Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 4
What is to be done?

SEVERAL YEARS of thought by Lenin on the organisational tasks facing Russian Social Democracy culminated in the writing of the very important book What Is to Be Done? in 1902. Its main theme was “the three questions – the character and main content of the necessary political agitation; the organisational tasks; and the plan for building, simultaneously, and from various sides, a militant, all-Russian organisation.” [1]



The Difference Between Trade Union Consciousness and Socialist Consciousness

Lenin’s views on “the character and main content of the necessary political agitation” developed into an exposition of the difference between trade union politics and socialist politics. As he expressed it: “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.” [2]

Elsewhere he wrote:

the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology ... For the spontaneous working-class movement is trade unionism, is Nur-Gewerkschaftlerei, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie ... [3]

But why, the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination. [4]

Hence, our task, the task of Social Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy ... [5]

He went on to say:

Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. [6]

There is no doubt that this formulation overemphasised the difference between spontaneity and consciousness. For, in fact, the complete separation of spontaneity from consciousness is mechanical and non-dialectical. Lenin, as we shall see later, admitted this. Pure spontaneity does not exist in life – “every ‘spontaneous’ movement contains rudimentary elements of conscious leadership, of discipline.” [7] The smallest strike has at least a rudimentary leadership.

Lenin himself, in an article written at the end of 1899, entitled On strikes, sharply contradicted his later statements in What Is to Be Done? on the relation between the spontaneous class struggle and socialist consciousness. Thus, for instance, he wrote:

Every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the worker’s mind, thoughts of the struggle of the entire working class for emancipation from the oppression of capital ... [8]

A strike teaches workers to understand what the strength of the employers and what the strength of the workers consists in; it teaches them not to think of their own employer alone and not of their own immediate workmates alone but of all the employers, the whole class of capitalists and the whole class of workers ... [9]

A strike, moreover, opens the eyes of the workers to the nature, not only of the capitalists, but of the government and the laws as well. [10]

The logic of the mechanical juxtaposition of spontaneity and consciousness was the complete separation of the party from the actual elements of working-class leadership that had already risen in the struggle. It assumed that the party had answers to all the questions that spontaneous struggle might bring forth. The blindness of the embattled many is the obverse of the omniscience of the few.

In general, the dichotomy between economic and political struggle is foreign to Marx. An economic demand, if it is sectional, is defined as “economic” in Marx’s terms. But if the same demand is made of the state it is “political”:

The attempt in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law, is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class, with the object of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially coercive force ... Every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement. [11]

In many cases economic (sectional) struggles do not give rise to political (classwide) struggles, but there is no Chinese wall between the two, and many economic struggles do spill over into political ones.

Lenin’s “bending of the stick” right over to mechanical overemphasis on organisation in What Is to Be Done? was, nevertheless, quite useful operationally; whereas, over a period of some four to five years, the Marxists in Russia had aroused a desire in the working class for confrontation at factory level, the step now necessary was to arouse, at least in the politically conscious section of the masses, a passion for political action.



The Struggle for Democracy and Socialism

A theme that runs through all Lenin’s writings on the “organisational tasks of the movement” is the need for the revolutionary socialist to support every movement against oppression, not only economic, but also political and cultural, and not only of workers, but of any downtrodden section of society.

The rural superintendents and the flogging of peasants, the corruption of the officials and the police treatment of the “common people” in the cities, the fight against the famine-stricken and the suppression of the popular striving towards enlightenment and knowledge, the extortion of taxes and the persecution of the religious sects, the humiliating treatment of the students and liberal intellectuals – all these and a thousand other similar manifestations of tyranny, though not directly connected with the “economic” struggle, represent, in general, less widely applicable means and occasions for political agitation and for drawing the masses into the political struggle. [12]

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social Democratic point of view and no other. [13]

If these tyrannies are exposed,

the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, etc. [14]

It was in this spirit of support for all those oppressed that Lenin in 1903 suggested the publication of a special periodical for members of religious sects (who numbered more than 10 million in Russia). This is the resolution that he moved at the second Congress:

Draft Resolution on the Publication of a
Periodical for Members of Religious Sects

