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Lenin’s “What Is to Be Done?” Pamphlet Analysis Research Paper

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Written between the autumn of 1901 and February 1902 the pamphlet, “What is to be done?” by V. I. Lenin was first published in Iskra, No. 4 (May 1901), Lenin said that the article represented “a skeleton plan to be developed in greater detail in a pamphlet now in preparation for print”. It was published as a separate work in March 1902. “What is to be done?” is a practical, revolutionary guide designed as a blueprint to be applied to the Russian situation in 1902 (Barfield, 1971, 45-56).

It is a detailed review of the dispute over Economism and a detailed account of Lenin’s views on trade unions. He attacks Economism. Lenin’s “What is to be done?” has been seen as the founding document of a ‘party of a new type’ (Lih, 2005, 387). It was a step that aimed at bringing together the fragmented Russian Social-Democratic groups and circles into a modern centralized party with a central organ (Draper, 2001, 1).

At the time, he thought, this was the great next step that had to be taken; it was “what is to be done”. It is perceived in two different ways: a model of ‘vanguard party’ that was the essence of Bolshevism or a manifestation of Lenin’s elitist and manipulatory attitude towards the workers. Hypothesis: Lenin’s “What is to be done?” maybe interpreted as the elaboration of Lenin’s proposals to provide a deep insight into the necessary requisites for a revolution, or his deep contempt for the working classes.

In What Is To Be Done? Lenin stresses the importance of revolutionary theory. He feels only through the revolutionary theory, any revolutionary movement can succeed in achieving its purposes. Lenin points out that the working class does not have the ability to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a different economic system such as socialism because they do not have any experience of socialism.

All they can do, Lenin says, is conduct strikes and other events of resistance which are not enough to stop the encroachment of capital (PO, 2005). According to Lenin: “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness … The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes …”

‘Spontaneous’ is the word used by Lenin. He feels that working class people do not have the natural ability to understand many things: that capitalism is not capable of being adjusted so as to provide a decent life for all and the nature of the social system that has to replace it. All this requires class consciousness, i.e., scientific knowledge and understanding.

In the plan of Lenin, it will be the duty of the revolutionary party to disseminate such information and understanding firstly among workers who are more advanced and positively seeking for understanding and then from them out to broader sections of the working class. To quote Lenin: “All worship of the spontaneity of the working-class movement, all belittling of the role of the ‘conscious element’, of the role of social democracy [communism], means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers”.

The most striking feature of this document is that it does not have a single paragraph devoted to a discussion of the importance of the “economic” side of the workers’ struggle. Lenin seems more preoccupied with other transgressions of the men labeled “Economists”. He attacks using strong language, their lack of solid theoretical base and defense of practical “spontaneity”. Lenin argues that a coherent, strictly controlled party of dedicated revolutionaries is basically necessary for a revolution. Some people see an analogy with the Jesuit Order in his proposals for an elite corps to lead the masses (Halsall, 1997,1).

Lenin differed with the economists on issues of importance of leadership and who should be leaders. Lenin seems to have felt that few workers were capable of really understanding Marxism and that leadership consequently would have to be provided by the intelligentsia, many of whom would be bourgeois in origin, like Marx, Engels, and himself. The Economists, on the other hand, in spite of the fact that they also were predominantly intellectuals, felt that the workers could best provide their own leaders.

The Economists believed that the proletariat could lead them, and that “objective developments” would cause the working class almost instinctively to follow the proper course. The Economists argued that it was unnecessary for the Social Democratic intellectuals to force their ideology upon the workers; the labor movement, if left to itself, could work out its own independent ideology. Lenin denied this, claiming that if the workers were not indoctrinated with Social-Democratic ideas they would inevitably adopt bourgeois ideas: “The only choice is: either bourgeois ideology or socialist ideology.

There is no middle course…. “. He further elaborated trade unionism of workers lead to their enslavement to the bourgeoisie. He put it crisply: “Hence our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the labor movement from its spontaneous, trade unionist striving to go under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy”.

Statements proclaiming that workers cannot become socialist spontaneously evoked a lot of protest. In fact, a number of Social-Democrats, led by George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod, wrote articles in Iskra attacking Lenin’s views on the grounds that he was contradicting one of Marx’s basic principles – that the proletariat became socialist spontaneously and that the proletarian revolution was inevitable (Mayer, 1997, 1). Lenin, it appeared was preaching the very opposite. Plekhanov accused Lenin of not being a true representative of Marxism and being more of a new edition of “the theory of the hero and the crowd” (Mayer, 1997, 14).

