What is to be Done?

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

What is to be Done?


(full title, What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement), a book by V. I. Lenin in which he comprehensively substantiated the need to create a new kind of proletarian party that would be fundamentally different from the reformist parties of the Second International—the party of the socialist revolution and of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this book Lenin ideologically demolished “economism,” showing it to be a variant of international opportunism, or Bernsteinism. The book was written between the fall of 1901 and February 1902 and was first published in Stuttgart in March 1902. It is part of Lenin’s collected works (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6, pp. 1–192).

The first chapter of the book, constituting a defense of the revolutionary Marxist trend in the working-class movement, showed that the Bernsteinians used the slogan “freedom of criticism” as a cover for their proposed revision of all the basic tenets of Marxism; for example, they advocated “class cooperation” and rejected the idea of the proletarian revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat. In Lenin’s view, the creative development of Marxism, which would be enriched by the new experience gained from the class struggle of the proletariat, had nothing in common with the revisionists’ attempts to subvert the fundamentals and principles of Marxism. “ ’Freedom of criticism,’ “ wrote Lenin, “means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy, freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism” (ibid., p. 9).

Economism in Russia was a variant of international opportunism. By worshiping the spontaneity of the working-class movement, stressing above all the economic aspect of the class struggle of the proletariat, and advocating a reformist approach to the political struggle, the Economists minimized in every possible way the role of socialist consciousness and the leading role of the party within the working-class movement; viewed objectively, they were the vehicle of bourgeois influence on the proletariat, inasmuch as they tried to disarm the working class, both ideologically and organizationally, in its struggle against autocracy and against the bourgeoisie. Economism was the chief obstacle on the road toward centralized rule by the revolutionary Marxist party.

Having unmasked the opportunist ideology of economism, Lenin substantiated and emphasized the significance of revolutionary theory and of the Marxist party as the leading force in the mass working-class movement; he showed the ineradicable connection linking all aspects of the class struggle of the proletariat—political, economic, and ideological—and emphasized with special force the significance of the party’s theoretical (that is, ideological) work. Indeed, theoretical preparedness was particularly important for Russian Social Democracy, since this was the first time in history that a workers’ party had to lead the people in a nationwide struggle for the victory of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The party could not have led the struggle for liberation without adopting a creative approach to this task and without independently reviewing the whole experience of the international proletarian movement. The party must march ahead of the spontaneous working-class movement and show it the way, and to this end it must be guided by revolutionary theory. “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,” wrote Lenin, and “the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory” (ibid., pp. 24, 25).

The second chapter of What Is to Be Done? deals with the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness within the working-class movement. The Economists claimed that Social Democracy must not try to implant socialist consciousness in the working class; in their judgment, it was necessary to wait for the spontaneous working-class movement to work out a socialist consciousness by its own efforts. Lenin showed that the socialist doctrine is worked out by the ideologists of the working class and is carried over by the working-class party into the class struggle of the proletariat—a struggle that grows spontaneously out of the soil of capitalist relations.

As Lenin pointed out, world history shows that what the working class can work out by its own efforts alone is merely a trade-unionist consciousness. The socialist ideology is introduced into the working-class movement in the course of the complex, continuous, and bitter struggle against the bourgeois ideology. In Lenin’s words, “the only choice is—either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ’third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology” (ibid., pp. 39–40). In the early 20th century the Marxist party in Russia was faced with the task, as shown by Lenin, of setting the working-class movement on the path of political struggle against tsarism and capitalism and arming it with the ideas of scientific socialism.

The third chapter of What Is to Be Done? throws a light on the relationship between economics and politics—that is, between the economic and the political aspects of the class struggle of the proletariat. Lenin criticized the Economists for their trade-unionist and reformist view of politics and substantiated the revolutionary policy of the Marxist party. The Economists’ worship of spontaneity led them to minimize not only the role of socialist theory but also the political tasks of the working class and its party. Lenin showed that limiting the political struggle to a struggle for reforms would condemn the working class to eternal wage slavery; that the only way the proletariat can radically improve its economic position is by overthrowing the rule of the exploiters and struggling for the power of the working class; and that “the fundamental economic interests of the proletariat can be satisfied only by a political revolution that will replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat” (ibid., p. 46, footnote).

The ultimate goal of the struggle of the proletariat is the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of its own rule for the purpose of building a socialist society. The immediate task of Russia’s working class, as Lenin pointed out, was to overthrow the autocracy in order to create the necessary conditions for the struggle leading to the victory of the socialist revolution.

Lenin developed the idea of the hegemony of the proletariat in the impending bourgeois-democratic revolution—the idea of the revolutionary alliance of the working class and the peasantry— which he had first formulated in What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social Democrats (1894). In his view, the working class must assume the leadership of the general democratic movement in its role of fighting vanguard for political freedom; its party must therefore “expound and emphasize general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing [its] socialist convictions” (ibid., p. 83). In Russia, according to Lenin, the party of the working class must combine the democratic struggle of all the people against autocracy with the socialist struggle of the proletariat against capitalism. Social Democracy, therefore, is obliged to carry out revolutionary propaganda and agitation among all the strata of the population, aiming for the political exposure of autocracy and of the entire sociopolitical system of tsarist Russia.

In the fourth and fifth chapters of his work, Lenin substantiated his plan for building a Marxist party, a rough outline of which he had presented earlier in the article “Where to Begin” (ibid., vol. 5, pp. 1–13). The Social Democratic groups and committees that existed in Russia at the time, being scattered and poorly organized, were not capable of leading the effort to implement the political goals of the proletariat. What was needed was a single organization—that is, a party—and it was the necessity of building such a party that the Economists denied. Lenin addressed this point when he wrote that “the spontaneous struggle of the proletariat will not become its genuine ’class struggle’ until this struggle is led by a strong organization of revolutionaries” (ibid., vol. 6, p. 135).

Lenin held that building the party must start with a nationwide Russian political newspaper to disseminate the views of revolutionary Social Democracy. The newspaper’s organized network of agents and correspondents was to serve as the skeleton around which the party would be built. Lenin’s Iskra had become such a newspaper. According to Lenin’s plan, the party was to consist of (1) a narrow circle of leading party workers—mainly professional revolutionaries—and (2) a broad network of party organizations.

In his “Conclusion,” Lenin answered the question What is to be done? by reiterating the need to overcome the organizational confusion and ideological waverings in the ranks of Russian Social Democracy and to create a militant organization of revolutionaries (ibid., pp. 180–83).

The historical significance of Lenin’s book lies in its exposure of the ideological sources of opportunism in the working-class movement—namely, the worship of spontaneity—and its elaboration of the major political and ideological issues and programmatic, organizational, and tactical principles of the Marxist party. These principles constitute the ideological basis of the CPSU and of all communist and Marxist-Leninist parties.

Lenin’s book went through 219 editions, with more than 11,918,100 copies printed in 58 languages of the peoples of the USSR and other countries (as of Jan. 1,1977).


Istoriia KPSS, vol. 1. Moscow, 1964.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.