Bearing in mind that in many of its aspects the sectarian movement in Russia represents one of the democratic trends in Russia, the second Congress calls the attention of all party members to the necessity of working among members of sects so as to bring them under Social Democratic influence. By way of experiment, the Congress permits Comrade Bonch-Bruyevich [1*] to publish, under the supervision of the editorial board of the Central Organ, a popular newspaper entitled Among Sectarians, and instructs the Central Committee and the editorial board of the Central Organ to take the measures necessary to ensure successful publication of this newspaper and to create all the conditions for its proper functioning. [15]

Accordingly a paper called Rassvet (Dawn) was launched, directed toward members of the religious sects. The first issue appeared in January 1904, and it went on appearing – nine issues altogether – until September of the same year. Work among the religious sects had great socialist value. One has only to read Trotsky’s autobiography to see how working-class areas teemed with religious sects opposed to the Greek Orthodox Church. On the whole, this opposition had directly political implications. [16]

Pursuing the theme of the need to react against all forms of oppression, Lenin describes the revolutionary Social Democrat, by comparison with the trade union secretary.

For the secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket (i.e., to warn all and sundry that a strike is proceeding at a certain factory), explains the partiality of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes, etc. etc. In a word every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government” ... The Social Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. [17]



The Need for a Highly Centralised Organisation of Professional Revolutionaries

The organisational forms needed by Social Democracy were derived from the nature of the political tasks. These new tasks of the movement demanded, first of all, a fight to the death against what Lenin called Kustarichestvo – a primitive “handicraft method of organisation.” This is how Lenin described the typical Marxist study circle existing during the period 1894–1901.

A students’ circle establishes contacts with workers and sets to work, without any connection with the old members of the movement, without any connection with study circles in other districts, or even in other parts of the same city (or in other educational institutions), without any organisation of the various divisions of revolutionary work, without any systematic plan of activity covering any length of time. The circle gradually expands its propaganda and agitation; by its activities it wins the sympathies of fairly large sections of workers and of a certain section of the educated strata, which provide it with money and from among whom the “committee” recruits new groups of young people. The attractive power of the committee ... grows, its sphere of activity becomes wider, and the committee expands this activity quite spontaneously.

[It will] now establish contacts with other groups of revolutionaries, procure literature, set to work to publish a local newspaper, begin to talk of organising a demonstration, and finally turn to open warfare (which may, according to circumstances, take the form of issuing the first agitational leaflet or the first issue of a newspaper, or of organising the first demonstration). Usually the initiation of such actions ends in an immediate and complete fiasco. Immediate and complete, because this open warfare was not the result of a systematic and carefully thought-out and gradually prepared plan for a prolonged and stubborn struggle, but simply the result of the spontaneous growth of traditional study circle work [18]

One cannot help comparing this kind of warfare with that conducted by a mass of peasants, armed with clubs, against modern troops. And one can only wonder at the vitality of the movement which expanded, grew, and scored victories despite the total lack of training on the part of the fighter. True, from the historical point of view, the primitiveness of equipment was not only inevitable at first, but even legitimate as one of the conditions for the wide recruiting of fighters, but as soon as serious war operations began (and they began in fact with the strikes in the summer of 1896), the defects in our fighting organisations made themselves felt to an ever-increasing degree. [19]

The amateur nature of the movement made it vulnerable to disastrous police raids.

The government ... very soon adapted itself to the new conditions of the struggle and managed to deploy well its perfectly equipped detachments of agents provocateurs, spies, and gendarmes. Raids became so frequent, affected such a vast number of people, and cleared out the local study circles so thoroughly that the masses of the workers lost literally all their leaders, the movement assumed an amazingly sporadic character, and it became utterly impossible to establish continuity and coherence in the work. The terrible dispersion of the local leaders; the fortuitous character of the study circles’ memberships; the lack of training in, and the narrow outlook on, theoretical, political, and organisational questions were all the inevitable result of the conditions described above. Things have reached such a pass that in several places the workers, because of our lack of self-restraint and the ability to maintain secrecy, begin to lose faith in the intellectuals and to avoid them; the intellectuals, they say, are much too careless and cause police raids! [20]

Harsh criticism indeed. Lenin spares no one, least of all himself.