It was this basic difference in viewpoint that was to break out time and again during the whole history of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. This basic difference was the reason behind the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and had profound consequences on the subsequent history of the Soviet state (Hammond, 1957, 40). This was the difference in attitude on the role of leadership in the revolutionary movement, on the question of whether the revolution would come about almost automatically, or would have to be planned, directed, and pushed.

Lenin’s answers to these questions as seen in the brochure show that he was basically saw things from the perspective of a citizen of Russia. He was a man of action who wanted to be part of history. He wanted to ensure the establishment of socialism in his lifetime in Russia. These facts explain why he chose the way of revolution rather than evolution, that he decided to give history a push instead of waiting patiently for the “laws of capitalist development” to work themselves out (Hammond, 1957, 50).

Since the days of Marx and Engels, socialist theory became widely popular and had spread among the proletarian intelligentsia – workers who have taken up its ideas and made them their own. Socialism, Lenin wrote quoting Karl Kautsky, was the product of “profound scientific knowledge… The vehicle of [this] science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia: contemporary socialism was born in the heads of individual members of this class” (Caplan, 2007, 1).

Today, it is the proletariat who have embraced socialist theory more gladly than “educated representatives of the propertied classes”, for the scientific knowledge uncovered by the great scientific socialists only benefits the proletariat, not the bourgeoisie, since it lays bare the fact that the capitalist system has outlived its usefulness and has urgently to be replaced by a socialist system – a system that only the proletariat is materially interested in bringing about (McClendon and McClendon, 2004, 289).

Lenin points out that the experience of the working class people is a huge advantage when it comes to understanding revolutionary theory than the privileged petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy. But along with this possibility, Levin also feels that the working class does not spontaneously generate revolutionary theory. Their spontaneity can take them only as far as trade union politics.

Marx once stated: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs”. This is a statement that is often cited by people who try to justify activity that lacks any kind of revolutionary orientation. It is also used to attack all theoretical work aimed at bringing about proletarian revolution. It is used to attack the spread of knowledge and class consciousness among the broadest possible layers of the proletariat. Lenin suggests that the words of Marx are not relevant in this particular situation: “To repeat these words [of Marx] in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral ‘Many happy returns of the day’.” (p25)

Generally, theorists are ridiculed as armchair professors by opportunists. Lenin says that though it is important that one does practical work, it is important that the work must serve the cause of the proletarian revolution. The work should not help the preservation of capital. Such kind of conditional work is possible only through guidance through theory. Theory says Lenin, is very practical. Engels, in his book “Peasant War in Germany” (quoted by Lenin on p28) has said that the revolutionary movement has three aspects: the theoretical, the political and the practical-economic. All three aspects need to be focused on if the movement is to be successful.

However, it is possible to have a division of labor within the movement, which will allow individuals to participate according to their talents. These three aspects of the revolutionary movement and the theory cannot be neglected. Lenin goes on to make it clear that even trade union struggles are not as powerful as they are regarded by the left-wing movement. They are limited only the economic struggle. On the other hand, the revolutionary movement would focus on the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness. Lenin of course accepts that social democracy (communism) leads the struggle of the working class both for better wages and abolition of bonded labor.

He concludes: “Hence, it follows that not only must social democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organization of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness”.

Lenin is often credited with the creation of the concept of professional revolutionary in his pamphlet “What is to be done”. Lenin defined the primary need of a revolutionary movement in terms of a secret, small, tightly knit, highly disciplined organization of professional revolutionaries–that is, men who devote their entire life to revolution, who turn revolution into a calling, a vocation, a mission (Rejai, 1980, 1).

Lenin charges the Economists of making the mistake of confusing trade unions with the Party. “It is only natural,” he charged, “that a Social-Democrat who conceives of the political struggle as being identical with the ‘economic struggle against the employers and the government’ should conceive of the ‘organization of revolutionists’ as being more or less identical with the, organization of workers” (p. 446).

According to Lenin, organization of revolutionary Social-Democrats must be different from the organizations of the workers.. While the workers’ organizations must be ideologically trade organizations, they should also be wide and public. But the organizations of revolutionaries must be comprised first and foremost of people whose profession is revolution and will not be open to public. There would thus be a division of function between the Party and the trade unions, with a corresponding distinction in the organization of the two bodies. Since only highly conscious, professional revolutionaries could belong to the Party, this would mean that many non-Party members would be admitted, indeed welcomed, into the trade unions.

