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Lenin’s legacy: ordinary miracles and revolutionary ambition

As we approach the centenary of V I Lenin’s death, Lars T Lih looks at what his ‘intricate polemic’ in What is to Be Done? might offer today’s left

11 to 13 minute read

illustrations inspired by Lenin's What Is To Be Done? showing a root filled with people and a protester holding a placard

The process by which certain passages from a famous book become emblematic of the book and its author is not straightforward. In the western academic tradition, Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (1902) came to be represented by two or three passages in which Lenin seems to be expressing his worries about a lack of revolutionary fervour among the workers. The rest of the book might as well not exist.

The overall atmosphere of the book, however, was not this alleged worry about workers but rather Lenin’s exhilaration about their elemental awakening, combined with a call for revolutionaries to think big. 

This is why the young Russian underground activists who were the book’s first readers in 1902 were so thrilled by it. One such activist, N Valentinov, broke with Lenin soon thereafter. Yet he later reminisced that in his youth, he and his fellow activists were attracted by ‘struggle, risk and danger’.

Precisely for this reason, What Is to Be Done? ‘struck just the right chord with us and we were only too eager to put its message into practice’.

Intricate polemics

If I had to pick one passage to illustrate Lenin’s genuine outlook, one that could be ceaselessly recycled in textbooks and histories of Russia, I would choose the below passage from What Is to Be Done? Lenin was always knee-deep in detailed and intricate polemics, and I will wade into this thicket just so much as is necessary to make sense of this key passage. If you don’t have time to read my big book on What Is to Be Done?, this short commentary is an (almost) acceptable substitute.

A circle of inspiring leaders [korifei] such as Alekseev and Myshkin, Khalturin and Zheliabov are capable of political tasks in the most genuine and practical sense of the word – precisely because their impassioned preaching meets with an answering call from the masses awakening in an elemental fashion, and the leaders’ seething energy is taken up and supported by the energy of the revolutionary class. 

Plekhanov was a thousand times right when he not only identified the revolutionary class, not only proved the inevitability and unavoidability of its elemental awakening, but also presented to the ‘worker circles’ a great and noble political task. But you [Lenin’s polemical foes] refer to the mass movement that arose afterwards in order to lower this task – in order to narrow the energy and sweep of the activity of the ‘worker circles’.

What is this, except an artisan’s infatuation with his own artisanal limitations? You brag about your practicality and you don’t see (a fact known to any Russian praktik) what miracles for the revolutionary cause can be brought about not only by a circle but by a lone individual. Or do you think that our movement can’t produce real leaders [korifei] like those of the seventies? Why? Because we’re unprepared? But we are preparing ourselves, we will go on preparing ourselves – and we will not stop until we are prepared!

True, over the stagnant waters of ‘an economic struggle against the owners and the government’, a layer of slime has unfortunately formed – people appear among us who get down on their knees and pray to elementality, gazing with beatitude (as Plekhanov put it) on the ‘posterior’ of the Russian proletariat. But we will be able to free ourselves from this slime.

And it is precisely at the present time that the Russian revolutionary, guided by a genuinely revolutionary theory and relying on the class that is genuinely revolutionary and that is undergoing an elemental awakening, can at last – at last! – draw himself up to his full stature and reveal all his heroic [bogatyrskii] strength.

What Is to Be Done? was written in late 1901 and early 1902 with the aim of propagating Lenin’s plan for achieving a widely held goal: creating a nationwide party structure out of the existing scattered and isolated underground organisations of Russian social democracy. Lenin was a prominent member of the Iskra group, named for an underground newspaper printed in western Europe and smuggled into tsarist Russia. 

Iskra’s highly ambitious political programme was to create a national party structure, secure for it a strong base in the burgeoning mass worker movement and thus give Russian social democracy an important role – perhaps even a leading role – in the imminent overthrow of the tsarist system. In support of these optimistic perspectives, Lenin and his comrades could point to an upsurge of politicised worker protest that had taken place in the early months of 1901.

By the time Lenin sat down to draft his book, Iskra’s programme had been subjected to withering criticism by a rival group of social democratic émigrés associated with the journal Rabocheye Delo. This group argued that Iskra’s political aims were too ambitious, since ‘political tasks in the actual and practical sense of the word – that is, in the sense of a rational and practical struggle for political demands – are not in general accessible to worker circles’. In the passage we are analysing, Lenin rhetorically addresses these critics with an argument that can be paraphrased as follows:

You say that small underground circles cannot rally the Russian workers around the banner of an all-out fight against tsarism? This is true, perhaps, of an underground organisation made up of people like yourself: people who whine about the difficulties facing them and use the workers as an excuse for their own lack of ambition and refusal to think big. 