Let no active worker take offence at these frank remarks for as far as insufficient training is concerned, I apply them first and foremost to myself. I used to work in a study circle that set itself very broad, all-embracing tasks; and all of us, members of that circle, suffered painfully and acutely from the realisation that we were acting as amateurs at a moment in history when we might have been able to say, varying a well-known statement: “Give us an organisation of revolutionaries, and we will overturn Russia!” The more I recall the burning sense of shame I then experienced, the bitterer become my feelings towards those pseudo–Social Democrats whose preachings bring disgrace on the calling of a revolutionary, who fail to understand that our task is not to champion the degrading of the revolutionary to the level of an amateur, but to raise the amateurs to the level of revolutionaries. [21]

His positive conclusions are that “a stable organisation of leaders maintaining continuity” be established;

that such an organisation must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity; that in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership of such an organisation to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organisation. [22]

And the recruitment of professional revolutionaries for the movement should not be restricted to the circles of students and intelligentsia.

A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and “promising” must not be left to work 11 hours a day in a factory. We must arrange that he be maintained by the party; that he may go underground in good time; that he change the place of his activity, if he is to enlarge his experience, widen his outlook, and be able to hold out for at least a few years in the struggle against the gendarmes. [23]

A number of his opponents in the Menshevik camp in later years accused Lenin of raising the intelligentsia above the workers in What Is to Be Done? But this is not so. In fact, he attacks the intelligentsia for being “careless and sluggish in their habits.” Unlike the workers, who are accustomed to discipline by factory life, the intellectuals have to be disciplined with an iron rod by the party. Above all, their role in the party is transitory. “The role of the intelligentsia is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary.” [24]



Iskra as a Tool of Organisation

From the moment when publication of Iskra was started, Lenin made it clear that the paper must serve as a weapon for building a centralised all-Russian organisation. In an article called Where to begin (Iskra, no.4), he wrote that “the role of a newspaper” should not be

limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour. With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence those events. The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the all-Russian work, and test their strength in the organisation of various revolutionary actions.

This network of agents will form the skeleton of precisely the kind of organisation we need – one that is sufficiently broad and many-sided to effect a strict and detailed division of labour; sufficiently well tempered to be able to conduct steadily its own work under any circumstances, at all “sudden turns,” and in face of all contingencies; sufficiently flexible to be able, on the one hand, to avoid an open battle against an overwhelming enemy, when the enemy has concentrated all his forces at one spot, and yet, on the other, to take advantage of his unwieldiness and to attack him when and where he least expects it. [25]



The Newspaper as Organiser of Leaders for a Future Armed Uprising

Lenin’s creative imagination did not stop at seeing the paper as an organiser of a party of agitators. In What Is to Be Done? he explained that the network of the paper’s agents should become the basis for the organisation of a future armed uprising against Tsarism.

The organisation, which will form round this newspaper ... will be ready for everything from upholding the honor, the prestige and the continuity of the party in periods of acute revolutionary “depression” to preparing for, appointing the time for, and carrying out the nationwide armed uprising. ... Picture to yourselves a popular uprising. Probably everyone will now see that we must think of this and prepare for it. But how? ... A network of agents that would form in the course of establishing and distributing the common newspaper would not have to “sit about and wait” for the call for an uprising, but could carry on the regular activity that would guarantee the highest probability of success in the event of an uprising. Such activity would strengthen our contacts with the broadest strata of the working masses and with all social strata that are discontented with the autocracy, which is of such importance for an uprising. Precisely such activity would serve to cultivate the ability to estimate correctly the general political situation and, consequently, the ability to select the proper moment for an uprising. Precisely such activity would train all local organisations to respond simultaneously to the same political questions, incidents, and events that agitate the whole of Russia and to react to such “incidents” in the most vigorous, uniform, and expedient manner possible; for an uprising is in essence the most vigorous, most uniform, and most expedient “answer” of the entire people to the government. Lastly, it is precisely such activity that would train all revolutionary organisations throughout Russia to maintain the most continuous, and at the same time the most secret, contacts with one another thus creating real party unity; for without such contacts it will be impossible collectively to discuss the plan for the uprising and to take the necessary preparatory measures on the eve, measures that must be kept in the strictest secrecy. [26]

“The thing we need,” he said, “is a military organisation of agents.” [27] 1905 was not far off!