Lenin says: “The workers’ organizations for carrying on the economic struggle should be trade union organizations; every Social-Democratic worker should, as far as possible, support and actively work inside these organizations…. But it would not be at all to our interests to demand that only Social-Democrats be eligible for membership in trade unions”. He urges every worker who wants to participate in struggle against the employer and the government to join the trade unions. He opined that “The wider these organizations are, the wider our influence over them will be”. (p. 448)

But how were trade unions to be secret organizations and at the same time achieve the goal of mass membership? Lenin’s answer was a mass trade union, “so ‘free’ and ‘loose’ that the need for secret methods becomes almost negligible as far as the mass of the members are concerned”. However, the mass trade union will be secretly directed and controlled by a small Social-Democratic Party, whose compact organization would make up for the looseness of the trade union organization.

The trade union movement, said Lenin, could not operate efficiently under conditions of illegality without a stable organization of leaders to maintain continuity and wide contact. The Social-Democratic leaders could maintain connections among the various unions by secret methods, unknown to the mass of members. Thus, the trade unions, in Lenin’s plan, would be used as organs for drawing the masses into participation in the revolution, while leadership of the mass movement would be exercised by members of the Party. In that way, said Lenin, the “trade union organizations may not only be of tremendous value in developing and consolidating the economic struggle, but may also become a very useful auxiliary to the political, agitational, and revolutionary organs” (p. 450).

Many statements show that what Lenin wanted was not neutral trade unions, but a trade union movement permeated with Social-Democratic propaganda, controlled by Social-Democrats, and used for the pursuit of Social-Democratic goals. Though he had been suspected of not trusting the workers by many historians, according to Maureen Perrie, in reality, Lenin wanted a party with a national center and a full time corps of activists because of his optimistic confidence that even the relatively backward Russian proletariat enduring tsarist repression could be moved to revolution (Perrie and Suny, 2006, 712).

“What is to be done?” was published in 1902 when the revolutionary movement was still in its infancy. That was when Lenin had voiced that the mass trade union must be directed and controlled by a small Social Democratic Party. But in 1905 the situation in Russia changed drastically, and Lenin declared that the new situation called for new tactics. He now demanded that membership in the Party and affiliated organizations are greatly increased.

During 1905 Lenin also temporarily reversed his position on the issue of ‘spontaneity’. In ‘What Is to Be Done?’ Lenin had expressed grave doubts about the spontaneous labor movement, claiming that it led to Reformism unless guided by “conscious” leaders. “The spontaneous labor movement,” he had said, “is able by itself to create… only trade unionism.” Yet in 1905 he made several statements to the effect that the spontaneous labor movement led naturally toward socialism. He said that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic”. The change in position may be due to the fact that Lenin in 1905 was more convinced of the ability of the proletariat to be revolutionary in approach.

However, Lenin never changed in one aspect – A careful reading of Lenin’s 1902 document and his views in 1905 suggest that Lenin always felt that the Party vanguard had to provide leadership for the mass trade unions. While admitting in one quotation that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic,” he declared that ten years of work by the Party had “done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into class consciousness.” What he may mean is that the condition of the workers under capitalism naturally led the workers onto the road toward socialism, but the Party had to guide them along the twists and turns of the road.

Lenin’s points out that these mass trade unions should not be given more importance over genuinely revolutionary work because of the following reasons: trade union struggles can easily lead to reformism; workers are capable of spontaneously generating trade union activity for themselves; they do not need revolutionaries to lead these struggles; even the very best type of trade union activity cannot bring about revolution (PO, 2005, 1).

The core concept of Lenin’s ideas in “What is to be done?” is as follows: Concessions should not be made to spontaneity which will only undermine the party’s role. The party’s role is not primarily to improve the conditions of workers under capitalism, but to lead the working class to proletarian revolution, to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and to build socialism. This model of the party is similar to the many secret societies of ‘new men’ established by more extreme populist movements with basic elements such as: absolute centralization, a military vision of the class struggle, Jesuit-type disciple, and “amoral moralism” (Pellicani, 2003, 110).

Only by the creation of a revolutionary Party Lenin believed that people can be made politically conscious. This is Lenin’s starting point: “there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory” (75). He believed that such a theory would help the mass of the people move from spontaneity (or trade union consciousness) to class (or revolutionary) consciousness. He tried to visualize a new path through his revolutionary party model. Lenin seems to have been influenced by Marx’s co-writer, Friedrich Engels. Living until only a decade before Lenin was writing, Engels was a close observer of the British trade union scene and Lenin has this experience in mind when he talks of trade union consciousness.

