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Revolutionary Social-Democracy as the Vanguard of All Democratic Struggle | Notes on Chapter 3 of Lenin's "What Is To Be Done?"


February 21, 2021

9 min read

In the first chapter of What Is To Be Done?, Lenin begins to introduce his theory-centric vision for the shape of Russian Social-Democratic struggle. In the second chapter, Lenin introduced two key concepts for the direction of revolutionary struggle: spontaneity and consciousness, asserting that the task of revolutionary leaders is to instill consciousness and struggle against spontaneity in the working masses.

In the third chapter, Lenin expands on what instilling this consciousness actually looks like, and how a broadened political scope is necessary for developing a Social-Democratic party into the vanguard of a successful revolutionary movement.

Economism is Trade-Unionism

Lenin opens the chapter in a very familiar way: by attacking the Russian Social-Democratic publications Rabocheye Dyelo and Rabochaya Mysl as non-revolutionary Economists, offering readers a review of the Social-Democratic movement's need to go beyond economic struggle.

The fundamental claims of Economism are that "political agitation must follow economic agitation," and economic struggle "is the most widely applicable means" of drawing masses into the political struggle. The job of Social-Democracy is of "lending the economic struggle itself a political character," Lenin quotes Rabocheye Dyelo.

Lenin acknowledges the power of practical economic struggle. "As soon as the workers realized that the Social-Democratic study circles desired to, and could, supply them with a new kind of leaflet that told the whole truth about their miserable existence...they began to flood us with correspondence from the factories and workshops," Lenin writes. "In the overwhelming majority of cases these 'leaflets' were in truth a declaration of war, because the exposures served greatly to agitate the workers; they evoked among them common demands for the removal of the most glaring outrages and roused in them a readiness to support the demands with strikes." In this way, Social-Democratc revolutionaries were able to mobilize masses of workers in pursuit of systemic change: factory owners eventually so feared the power of these exposures that they didn't even wait for strikes to begin, Lenin recounts. They conceded to demands as soon as leaflets appeared.

"These exposures could have a beginning and component part of Social-Democratic activity," Lenin says, but on their own they do not constitute Social-Democratic struggle. "The exposures merely dealt with the relations between the workers in a given trade and their employers, and all they achieved was that sellers of labour power learned to sell their 'commodity' on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commerical deal," Lenin writes. "Social-Democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale lf labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the property-less to sell themselves to the rich."

"Social-Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organized political force," Lenin writes. In order for this political consciousness to be developed in the working class, not only the exposure of specific industries and working conditions but the "political exposure of the autocracy in all its aspects" is necessary as a task of the Social-Democratic movement.

The Economist mission of "lending the economic struggle itself a political character" sounds profound, Lenin writes, but what it means in reality is to restrict the political scope of workers' movements to purely economic struggle: i.e. only trying to improve their own conditions, making no progress towards actually overthrowing the larger system. Social-Democrats who focus all their efforts on economic exposures and condemn struggles of a larger scope, constituting "the overwhelming majority of Russian Social-Democrats...of late," are holding the revolutionary movement back rather than pushing it forwards, Lenin asserts.

"'Economic struggle against the government' is precisely trade-unionist politics, which is still very far from being Social-Democratic politics," Lenin concludes.

Social-Democrats As Political Educators of the Proletariet

"Why do the Russian workers will manifest little revolutionary activity in response to the brutal treatment of people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecutions of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.?" Lenin asks.

To answer that this is because the workers only care for economic struggle is to underestimate workers and place the blame on them rather than on the shortcomings of the Social-Democratic movement, Lenin asserts. "We must blame ourselves, our lagging behind the mass movement, for still being unable to organize sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages."

Spontaneity naturally drives workers to protest, Lenin writes: to construe this drive as something necessary for Social-Democrats to manufacture, that the movement must limit itself to, is to belittle both the revolutionary potential of the workers and the revolutionary task of Russian Social-Democracy. Lenin points to the events of 1901, when Russian workers joined students in street protests. "The spontaneous striving of the workers to defend the students who are being assaulted by the police and the Coassacks surpasses the activity of the Social-Democratic organization!" Lenin exclaims.

Lenin compares Economists who purely stoke economic agitation to terrorists who stoke unrest through random chaos and destruction. Both are blinded by spontaneity and thus are unable to contribute substantively to the larger struggle, Lenin asserts. About terrorists: "Are there not enough outrages committed in Russian life without special 'excitants' having to be invented? On the other hand, is it not obvious that those who are not, and cannot be, roused to excitement even by Russian tyranny will stand by 'twiddling their thumbs' and watch a handful of terrorists engaged in single combat with the government?" The same questioning is applied to purely economic agitation: economic reason for unrest is more than sufficient without external contribution. Social-Democrats must contribute more to workers than spontaneous agitation.

That "more" is political consciousness, Lenin laid out in chapter 2. "Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without...the sphere of relations between workers and employees," Lenin reminds us. Most contemporary Russian Social-Democratic leaders strive to be "trade-union secretaries" rather than political leaders, Lenin writes: they help workers and comrades expose abuses, laws, and injustices related to factory operations, but they very rarely go beyond this, i.e. educate workers about Russia's economic evolution, broader government injustices, and revolutionary history. What is instead needed is for the Social-Democratic movement to be "the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects."

This is what Lenin means by going beyond purely economic struggle and developing a broader political consciousness in the working class: workers must be educated about all social and political struggles across class and strata lines, not just their own. "In order to become a Social-Democrat, the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond," Lenin writes. "He must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain lwas and how they are reflected."

The Social-Democratic leader, then, must be "able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariet."