The Party Structure

The organisational plan advocated by Lenin in What Is to Be Done? was further elaborated with great clarity in a document he wrote a few months later, called Letter to a Comrade on our Organisational Tasks, which was widely circulated and then printed as a pamphlet in 1904.

The party should have two leading centres: a CO (Central Organ) and a CC (Central Committee). The former should be responsible for ideological leadership, and the latter for direct and practical leadership. The former should be placed beyond the reach of the Russian gendarmes, and assured of consistency and stability, and hence would have to be abroad.

Below the level of the Central Committee, the apparatus should consist of two kinds of groups: local and functional (industrial). The local committee “should consist of fully convinced Social Democrats who devote themselves entirely to Social Democratic activities.” It should not be large.

As far as possible the committees should not have very many members ... but at the same time they should include a sufficient number to take charge of all aspects of the work, and to ensure full representation and binding decisions. Should it happen that the number of members is fairly large and that it is hazardous for them to meet frequently, it might then be necessary to select from the committee a special and very small executive group (consisting of, say, five, or even fewer persons), which should without fail include the secretary and those most capable of giving practical guidance to the work as a whole. [28]

The following institutions would be needed under the jurisdiction of the local committees:

(1) discussion meetings (conferences) of the “best” revolutionaries, (2) district circles with (3) a propagandists’ circle attached to each of these, (4) factory circles, and (5) “meetings of representatives” of delegates from the factory circles of a given district. I fully agree with you that all further institutions (and of these there should be very many and extremely diversified ones, besides those mentioned by you) should be subordinated to the committee, and that it is necessary to have district groups (for the very big cities) and factory groups (always and everywhere). [29]

In large cities, there was a need for district groups, which should serve as “intermediaries” between the local committee and factory committees.

Now about the factory circles. These are particularly important to us: The main strength of the movement lies in the organisation of the workers at the large factories, for the large factories (and mills) contain not only the predominant part of the working class, as regards numbers, but even more as regards influence, development, and fighting capacity. Every factory must be our fortress.

As soon as the factory subcommittee has been formed it should proceed to organise a number of factory groups and circles with diverse tasks and varying degrees of secrecy and organisational form, as, for instance, circles for delivering and distributing literature (this is one of the most important functions, which must be organised so as to provide us with a real postal service of our own, so as to possess tried and tested methods, not only for distributing literature, but also for delivering to the homes, and so as to provide a definite knowledge of all workers’ addresses and ways of reaching them): circles for reading illegal literature; groups for tracking down spies; circles for giving circles of agitators and propagandists who know how to initiate special guidance to the trade union movement and the economic struggle; and to carry on long talks in an absolutely legal way (on machinery, inspectors, etc.).

The factory organisation was to have as its core a small group of revolutionaries under the control of the local committee. “Every member of the factory committee should regard himself as an agent of the committee, obliged to submit to all its orders and to observe all the ‘laws and customs’ of the ‘army in the field’ which he has joined and from which in time of war he has no right to absent himself without official leave.” [30]

Lenin’s party structure aimed at achieving the maximum division of labour, a real interventionist, centralist leadership, and the widest possible spread of responsibility and initiative among the membership as a whole. The central principle of party activity was described as follows:

while the greatest possible centralisation is necessary with regard to the ideological and practical leadership of the movement and the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, the greatest possible decentralisation is necessary with regard to keeping the party centre (and therefore the party as a whole) informed about the movement, and with regard to responsibility to the party. The leadership of the movement should be entrusted to the smallest possible number of the most homogeneous possible groups of professional revolutionaries with great practical experience. Participation in the movement would extend to the greatest possible number of the most diverse and heterogeneous groups of the most varied sections of the proletariat (and other classes of the people) ... We must centralise the leadership of the movement. We must also ... as far as possible decentralise responsibility to the party on the part of its individual members, of every participant in its work, and of every circle belonging to or associated with the party. This decentralisation is an essential prerequisite of revolutionary centralisation and an essential corrective to it. [31]



Lenin’s Distaste for Red Tape and Rule-Mongering

On rules, Lenin has this to say:

What is needed is not rules but the organisation of party information, if I may put it in this way. Each of our local organisations now spends at least a few evenings on discussing rules. If instead, each member would devote this time to making a detailed and well-prepared report to the entire party on his particular function, the work would gain a hundred fold.

