economists for opting for a more gradual path to revolution, Lenin also appears to view terror as on the opposite extreme of the spectrum. Lenin views “the utterly unsound Economism and the preaching of moderation, and the equally unsound ‘excitative terror’” as an obstacle in how to appropriately organize a revolutionary party.

All in all, Lenin saw the workers as incapable of rising to a revolution themselves and they needed an organized group of Marxist leaders that worked solely for revolution. Lenin believed that in following this method, as opposed to gradual or terrorist extremes of revolution, a revolution had a better chance of forming.


“Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed September 7, 2014. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm.

“Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Primitiveness of the Economists and the Organization of the Revolutionaries.” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed September 7, 2014. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iv.htm.

“Modern History Sourcebook: Vladimir Illyich Lenin: What is to be Done, 1902.” Fordham University. Accessed September 7, 2014.  http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1902lenin.asp.

Vladimir Lenin Image retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Lenin

“What Is To Be Done?” Image retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_to_Be_Done%3F#cite_note-5




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6 Responses to “What Is To Be Done?” In This Post?

  1. leahw93 says:

    You provided some good analysis on one of the more difficult topics dealing with the revolution. I like how you pointed out that Lenin believed in revolutionaries as a profession, which is a key takeaway from his writings. I have always found it interesting that for a revolution centered around improving conditions for the working class, he didn’t actually see the working class as completely capable of making the whole thing happen.

  2. A. Nelson says:

    What a clear, cogent discussion of WITBD! I love how you balance out specific detail from Lenin’s debates with the main concepts of a professional party of revolutionaries.

  3. A. Nelson says:

    Please set your comments so they don’t get stuck in moderation!

  4. jenniferh says:

    I think Lenin’s idea that workers alone cannot rise up alone and cause a revolution still reflects traditional Marxism, in the sense that Marx talks in the Communist Manifesto about the bourgeoisie being their own grave diggers in a proletariat revolution. This to me is similar to the workers getting help from the educated class in Russia.

    Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Comp. Lawrence Hugh Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994. Print.

  5. A. Lengyel says:

    I find it hard to believe that Lenin denounced any kind of terror tactics. Though he does speak of “excitative terror” as an obstacle to revolution, when I read the sections of “What is to be Done?” I assumed that his opposition to terrorism was simply rhetorical. Lenin had to have known that overthrowing not only an economic system, but also an autocracy that had been in place for centuries, would necessitate extreme measures such as terrorism. In fact, Freeze alludes to certain Marxist groups agitating, aiding, and abetting the Labor movement in the late 1800’s (pg. 242). Of course, Lenin could not have openly supported terrorism. He would have certainly been arrested and possibly executed for such a stance, but I feel that even if he did not condone it, he at least looked the other way when such tactics benefited the revolutionary movement.

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