In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels theorized that the inevitable progression of society would lead through a path of feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and end in communism. In 1901, fifty-three years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, social-democrats in Russia were reflecting on the nature of a revolution to achieve the next step in society’s progression. This revolution was fraught with questions. How would the revolution happen? Who or what would be the catalyst for revolution? And what would the end goal look like? Many different parties came forth with their answers but could never find complete agreement with one another. It is in this ideological disarray that Vladimir Lenin would write What Is To Be Done. In it, Lenin would argue against the points of his “economist” contemporaries and assert his ideas of a political organization or party, separate from labor unions, to spread Marxism to the working class.
One point of contention between Lenin and Economists was the spontaneity of revolution. Economists argued that through economic struggles, demand for better working conditions, higher wages etc., the proletariat would then progress toward political struggles which would precipitate the fall of capitalism (Marxist Internet Achieve, Economism). Any attempt to facilitate this progress by an outside individual or group would be forcing the working class when they are not ready. In opposition, Lenin believed that spontaneity would only lead to a “domination of bourgeois ideology”. Lenin argued that the fledgling Marxism could not stand against the more entrenched ideas in Russian society stating, “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” (Lenin, 1902).
Instead of waiting for the spirit of revolution to overtake the working class, Lenin argued for the necessity of a party or organization to spread revolutionary consciousness to the proletariat. This organization, which would be small and secretive, would be independent from the “workers’ organization”, labor unions (Lenin, 1902). Lenin justifies this separation of organizations as collusion between the two would most certainly mean persecution of both revolutionaries and labor unions. Lenin blames the Russian autocracy for the necessity of secrecy and separation by writing, “In Russia, however, the yoke of the autocracy appears at first glance to obliterate all distinctions between the Social-Democratic organisation and the workers’ associations, since all workers’ associations and all study circles are prohibited…” (Lenin, 1902). Finally, Lenin believed this organization, which we know as a vanguard party, would take the lead in bringing about changes in society and maintain a cohesive ideology saying, “But an all-Russia organisation of revolutionaries that stands undeviatingly on the basis of Marxism, that leads the entire political struggle and possesses a staff of professional agitators, will never find it difficult to determine the proper proportion” (Lenin, 1902).
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“Ec.” Glossary of Terms: Ec. Marxist Internet Archive, Web. 29 Jan. 2017. <https://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/e/c.htm#economism>.
“What is to be Done”. Lenin’s Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961, Moscow, Volume 5, pp. 347-530. Accessed 29 January 2017. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/index.htm