And it is not merely because revolutionary work does not always lend itself to definite organisational form that rules are useless. No, definite organisational form is necessary, and we must endeavour to give such form to all our work as far as possible. That is permissible to a much greater extent than is generally thought, and achievable not through rules but solely and exclusively (we must keep on reiterating this) through transmitting organisational form connected with real responsibility and inner-party publicity. [32]

It will, I hope, have become clear to the reader that in fact it would perhaps be possible to get along without rules, substituting for them regular reports about each circle and every aspect of the work.[33]

As a matter of fact, when Lenin, in late June or early July 1903, did draw up draft rules for the RDSLP, they were extremely simple and few in number. And they were fully in the spirit of What Is to Be Done? and Letter to a Comrade. [34]

Lenin refers with amusement to Martov’s rules: drowned in a “flood of verbiage and bureaucratic formulas (that is, formulas useless for the work and supposed to be useful for display).” [35] This list of rules – 48 paragraphs as against Lenin’s 12 – “indeed, is hypertrophy of verbiage, or real bureaucratic formalism, which frames superfluous, patently useless or red-tapist, points and paragraphs.” [36]

In practice, Lenin’s faction was for a long time very informal indeed. He started to build his organisation through Iskra agents. When, after the second Congress, as we shall see, he lost the support of his own Central Committee, he reorganised his supporters around a newly convened conference that elected a Russian Bureau. When, in 1909, he split with Bogdanov, he removed him at a meeting of an enlarged editorial board of the journal Proletary, although Bogdanov had been elected to the Bolshevik Centre by the Congress of 1907.

An overformal party structure inevitably clashes with two basic features of the revolutionary movement: (1) the unevenness in consciousness, militancy, and dedication of different parts of the revolutionary organisation; and (2) the fact that members who play a positive, vanguard role at a certain stage of the struggle fall behind at another.



“Hero” and “Crowd”

One of the main interpretations given to What Is to Be Done? both by later Menshevik opponents of Lenin and by his epigones, the Stalinists, was that it put the emphasis on “heroes” to the detriment of the crowd.

This interpretation is completely unjustified. Indeed, throughout his life, nothing was more alien to Lenin’s way of thinking than to draw a distinction between the “hero” and the “crowd.” Even if the hero loves the crowd, he cannot but look down on it. The shaping of an inert mass depends entirely on him. Lenin never looked at himself in the mirror of history. Lunacharsky contrasted Trotsky with Lenin, writing: “Trotsky is undoubtedly often prone to step back and watch himself. Trotsky treasures his historical role and would probably be ready to make any personal sacrifice, not excluding the greatest sacrifice of all – that of his life – in order to go down in human memory surrounded by the aureole of a genuine revolutionary leader. His ambition has the same characteristic.” [37] As against this, “Lenin is not in the least ambitious ... I do not believe that Lenin ever steps back and looks at himself, never even thinks what posterity will say about him – he simply gets on with his job.”

Those who knew Lenin noted with surprise his complete lack of self-importance. Angelica Balabanova said that she could not remember when she first met him in exile, that “externally he seemed the most colorless of all the revolutionary leaders.” Bruce Lockhart, British Consul in Moscow in 1917, when he first saw Lenin after the October Revolution, thought “at a first glance [that he] looked more like a provincial grocer than a leader of men.” [38] And Clara Zetkin tells the story of his reception of a delegation of German communists. Accustomed to the Marxists of the Reichstag with their frock coats and their official self-importance, these Germans had expected something else. Lenin kept his appointment so punctually, entered the room so unobtrusively, and talked to them so naturally and simply, that it never occurred to them that they were meeting Lenin.