But what if the underground organisation was made up of genuinely inspiring leaders such as those who created Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) in the 1870s? Those were true heroes with ambitious aims, although the situation they faced back then prevented them from achieving their full potential. But today we have exactly what they lacked: a mass movement that is now looking to find us, the revolutionaries of today, with the same energy that we revolutionaries have always sought out the workers. 

Yes, there are practical difficulties that confront a persecuted, illegal underground organisation that is trying to reach out to the masses. But instead of treating these difficulties as a challenge, you let them overwhelm you. You use the presence of the mass movement as an excuse to lower your ambitions. Precisely at the present time, even a lone activist who thinks big and who is able to convey to his audience the grandeur of his revolutionary dreams can achieve miracles!

The above paraphrase gives the logical outline of Lenin’s argument. He wants to show that his opponents have set their sights too low, and he points to the heroic revolutionaries of the 1870s who accomplished great things. He then argues: think how much more they could have accomplished with the advantage we enjoy, namely, support from a growing mass movement that is itself full of energy and enthusiasm. 

Lenin wants to expose his critics as people who talk about ‘practicality’ as a way of condescending to the praktik, that is, the activist out there on the frontlines of local underground organisations. In contrast, Lenin evokes the paradoxical image of the praktik as miracle worker.

Subverting ‘spontaneity’

To back up his argument and inspire his readers, Lenin deploys an extensive battery of rhetorical devices, all of which rely on the contrast between high and low– between great and noble tasks versus stagnant lack of ambition. 

One of Lenin’s favourite techniques throughout his writings is to take a formulation of his opponents and turn it against them. He loves to take the formulations of his opponents and repeat them so often that they begin to lose meaning and appear ridiculous. This polemical device can lead to serious misunderstandings. A central example is Lenin’s use of stikhiinost, a word usually but inadequately translated as ‘spontaneity’.

Anyone picking up What Is to Be Done? will get the impression that Lenin was obsessed with the concept of stikhiinost. Indeed, scholarly consensus regards such an obsession as an established fact. Nevertheless, this impression is an illusion, due entirely to Lenin’s habit of sarcastic repetition of his opponent’s phrases. The only reason stikhiinost is prominent in What Is to Be Done? is because the term was used in September 1901 by Boris Krichevsky, a leading member of Rabocheye Delo.

Lenin showed no great interest in the topic of stikhiinost either before or after this particular polemical joust. The best English translation of stikhiinyi (adjective form of stikhiinost) is ‘elemental’, with the connotation of a powerful force of nature. Nevertheless, in English translations of What Is to Be Done?, stikhiinyi is most often (but never consistently) translated as ‘spontaneous’. 

There were practical reasons for this rendering. The polemics of What Is to Be Done? gave rise to constant use of the noun form stikhiinost (otherwise a rather rare word in Russian when compared to the adjective). Unfortunately, ‘elemental’ has no familiar noun form in English (‘elementality’ is the best I could come up with), whereas ‘spontaneous’ does.

And so, out of a purely practical translation problem arose a great subject of theoretical debate: Lenin’s attitude toward ‘spontaneity’. And since ‘spontaneity’ has mainly positive connotations in English, Lenin’s alleged hostility towards it makes him look like a repressive killjoy.

Lenin deploys an extensive battery of rhetorical devices that rely on a contrast between great and noble tasks versus stagnant lack of ambition

As mentioned, the word stikhiinyi or ‘elemental’ is centrally connected to the idea of a force of nature – a metaphor that can go in many directions. A force of nature can be seen as unfocused, unorganised, violent and destructive. When this set of connotations is in the forefront, Lenin is ‘against’ elementality – as was Russian social democracy as a whole, which saw its task precisely as channelling the energy wasted in chaotic and unorganised worker protests.

In fact, the Menshevik wing of Russian social democracy was considerably more focused on the need to overcome this kind of elementality than was the Bolshevik wing. The metaphor of a force of nature can also be mobilised to evoke the idea of a mighty and irresistible power that is working, not against you, but for you. To understand our passage, we have to see that Lenin uses ‘elementality’ in both negative and positive senses. 