Lenin is not concerned as such with how to maximize the role of trade unions, but how to revolutionize the working class (Stevenson, 2004, 1). However, this does not mean he does not care about trade union struggle. The “more rapidly our employers join together in all sorts of societies and syndicates, the more urgent does the need for this organization by trades become”. But Lenin stresses that political agitation must be “unified throughout Russia, illuminating all sides of life and directed to the broadest masses” (216).

Trade union consciousness can lack a wider national perspective. As Lenin puts it “local activists are too immersed in local work”, For Lenin the need for a revolutionary Party is paramount, and he says it clearly: “our first and most urgent practical task: to create an organization of revolutionaries able to guarantee the energy, stability, and continuity of the political struggle” (150). There were those who thought there was no basis yet for a revolutionary socialist party in Russia and that Marxists should take part in the movements of the liberal bourgeoisie, whilst others believed that a revolutionary Party was important, but that it should be directed by the workers as to what it should do and say.

But Lenin argued that militancy was not enough and developing the organizational base of the revolutionary party was the core of Lenin’s concern (Stevenson, 2005, 1). For there will be no transformation of the capitalist system into a socialist one without a revolutionary party. Achieving a revolutionary transformation of society requires a conscious and clear body of revolutionaries. Inevitably, to understand the character of society they live in and seek to change, they will need to study, analyze and theorize upon it in order that they can guide isolated grievances into a coherent revolutionary struggle.

Hence revolutionaries need to be always prepared: “We must always carry on our everyday work and always be prepared for everything, because very often it is almost impossible to foresee in advance the change from period of explosion to periods of calm.”(13) In the final pages of the book, Lenin gives a short answer to the question What is to be done?’ – That’s to say to “liquidate” (222) the period of Russian socialist history which began in 1897-98 and which Lenin characterizes as a “period of disarray, disintegration, and vacillation” (220). He compares it to the breaking of a boy’s voice in adolescence, a stage in growing-up.

Lenin, more than anyone, also understood the tremendous significance of revolutionary circlism, i.e. the close ideological and comradely welding of revolutionaries based upon unconditional faith in one another. Many of the best pages in his “What is to be Done?” are devoted to the clarification of this significance. But Lenin also understood that when the Party moves out into the broad arena of political struggle, it must supplement ideological unity with the character of external unity, it must put Party institutions in the place of the circle (Pashukanis, 1925, 132-64).

Thus, the main theme of this pamphlet is to provide an understanding that there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory and that trade union consciousness needs to be developed into a revolutionary consciousness in order to achieve socialism. In this pamphlet “What is to be done?” Lenin provides the blueprint of the revolutionary party and at the same time expresses strongly his belief that worshipping spontaneity can only lead to trade unionism which will not be enough to fight the rise of capitalism.



Hammond, Taylor Thomas (1957). Lenin – on Trade Unions and Revolution 1893-1917. Columbia University Press. New York. 1957.

McClendon, H. John and McClendon, H. John III (2004). C.L.R. James’s Notes on Dialectics. Lexington Books. 2004.

Perrie, Maureen, Lieven, D. C. B. and Suny, Grigor Ronald (2006). The Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge University Press. 2006.


Lenin, V. I. (1902). “What is to be done?” Oxford University Press. Panther Modern Society Edition.

Lih, T. Lars (2005). Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context. Brill Publishers. 2005

Pellicani, Luciano (2003). Revolutionary Apocalypse: Ideological Roots of Tomorrow. Praeger/Greenwood Publishers. 2003.

Journal Articles

Barfield, Rodney (1971). Lenin’s Utopianism: State and Revolution. Slavic Review, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1971), pp. 45-56.

Caplan, Bryan (2007). . Web.

Draper, Hal (2001). Lenin and the myth of revolutionary defeatism. Workers Liberty Magazine. Volume 2, Issue 1. Web.

Halsall, Paul (1997). . Web.

Mayer, Robert (1997). Studies in East European Thought 49: 159–185, 1997. Web.

Pashukanis (1925). Lenin and the Problems of Law: “Lenin i voprosy prava”, Revoliutsiia prava: Sbornik 1 (1925). Kommunisticheskaia akedemiia Moscow. 132-64

PO (Proletarian Online) (2005). Theory: Lenin’s What is to be done? Proletarian. Issue 4. Web.

Rejai, Mostafa (1980). The Professional Revolutionary: A Profile. Air University Review. Web.

Stevenson, Graham (2004). What’s in “What is to be done?”? Web.

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