One old Bolshevik recorded in his memoirs, published in 1924: “The impression he made on me, and probably not on me alone, was at first quite ambiguous. His homely, at first sight common, appearance, did not impress us very much.” [39]

Maxim Gorky described his first impression of Lenin thus: “I had not expected Lenin to be like that. For me, there was something lacking. He rolled his ‘r’s’ and stood with arms akimbo, somehow poking his fists under his armpits. In a way he was too ordinary. He did not give the impression of a ‘leader’.” [40]

He was personally very unassuming. One finds him filling in a party questionnaire, dated 13 February 1922, as follows: “Spoken language: Russian. What other languages can you freely speak: I can freely speak in none.” [41] Actually, Lenin read and spoke German, French, and English fluently, and could read Italian as well. If there were any doubt of this, his participation in sessions and committees of the Comintern would be proof enough.

Above all, he never tried to bask in the reflected glory of his brother Alexander’s martyrdom, following his execution by the Tsarist autocracy in 1887. In all the 55 volumes of the fifth, last, and most complete edition of Lenin’s Works, Alexander’s name is mentioned only incidentally, and only three times: in a purely factual statement in which Lenin was answering a questionnaire; in a letter written in 1921, in which he recommended a certain Chebotarev, “I have known Chebotarev from the 1880s in connection with the case of my elder brother, Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov, hanged in 1887. Chebotarev is undoubtedly an honest man”; and in an article in which the name of Alexander Ulyanov was mentioned among others executed for the same plot.



The Rising Revolutionary Movement

The “economism” that Lenin attacked so sharply in What Is to Be Done? was already on the decline and practically finished by the time the pamphlet saw the light of day. A few years later, Lenin could state that from 1898 to 1900, the “economist” Rabocheye Dyelo-ists were stronger than the Iskrists both abroad and in Russia. [42] But after that, “economism” declined rapidly. The period of industrial prosperity in Russia came to an end in 1898–99, and the strike movement began to weaken; the number of workers involved in strikes in 1901 was only one-third of that in 1899. The character of the strikes also changed: they became much more desperate. Unemployment increased, and there were several riots that were dealt with by police and troops. Revolutionary agitation increased, and a series of organised street demonstrations took place.

The years 1900–03, during which Lenin was very busy building up Iskra, creating a national network of agents, of professional revolutionaries, as the backbone of a future party, were also years of a massive rise in revolutionary feeling in Russia.

As has happened before and since, the student movement preceded the mass working-class movement. When the crisis in society is deep, but the working class is not yet ready to take on the task of overcoming it, it is often the case that the students come forward. In 1899, a stormy student movement emerged. Different student organisations were formed and conflicts became more and more frequent. The students’ protests against police oppression took on a mass character.

In February 1899, the brutal methods used by the Petersburg police against the students brought about a general strike of university students throughout the country. About 5,000 students took part. A few months later, a small student demonstration took place in Kiev, caused by the exile of some colleagues who had spoken at a student meeting. As a result, 183 students were arrested and drafted into the army. The procedure in Petersburg was similar, and 30 students were sent on military service as a punishment.

The entire student body became very agitated. Meetings were held in every university, and leaflets were distributed calling for a united protest. On 4 March, when a procession of students in the streets of Kharkov was broken up by the police, a mass of workers joined the students, and throughout the day there were clashes with the police in the streets; revolutionary songs were sung and calls against the government became louder. A few days later, when hundreds of Moscow students were arrested and imprisoned in Marstall, huge groups of workers and petty bourgeoisie gathered in front of the building, expressing their sympathy with the students. [43]

Such large-scale activity meant that the social crisis was deepening, but the working masses were still slow to move. The year 1900 passed comparatively peacefully for the working class. But there was a general strike in Kharkov on 1 May, brought about by the intensive agitation of the Social Democratic local committees. In this strike, political demands were raised, which, in a sense, made the strike a turning point in the development of the Russian working-class movement. [44]

The movement grew rapidly after that. From 1901 onwards, workers in Kharkov, Moscow, Tomsk, and other cities also began to participate in student demonstrations, giving them a much more combative, forceful character. Bloody clashes with police and troops became more and more common. An attempt to crush the 1 May 1901, strike at the Obukhov munitions factory in the Vyborg district of St. Petersburg turned into a military siege of the factory, as a result of which as many as 800 workers were arrested. (Many of them were sentenced to hard labour by a military court.)

