Working-class Spontaneity and Revolutionary Consciousness: Notes on Chapter 2 of Lenin's "What Is to Be Done?"

February 1, 2021
6 min read

Spontaneity and Consciousness

Lenin refers to two concepts in this second chapter: spontaneity and consciousness.

Spontaneity is what drives actual working-class protests. Workers unhappy with wages or working conditions strike, destroy machinery, and make demands of their employers.

Consciousness is the realization that change can and must be made at a larger level, not just in isolated cases.

Workers’ movements have driven some progress in developing the political consciousness of working class, Lenin writes. In particular, he refers to “the famous St. Petersburg industrial war of 1896,” in which more than 15,000 textile workers across different cotton mills were mobilized to strike for shorter work hours and other demands.

Yet there’s a limit to the level of consciousness that the working class can achieve on its own – namely, this limit is “trade union consciousness.” Lenin writes that the strikes of the 1890s “were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social Democratic struggles. They marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system.” Thus, in terms of Social-Democratic consciousness, the strikes “remained a purely spontaneous movement.”

Lenin asserts that this is not just the case for the 1896 St. Petersburg strikes, but of purely working class movements in general. “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness,” he writes.

In contrast, socialist ideology arises not from the working class movement, but necessarily from bourgeois intelligentsia. “The theory of socialism…grew out of philosophic, historicla, and economic theories elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes,” Lenin writes. “The theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement.”

In addition to agitating for workers’ protests to build the mass movement, then, a critical task of Social Democratic organizations and leaders is to connect the working-class movement with intelligentsia-developed Social-Democratic consciousness.

Socialist and Bourgeois Ideology: The Necessity of Struggling Against Spontaneity

As in the first chapter, Lenin spends much of this second chapter attacking Economists and other Social-Democratic organizations that prioritize spontaneity over politics and theory. Not only is it necessary to go beyond spontaneity; “a fierce struggle against spontaneity” is a necessary component of the Social-Democratic struggle, Lenin writes, with organizations prioritizing spontaneity over consciousness a threat to the entire movement.

The reason for this lies in the fundamental assertion that the interests of the proletariet and bourgeoisie are diametrically opposed. Any ideology that arises in a movement or organization – i.e. the scope and frame through which the potential for change is assessed and strove for – is necessarily pulled towards either bourgeois or socialist ideology. “Mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology,” Lenin writes, “and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology.”

Spontaneous movements develop “along the line of least resistance,” Lenin writes. Naturally, then it falls into bourgeois ideology, i.e. the assumption that the owning- and working-classes are necessarily separate and opposed. Thus progress is limited to trade-unionism, i.e. pushing for changes within this class structure without ever thinking of overthrowing it. There is no inherent reason this has to be the case; rather, this assumption is made simply because its underlying structure has been that of society for longer, the systems holding it in place much more thoroughly developed.

Thus, in building a Social-Democratic movement, spontaneity can never be worshipped or prioritized over the struggle for theoretical and political consciousness. Marx argued that capitalistic economic development naturally create the conditions for socialism, but Lenin clarifies that socialist ideology and consciousness do not naturally arise from this development. Rather, by default, the working-class movement arising from class struggle tends not towards the overthrow of the class structure, but the strenghtening of the default bourgeois ideology. “The spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism….and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie,” Lenin writes.

“The mass movement places before us new theoretical, political, and organizational tasks, far more complicated than those that might have satisfied us in the period before the rise of the mass movement,” Lenin writes. He attacks Social-Democratic publications Rabochaya Mysl and Rabocheye Dyelo for not only ignoring but belittling and denouncing these tasks, claiming that “Politics always obediently follows economics” and attacking Lenin’s own publications and organizations.

Responding fo Rabocheye Dyelo’s attack on Lenin’s organizations as “a spirit hovering over the formless chaos,” Lenin writes: “What else is the function of Social-Democracy if not to be a ‘spirit’ that not only hovers over the spontaneous movement, but also raises this movement to the level of ‘its programme’?”

Parallels to American White Supremacy

Here’s where the chapter summary stops and some personal/reading club commentary begins.

In thinking about the application of these concepts to our contemporary society and struggles, issues of race in America come to mind.

Ignoring for a moment the assertion of class struggle being a more fundational structure on which other modes of oppression manifest, the parallels with the struggle for racial liberation are strong. As Lenin characterizes society at large as “torn by class antagonisms,” we may say that American society, since its inception as a colony founded on the genocide of its native people, has been “torn by race antagonisms.”

As with spontaneous and conscious class struggles, the former of which will not result in structural change but the latter of which does not arise naturally, there are individualistic and systemic understandings of racism, as my friend Izzy Grandic wrote about recently in a piece on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.

Individualistic understandings of racism are spontaneous, triggered by specific events without requiring understanding of any larger system. “When white northerners saw the violence black people — including women and children — endured during the civil rights protests, they were appalled,” DiAngelo gives as an example. “These images became the archetypes of racists…racism first needed to be reduced to simple, isolated and extreme acts of prejudice.”

But fighting individual racism won’t get us anywhere. Like spontaneous working-class protests default towards bourgeois ideologies rather than socialist revolution overthrowing the root of oppression, those who don’t particularly care to confront racism and their role in perpetuating it take up individualistic interpretations of racism even more happily than activists. It’s easy to call out individual cases of racism, denouncing someone here or there to maintain that you yourself are not a racist. This understanding is even turned back on the movement, with declarations of affirmative action and injustice-protesting movements as “reverse racist”, attacking any confrontations with race as deviating from the ideology of color-blindness.

What individualistic understandings of racism ignore and deliberately mask, of course, is that racism is not individualistic. It’s systemic and societal, cultural and political. Race itself is a construction largely intertwined with white supremacy, its manifestations embedded in every aspect of our culture and society. To deconstruct it requires not individualistic reductions and spontaneous confrontations, but overarching theoretical understandings of race and white supremacy, and movements dedicated to overthrowing the whole system for a radically new order.

The use of individualistic understandings of racism to avoid confrontation with the systemic nature of the problem is not just used by conservatives, but very often by the leaders of American progressivism too. “In one month, we begin to heal,” tweeted now-President Joe Biden on December 20, 2020. Though there are many inflictions for America to heal from, it’s impossible not to read unrest about racial injustice in 2020 as one of them.

The dominant progressive rhetoric, subtly or otherwise, seems to view the unrest itself as the fracture from which to heal, and not the injustice it rose up in response to. This is indeed the case, if we take no issue with white supremacy! And it’s easy to see, with conversation about police defunding and prison abolition having lost its momentum just months after the mass protests of the summer, that spontaneous movements – or movements taken as such – will not result in structural change. It’s easy to see that, in a society where non-anti-racist ideology means white supremacist ideology, a successful movement must be charged with consciousness of the entire system of white supremacy, rather than only the spontaneous energy of singular events.1

  1. This isn’t to invalidate spontaneity or immediate needs, though. A member of the reading club referenced this quote from Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton:

    We recognized that in order to bring the people to the level of consciousness where they would seize the time, it would be necessary to serve their interests in survival by developing programs which would help them to meet their daily needs…these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problem. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution.

    The conditions for revolution don’t necessarily coincide with repressed people needing help. “People don’t have the luxury of waiting for revolution,” my friend in the reading club puts it.