The Importance of Theory to Revolution | Notes on Chapter 1 of Lenin's "What Is to Be Done?"

January 24, 2021
7 min read

At the turn of the 20th century, while Western Europe had industrialized and instituted democratic or constitutional governments, Russian peasants labored as serfs under the rule of an autocratic Tsar. Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861, but conditions for the newly emancipated Russian peasants were just as bad as before, only with landowning capitalists keeping them in poverty rather than feudal lords.

With the development of Marxist theory and movements in Western Europe in the 19th century, unrest in Russia sprang up in the 60s and 70s, even leading to Alexander II’s assassination, but continuous crackdowns suppressed revolutionaries or exiled them from the country.

It’s in this context that Lenin, exiled to Western Europe in 1902, wrote What Is To Be Done?, a political pamphlet containing the foundations of what would become the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Three years after the publication of the pamphlet, revolution broke out in Russia, though it failed to unseat the Tsar. Twelve years after that, the February Revolution would successfully topple the Tsardom, and five years later the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Union.

The first chapter of the five-chapter, titled “Dogmatism and the ‘Freedom of Criticism’”, contains Lenin’s “firm and definite lines of demarcation” (p. 11) for the principles of his revolutionary program. In particular, Lenin emphasizes the importance of theory, putting it on an equal level as political and economic fronts of the struggle, and attacking Social-Democrats who ignore theory as opportunists threatening the very existence of the movement.

Bernsteinism and opportunism

Lenin spends the bulk of the chapter attacking Bernsteinism, a movement advocating for legal reform rather than revolution advanced by German theorist Eduard Bernstein. As Lenin summarizes, this movement asserts that “Social Democracy must change from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms.”

Lenin argues that Bernsteinism is an attack on Marxism itself. Since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, “an entire generation of the educated classes has been systematically reared for decades on [bourgeois criticism of all the fundamental ideas of Marxism],” Lenin asserts. Bernsteinism demands “a decisive turn from revolutionary Social-Democracy to bourgeois social-reformism,” Lenin writes. To be a reformist and still claim to be a Marxist or revolutionary is thus a case of opportunism.

Freedom of Criticism

Lenin points to a quote from the political paper of the Union of Russian Social-Democrats abroad, which he criticizes for defending reformism and opportunism: “For a durable unity [of Social-Democratic organizations operating abroad], there must be freedom of criticism.” The freedom of criticism being advocated for is the criticism of revolution that Bernsteinism calls for, but as earlier, Lenin argues that this criticism is in fact un-Marxist and must be condemned by Social-Democratic organizations and movements.

Further, because these critics still call themselves Marxists – Lenin quotes the same paper: “the socialist movement…including the most pronounced Bernsteinians, stands on the basis of the class interests of the proletariat and its class struggle for political and economic emancipation” – advocating for “freedom of criticism” is not, in fact, arguing for constructive discourse and innovation, but rather a shield used to avoid confrontation with theory altogether.

“Those who are really convinced that they have made progress in science would not demand freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old,” Lenin writes. (p.3)

Lenin calls reformism “legal criticism” and relates it to its counterpart, “illegal Economism.” If reformism limits the political and theoretical pursuits of socialist ideals to the legal rather than revolutionary, Economism limits the illegal pursuits of socialist ideals to the economic rather than political and theoretical.

Economism dismisses ideological revolutionary activity in favor of protests only for practical gains, such as higher wages and workers’ rights.

“The Bernsteinian and ‘critical’ trend…demoralized the socialist consciousness by vulgarising Marxism…by declaring the idea of the social revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat to be absurd, by reducing the working-class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade-unionism and to a ‘realistic’ struggle for petty, gradual reforms,” Lenin writes. “The was synonymous with bourgeois democracy’s denial of socialism’s right to independence and, consequently, of its right to existence.”

Lenin again roots his attack in the class struggle. Reformism and Economism concede political and theoretical struggle to bourgeois liberals and “[strive] to convert the nascent working-class movement into an appendage of the liberals,” Lenin writes.

What’s the big deal with liberal reforms? Why is social revolution necessary? When the actual state of class relations is examined, anything short of social revolution is futile and regressive, Lenin asserts, which becomes clear “after the shooting-down of workers by gendarmes has exposed, for the hundredth and thousandth time, the real nature of the democratic collaboration of classes…” (p. 2)

Here Lenin writes a powerful paragraph I can’t help but quote in full:

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. And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are!! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road! Oh yes, gentlemen! 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 areprepared 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 towards the marsh! (p. 3)

The necessity and limitations of political alliances

As crucial as it is to defend illegal social revolution and not slip into legal reformism, Lenin acknowledges that political alliances with those with compromising ideologies are necessary. “Not a single political party could exist without such alliances,” Lenin asserts. The alliance between revolutionary Social-Democrats and legal Marxists in Russia was what allowed for Marxist ideas to become widespread in an autocratic nation with a heavily censored press. “Only those who are not sure of themselves can fear to enter into temporary alliances even with unreliable people,” Lenin says.