In the winter of 1901–02, a general strike of more than 30,000 students took place. On 19 February 1901, on the 40th anniversary of the emancipation of the peasants, a mass demonstration organised by students was joined by a large number of workers. Even more impressive were the demonstrations in Moscow on 23–26 February. There workers came out in tens of thousands, and several times drove back the Cossacks, who attacked them with whips. Moscow for the first time saw barricades in the streets. Following this, in March, and then in May, mass demonstrations took place in Petersburg, culminating in a battle between the workers of the Obukhov works and the police: six workers were killed and 80 wounded. Similar workers’ riots took place in Tiflis in April and in Ekaterinoslav in December.

In November 1902, a railway strike took place in Rostovon-Don. This turned into a general solidarity strike of all the city’s factories. During the strikes, mass meetings of tens of thousands of workers took place, many addressed by Social Democratic speakers. In July 1903, a new wave of strikes broke out, this time not confined to single cities. They spread over the whole of Ukraine and Transcaucasia. Political strikes broke out in Baku, Tiflis, Odessa, Nikolayev, Kiev, Elisavetgrad, Ekaterinoslav, and Kerch. About 250,000 workers took part in all. These strikes were accompanied by revolutionary demonstrations, which were brutally suppressed by the police and the army.

During the years 1901–03, workers became the main active political opponents of Tsarism. This is shown clearly from the data available for the occupations of the people in the liberation movement who were charged with state crimes. [45] For every 100 such persons, there were:


























Although urban workers were a minority of the population, they provided almost half of the participants. The intelligentsia and the students were already in second place. [46] Thus the course of events – as well as the activities of the Iskrists – cut the ground from beneath the feet of “economism.” As Lenin said later: “The fight against ‘economism’ subsided and came to an end altogether as far back as 1902.” [47]




1*. V. Bonch-Bruyevich was a leading authority on the sectarian movements in Russia and had published a number of volumes of his investigations. He was a close collaborator with Lenin, supporting him at the second Congress and remaining in the Bolshevik camp throughout. During and after the 1905 Revolution, he was active in organizing the Bolshevik underground press.



1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, p.349.

2. ibid., p.375.

3. ibid., p.384.

4. ibid., p.386.

5. ibid., pp.384-85.

6. ibid., p.422.

7. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, op. cit., p.197.

8. ibid., vol.4, pp.315.

9. ibid., p.316.

10. ibid.

11. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Moscow 1972, p.57.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, p.402.

13. ibid., p.412.

14. ibid., p.425.

15. ibid., vol.6, p.475.

16. See Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., pp.106-07.

17. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5, p.423.

18. ibid., pp.441-42.

19. ibid., p.442

20. ibid., p.443.

21. ibid., p.467.

22. ibid., p.464.

23. ibid., pp.472-73.

24. ibid., vol.1, p.298.

25. ibid., vol.5, pp.22-23.

26. ibid., 514-16.

27. ibid., p.515.

28. ibid., vol.6, p.238.

29. ibid., p.238.

30. ibid., pp.243-45.

31. ibid., pp.248-49.

32. ibid., p.252.

33. ibid., p.251

34. ibid., pp.476-78.

35. One step forward, two steps back, ibid., vol.7, p.244.

36. ibid., p.246.

37. Lunacharsky, op. cit., p.69.

38. B. Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent, London 1932, pp.233-34.

39. M.A. Silvin, To the Biography of V.I. Lenin, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.7, 1924, p.68.

40. Gorky, Lenin, op. cit., p.13.

41. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.42, p.457.

42. ibid., vol.16, p.253.

43. J. Martow, Geschichte der russischen Sozialdemokratie, Berlin 1926, pp.49-50.

44. ibid., p.60.

45. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.19, p.329.

46. ibid., p.330.

47. ibid., vol.7, p.384.


Last updated on 10.12.2003