Under this kind of leadership and education, "the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and the religious sects, the peasantas and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irrestible desire to act," Lenin writes. These are the conditions under which workers are able to mobilize en masse not just for trade-union struggles, but for Social-Democratic revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and autocracy, and these are the conditions that Social-Democrats have the task of creating.

Political Agitation Across Class and Social Lines

The last new point Lenin makes is that, in addition to educating the working class about the conditions and struggles of all other classes under the Russian autocracy, the Social-Democratic party must also directly agitate members of all other classes and social strata in order to serve as the vanguard of the revolutionary movement.

Lenin criticizes contemporary revolutionary leader Aleksandr Martynov's claim that "Social-Democrats cannot simultaneously guide the activities of various opposition strata, we cannot dictate to them a positive program of action." Various groups will march separately in their struggle against the autocracy, Martynov asserts: Social-Democrats cannot represent these groups' immediate interests, and should thus focus on the struggle of the working class.

Lenin links the view of Social-Democrats only standing for the immediate interests of the proletariet, i.e. economic struggle for better working and living conditions, back to Economism and trade-unionism. "Iskra [Lenin's publication] is the organ of the revolutionary opposition which exposes the state of affairs in our country, particularly the political state of affairs, insofar as it affects the interests of the most varied strata of the population," Lenin quotes Martynov as writing. "We, however, work and will continue to work for the cause of the working class in close organic contact with the proletarian struggle." Martynov writes this as an attack against Lenin, but Lenin embraces this framing. "Iskra desires to elevate the trade-unionist politics of the working the level of Social-Democratic politics," Lenin asserts. "Rabocheye Dyelo, however, desires to degrade Social-Democratic politics to trade-unionist politics."

In earlier stages of the revolutionary struggle, lack of resources provided ample reason to limit activities to economic agitation among the working class, Lenin writes. But now the movement has "sufficient forces to direct our propaganda and agitation among all social classes."

"We must arouse in every section of the population that is at all politically conscious a passion for political exposure," Lenin references his own 1901 article "Where To Begin". There are many groups who experience the tyranny of the Russian autocracy, who, in part energized by the mobilization of the working masses in protest, are willing to be a part of broader revolutionary unrest, Lenin says. The reason why this unrest has not been present is not for lack of discontent or potential energy, but because there has not been a channel that would lend such energy sufficient force against the "'omnipotent' Russian Government."

The task Social-Democratic parties, then, is to "provide a tribune for the nation-wide exposure of the tsarist government," to harness the discontent of people across all class and social strata, and organize them into a political force for Social-Democratic revolution. "We must train our Social-Democratic practical workers to become political leaders, able to guide all the manifestations of this all-round struggle," Lenin declares, "able at the right time to 'dictate a positive program of action for the aroused students, the discontented Zemstvo [rural peasant governments set up after the abolition of feudalism in 1864] people, the incensed religious sects, the offended elementary schoolteachers, etc., etc."

How can this mass mobilization be achieved? Lenin counters critics' concerns that wide mobilization will weaken the dedication of the movement to the proletarian struggle: the two drive each other, and will only bring more power to the movement, Lenin writes. "[Non-working-class exposers] will come to us with their complaints only when they see that these complaints can really have effect, and that we represent a political force," Lenin writes. "We Social-Democrats will organize these nation-wide exposures; all questions raised by the agitation will be explained in a consistently Social-Democratic spirit, without any concessions to deliberate or undeliberate distortions of Marxism; the all-round political agitation will be conducted by a party which unites into one inseparable whole the assult on the govnerment in the name of the entire people, the revolutionary training of the proletariet...and the utilization of all its spontaneous conflicts with its exploiters which rouse and bring into our camp increasing numbers of the proletariet."

"Political exposures are as much a declaration of war against the government as economic exposures are a declaration of war against the factory owners," Lenin writes. "Political exposures in themselves serve as a powerful instrument for disintegrating the system we oppose, as a means for diverting from the enemy his casual or temporary allies, as a means for spreading hostility and distrust among the permanent partners of the autocracy."

Social-Democracy as the Vanguard of All Political Struggle

In closing of the chapter, Lenin references a question posed by Rabocheye Dyelo: Why have recent Russian events pushed forwards the power of non-Social-Democratic opposition groups rather than increasing the strength of Social-Democracy?1

"The reason lies in the fact that we failed to cope with our tasks," Lenin re-emphasizes. "The masses of the workers proved to be more active than we. We lacked adequately trained revolutionary leaders and organizers possessed of a thorough knowledge of the mood prevailing among all the opposition strata and able to head the movement, to turn a spontaneous demonstration into a political one, broaden its political character, etc."

Lenin points to the activity of German Social-Democrats as an example of what the political activity of a vanguard revolutionary party can look like. "Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny," Lenin writes. "It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm's refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressist as city the matter of the law against 'obscene' publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc. Everywhere the Social-Democrats are found at the forefront, rousing political discontent among all classes."

This is the kind of political force that a Social-Democratic party must create to build a revolutionary movement, not simply leading Russian workers in trade-union struggles.

From a broader lens: Marxism's scientific understandings tell us that the development of capitalism will create the conditions for socialist revolution, but once they are created there is no inevitable progression to socialism. Such conditions can be squandered by the reduction of revolutionary struggles to simply trade-union struggles, as they had in industrial England, with the practical and political force of socialist and democratic ideologies dying out with any parties and movements.

Lenin's assertion, then, is that there is no time to waste; there is no compromising with other Social-Democratic groups who advocate only for limited economic struggle in Russia. Larger-scope political agitation must be struggled for, lest non-Social-Democratic forces take hold and the moment for revolution pass by.


  1. An assessment that foretells the failed 1905 revolution two years later, in which a liberal parliament was established without the overthrow of the Tsar.

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