In such alliances, though, compromise on principles is unacceptable, and when compromise is proposed a rupture must be made. Lenin cites Marx’s ideas in his letter criticizing the Gotha Program (paraphrased by Lenin): “If you must unite…enter into agreements to satisfy the practical aims of the movement, but do not allow any bargaining over principles, do not make theoretical ‘concessions’.” Lenin gets more specific in his criticism of Bernsteinism: “an essential condition for such an alliance must be the full opportunity for the socialists to reveal to the working class that its interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the bourgeoisie,” Lenin writes, a condition that Bernsteinians and other reformists bury completely.

The importance of theory: Russia as the next vanguard of international social democracy

“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,” Lenin asserts.

Lenin closes the first chapter by emphasizing the importance of theory to the movement in general, but especially to Russian Social-Democrats. He presents several paragraphs from recommendations Engel gave to the German working-class movement in 1874, listing three reasons for the importance of theory:

  1. The Russian Social-Democratic Party is only beginning to form, its principles unsolidified and countless rival Social-Democratic and non-Social-Democratic trends threatening to knock it off course. A solid theoretical grounding is crucial to prevent cascading mistakes.

  2. Successive Social-Democratic movements must look outside country lines and learn from the successes and failures of past organization. The most recently-emerged and successful German Social-Democratic movement, for example, built off of earlier English and French movements. Yet it is not enough to take history at face value. “What is required is the ability to treat these experiences critically and to test them independently,” Lenin argues, necessitating a great “reserve of theoretical forces and political (as well as revolutionary) experience.” The German Social-Democratic movement was so successful because of the nation’s deep theoretical roots, i.e. its philosophical legacy. The Russian revolutionary movements of the 70s was similarly supported by rich revolutionary theory and internationally influential Russian literature. Continuous theoretical effort will be required for current and future Russian Social-Democratic movements to succeed.

  3. Russia is in a far more dire condition than English, France, or Germany before it. “The Russian proletariat…will have to fight a monster compared with which an antisocialist law in a constitutional country [i.e. the 1878 German Anti-Socialist Laws] seems but a dwarf. History has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country,” Lenin writes. “The fulfillment of this task…would make the Russian proletariat the vanguard of the international revolutionary proletariat,” and “the role of the vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory,” Lenin emphasizes. The Russian Social-Democratic movement will need to draw on all historical and theoretical resources available to drive the international revolutionary movement forwards.

Conclusion

In this first chapter, Lenin outlines a basic historical analysis of the Russian Social-Democratic movement at hand, and especially emphasizes the importance of theoretical as well as political and economic revolutionary struggle. He attacks Bernsteinism and Economism for threatening to undermine the conditions for successful revolution.

Lenin sets the stage for exploring the three fronts of revolutionary struggle in the coming chapters: theory in the second chapter, “The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats”; politics in the third chapter, “Trade-unionist Politics and Social-Democratic Politics”; and practical organization in the fourth and fifth chapters, “The Primitiveness of the Economists and the Organization of the Revolutionaries” and “The ‘Plan’ for an All-Russia Political Newspaper”.

The pertinent question at mind is, of course, how do these declarations apply today? What does revolutionary socialism look like today? The Democratic-Socialists of America, of which one member of the book club I organized to read this book in leads a school chapter of, is essentially a force for liberal/progressive politicians, for example. Should legal reform such as this still be condemned as conceding the force of the working-class movement to the bourgeoise, and triple-fronted revolution be pushed for?

“What’s a very complicated question,” a member of the book club I organized to read this in says. “And that’s what this book is about – What is to be done?

The book is Lenin’s declaration specifically about what is to be done by Russian Social-Democrats in 1902, however. There is no Tsardom to overthrow in 21st century America.

As Lenin says, there is no easy, history-based answer to this question. Revolutionary movements must build on the experiences of preceding ones, analyzed critically through a deep understanding of theory.

“What are your theoretical conclusions? What practice does it lead you to?” a member of the reading club frames it. “Do Lenin’s principles apply today? Is reform the way forwards until a certain turning point?”

So, over the next few weeks in this book club, building knowledge of revolutionary theory and seeking some sort of answer to our questions about social revolution in present-day America, will be our goal.