BURNING ISSUES OF OUR MOVEMENT, INDEED!!
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?-BURNING QUESTIONS OF OUR MOVEMENT, V. I. LENIN. International Publishers, New York, 1969
Every militant who wants to fight for socialism, or put the fight for socialism back on the front burner, needs to read this book. Every radical who believes that society can be changed by just a few adjustments needs to read this book in order to understand the limits of such a position. Thus, it is necessary for any politically literate person of this new generation to go through the arguments of this classic of Marxist literature in order to understand the strategic perspective for socialism in the 21st century. Older militants can also benefit from a re-reading of this work. Except for the obvious change of names and organizations from those with which Lenin argued on my re-reading of this document I was astonished by the appropriateness of the arguments presented.
Militants of my generation, the Generation of ‘68, came late to an appreciation of the importance of this book and spent a lot of wasted time and energy on other strategies. Those so-called New Left theories that ran the gamut from mild social reform through vicarious guerilla warfare to revolutionary terror had, however, one common axis-denial of the centrality of the working class as the motor force for revolution, especially in the advanced capitalist countries. Once the most thoughtful of us came understand the bankruptcy of our previous strategies Lenin’s little book became compulsory reading. Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? thus takes it place as one of the basic documents of the revolutionary Marxist movement along with Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto.
Although the book was written to address the disputes among socialists at the beginning of the 20th century the arguments presented have relevance today. And what are those arguments. There are three main points which are interrelated; the need for a fight against a reformist and for a revolutionary perspective to fight to the end for establishment of a socialist order; the need for a revolutionary organization of professional revolutionaries to lead the vanguard of the working class to socialism; and, the necessity for an independent vanguard both in its relationship to the working class as a whole and to other social classes. Although the political opponents that Lenin was polemizing against, and this document is a polemic, are long gone and his literary style would not be to today’s taste these were and continue to be the defining issues of revolutionary strategy today.
After the experience of one hundred years of reformist socialist practice under capitalism it is hard to believe that the fight against such a limitation of the socialist program was a central argument that animated not only the Russian revolutionary movement but the international social democracy as well. The fight against revision of the Marxist program of class struggle and the need to fundamentally change the structure of society that began in that period seeped into the Russian movement as well. Thus, it was therefore necessary to polemize against this trend. Lenin, and others, rose to the occasion. Their argument, in short, was- Do you fight to the finish against the old social order or not? In Lenin’s case we know the answer. Readers can decide for themselves whether he was right.
The controversy over the kind of organization necessary to lead the masses to socialism has been present since at least the 1800’s. The forms have varied over time from self-contained revolutionary conspiracies to revolutionary terrorist cells to mass reformist parties confined to the parliamentary struggle. Lenin brought a new concept to the organization question among Marxists, not only for Russia but also after the seizure of power, in the Communist International for international strategy. Simply put, if you do not want to make a revolution you do not need a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries. Moreover, these revolutionaries act as tribunes of the people fighting against all kinds of arbitrary action. If you do want to make a revolution, you need to address the organization question. The challenge is not to get caught up in the form. One thing is certain you cannot fight to the end against capitalism with a party that has two wings- reformist and revolutionary. Come the time of the struggle for power and you have former comrades on different sides of the barricade. Thus, study this question with care.
At that time Lenin wrote (1902) the question of what classes will lead the revolution and what forces will it rely on was a central question, especially in the Russian socialist movement. In the West at the time it was obvious that the working class was the central agency and that it would rely on an alliance with the urban and rural petty bourgeoisies. In Russia, however, which had not experienced some form of bourgeois revolution, the central dispute did not get resolved until October 1917 when the Bolsheviks relying on the peasantry, and especially the declassed peasant soldier resolved the issue. The results, of that victory, as they say, are the subject for another discussion. What is noteworthy here is how skeptical Lenin was of the liberal bourgeoisie this early on as any kind of ally in the revolutionary struggle. That skepticism should be a signpost for today’s militants. No, this should be etched in every militant’s brain. Ally with whoever you can over democratic issues (as long as you retain freedom of criticism) but you must in the current American reality break with the Democratic Party- party of the liberal bourgeoisie This is one of the political textbooks you need to read if you want to change the world. Read it.