Vladimir Lenin
"What's to Be Done?"

[A KIMBALL FILES "SAC Narrative Extension", abridged and lightly annotated]

In "What's to Be Done?", Lenin presented a Marxist analysis of the social environment in which Russian political activists tried to work. The Russian environment (the "marsh") was hostile to the cause of "socialist theoreticians".{_{ V. I. Lenin, "What's to be Done?", Selected Works in Three Volumes 1 (MVA, 1960): 123-284.}_}

We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire. We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighboring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation. [...] You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don't clutch at us and don't besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are "free" to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning toward the marsh! (131)

Lenin said "there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement...." Lenin interrupted his sentence with a footnote: "This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons [ID] and Weitlings [W-ID]...." (156) The only choice is either bourgeois or socialist ideology. That is settled. No spontaneity necessary because "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...." (157) That's why "the spontaneity of the masses demands a high degree of consciousness from us Social-Democrats. The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political, and organizational work of Social-Democracy." (167)

Consciousness (an "independent ideology") had to overcome being (the "marsh"), or being would engulf and destroy the movement. But at the same time, the movement had to keep pace with changing social and economic reality, not just with stunted workers, but with the "masses" in general. Consciousness, preserved and protected within a distinct and independent party, had to engage with the whole complex "being" out there in the Russian marsh. Consciousness by itself was nothing if it did not mesh with, and transmit direction and motion to, chaotic and spontaneous "being".

The spontaneous upsurge of the masses in Russia proceeded (and continues) with such rapidity that the young Social-Democrats proved unprepared to meet these gigantic tasks. This unpreparedness is our common misfortune, the misfortune of all Russian Social-Democrats. The upsurge of the masses proceeded and spread with uninterrupted continuity; it not only continued in the places where it began, but spread to new localities and to new strata of the population (under the influence of the working-class movement, there was a renewed ferment among the student youth, among the intellectuals generally, and even among the peasantry). Revolutionaries, however, lagged behind this upsurge, both in their "theories" and in their activity; they failed to establish a constant and continuous organization capable of leading the whole movement. (167-8)


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. For that reason, the reply to the question as to what must be done to bring political knowledge to the workers cannot be merely the answer with which, in the majority of cases, the practical worker, especially those inclined toward Economism, mostly content themselves, namely: "To go among the workers." To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social-Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions. (190)


The political struggle of Social-Democracy is far more extensive and complex than the economic struggle of the workers against the employers and the government. Similarly (indeed for that reason), the organization of the revolutionary Social-Democratic Party must inevitably be of a kind different from the organization of the workers designed for this struggle. The workers' organization must in the first place be a trade union organization; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; and thirdly, it must be as public as conditions will allow (here, and further on, of course, I refer only to absolutist Russia). On the other hand, the organization of the revolutionaries must consist first and foremost of people who make revolutionary activity their profession (for which reason I speak of the organization of revolutionaries, meaning revolutionary Social-Democrats). In view of this common characteristic of the members of such an organization, all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, not to speak of distinctions of trade and profession, in both categories, must be effaced. Such an organization must perforce not be very extensive and must be as secret as possible. (216-7)


I assert that it is far more difficult to unearth a dozen wise men than a hundred fools. This position I will defend, no matter how much you instigate the masses against me for my "anti-democratic" views, etc. As I have stated repeatedly, by "wise men, " in connection with organization, I mean professional revolutionaries, irrespective of whether they have developed from among students or working men. I assert: (1) that no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organization of leaders maintaining continuity; (2) that the broader the popular mass drawn spontaneously into the struggle, which forms the basis of the movement and participates in it, the more urgent the need for such an organization, and the more solid this organization must be (for it is much easier for all sorts of demagogues to side-track the more backward sections of the masses); (3) that such an organization must consist chiefly of people 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 organization; and (5) the greater will be the number of people from the working class and from the other social classes who will be able to join the movement and perform active work in it. (226-7) [More on this, pp. 228-9; on publicity, openness, democracy, 238-9]

[Notice the taxonomy. "intellectuals" and "workers" etc., and "Social-Democrats". Note sense of transformation of student or worker into "revolutionary". Similarly, social categories can be dissolved to create "revolutionaries".]

Lenin perceived that if the party organized itself in the way he suggested, its newspaper could "become part of an enormous pair of smith's bellows that would fan every spark of the class struggle and of popular indignation into a general conflagration".

Around the effort of the party,

a regular army of tried fighters would systematically gather and receive their training. On the ladders and scaffolding of this general organizational structure there would soon develop and come to the fore Social-Democratic Zheliabovs [ID] from among our revolutionaries and Russian Bebels [W-ID] from among our workers, who would take their place at the head of the mobilized army and rouse the whole people to settle accounts with the shame and the curse of Russia.

That is what we should dream of!

It is not accidental, as Soviet jargon liked to express it, that Lenin, the son of a minor tsarist school official who through state service earned non-heritable nobility, borrowed the title for this pamphlet from another man of various social background, another raznochinets radical intelligent [ID], another provincial, Nikolai Chernyshevskii [SAC LOOP]. The pamphlet was directed against the notion that a mass revolutionary socialist movement might be expected to grow naturally out of the current trends of Russian historical development. Lenin said no, the party would have to bring revolutionary consciousness to the workers, would have to tighten its organization to protect consciousness and strive to play the decisive leading role in coordinating a wide spectrum of opposition sentiment, among workers, certainly, but also peasants, students, and others. That was his "dream".

Lenin’s was an unforgettable assertion: "We should dream" [Nam nuzhno mechtat’].

"We should dream!" I wrote these words and became alarmed. I imagined myself sitting at a "unity conference’ and opposite me were the Rabochee Delo [Workers Cause, a Menshevik publication] editors and contributors. Comrade Martynov [W-ID] rises and, turning to me, says sternly: "Permit me to ask you, has an autonomous editorial board the right to dream without first soliciting the opinion the Party committees?" He is followed by Comrade Krichevskii, who (philosophically deepening Comrade Martynov, who long ago rendered Comrade Plekhanov [SAC LOOP] more profound) continues even more sternly: "I go further. I ask, has a Marxist any right at all to dream, knowing that according to Marx mankind always sets itself the tasks it can solve and that tactics is a process of the growth of Party tasks which grow together with the Party?"

Notice the lampoon version of basic Marxism which Lenin put in Krichevskii’s mouth, but notice also the telling reference to the famous Marxist dictum "mankind always sets itself the tasks it can solve".

Lenin was vulnerable at this doctrinal moment.  Every comrade recognized the solid, sharp point in the familiar dictum.  The phrase comes from Marx's brilliant 1859 resume of his emerging political-economic philosophy, "A Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" [TXT]. Every good European Social Democrat knew it by heart. "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being," he wrote, "but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

In other words, Marxism had no place for the thought that one could not just think up a good idea and make an actuality out of it. Ideas had to fit the material conditions of life if they had any hope of being realized. "No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed," Marx wrote, "and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve...." Every Marxist knew also Engels' famous warning about "the worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party" [ID]

In his imagined reply to Krichevskii, which might in fact amount to a quibble with Marx himself, Lenin did not select another Marxist quotation.  He reached back to the Russian 1860s, as he had in the choice of the title of this essay.  Now he selected the words of the "nihilist" critic, Dmitrii Pisarev [W-ID].

"There are rifts and rifts," wrote Pisarev of the rift between dreams and reality. "My dream may run ahead of the natural march of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction in which no natural march of events will ever proceed." [...]

Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement.

Thus Lenin introduced the idea that a Marxist revolutionary vanguard might be able to overcome the backwardness of the country in which they operated and move directly toward socialist revolution.