The negative sense is associated with his polemical opponents, who (according to Lenin) pray to elementality, that is, they not only passively accept the current limitations on worker activity, but they do so almost as a matter of principle. Lenin relays Plekhanov’s joke about those who idealise the proletariat from behind and who lack any sense that the proletariat itself is moving on.

The positive connotations of ‘force of nature’ – as inevitable, unstoppable, transformative power – are mobilised in the image of the ‘elemental awakening’ of the workers, an image used three times in our passage. This particular force of nature is working for us, so we should have the confidence to think big – this is the heart of Lenin’s message, not only in What Is to Be Done? but throughout his writings.

Lenin’s rhetorical opposition between high ambition and low routine finds vivid expression in the contrast between slimy pond scum and the heroic bogatyr who strides forth to do battle in the final sentence. The bogatyri were the giant marvellous heroes of the Russian folk epics. Lenin could have chosen no better word to evoke his romantic conception of the social democratic praktik as people’s hero. ‘It is precisely at the present time that the Russian revolutionary… can at last – at last! – draw himself up to his full stature’. The repeated ‘at last’ reveals the emotional investment that so impressed the first readers of What Is to Be Done?

Keeping the faith

Another exalted word for leader is taken from ancient Greek: korifei. As examples of korifei, Lenin lists ‘Alekseev and Myshkin, Khalturin and Zheliabov’. These populist revolutionaries from the 1870s have specific connotations that are mobilised by Lenin in his argument. 

First and foremost, they were ‘inspiring’ due to selfless dedication and their ‘impassioned preaching’ of ambitious revolutionary goals. Second, the four leaders symbolise the union of workers and intelligentsia that was a key aspect of the new mass movement Lenin saw arising. Finally, all of these korifei ended badly, personally and politically: death in Siberia or on the scaffold, combined with a stalled and demoralised revolutionary movement.

Lenin insisted that the revolutionary proletariat allowed revolutionaries to escape the fate of isolated fighters like his brother, who was hanged for an attempt to assassinate the tsar

There is an autobiographical aspect to Lenin’s evocation of populist korifei. Lenin’s older brother Aleksandr Ulyanov was himself an inspiring and dedicated revolutionary leader who got embroiled in a futile attempt to assassinate the tsar in 1884 and died on the scaffold. Where Aleksandr failed, Vladimir felt sure to succeed – because in the following two decades, a genuine mass movement had sprung up.

Throughout his career, Lenin insisted that the revolutionary Russian proletariat allowed Russian revolutionaries to escape the dire fate of isolated fighters like his brother. The continuity of his outlook is revealed in a speech from early 1919, when he still believed that the Russian revolution would quickly spread to western Europe (he was soon to be disillusioned):

Comrades, behind us there is a long line of revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives for the emancipation of Russia. The lot of the majority of these revolutionaries was a hard one. They endured the persecution of the tsarist government, but it was not their good fortune to see the triumph of the revolution.

The happiness that has fallen to our lot is all the greater. Not only have we seen the triumph of our revolution, not only have we seen it become consolidated amidst unprecedented difficulties, creating a new kind of government and winning the sympathy of the whole world, but we are also seeing the seed sown by the Russian revolution spring up in Europe.

In 1919, Lenin asserted that the isolated praktiki of 1902 had by now accomplished miracles: the Russian proletariat, led by the party, had carried out a revolution that was now inspiring the whole world. Both friends and foes of Lenin tend to attribute his revolutionary success to his theories of party organisation – as the title of a cold war study put it, ‘the organisational weapon’. But as this passage shows, Lenin saw organisation as useful because it channelled a growing wave of energy and enthusiasm.

In 1902, the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party was a shaky underground party, hounded by the police, unable to publish a legal newspaper or call a public rally. Local party organisations found it very difficult to communicate with each other or even to maintain membership continuity, due to constant arrests. There was no national party structure to speak of. In response to this situation, on the basis of a genuine belief in the power of the socialist message, Lenin thought long and hard about how to deliver that message, given the technical, social and political realities of the times. 

Today’s left faces a very different situation, in some ways better (less outright repression), in some ways worse (a less receptive working class). If What Is to Be Done? is still relevant, it tells us to keep the faith in our message and think hard about how to deliver it.

Lars T Lih is author of Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914–1921 (UC Press, 1990) and Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ in Context (Haymarket, 2008)

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