Forwarded from sclark at (posted to Marxmail home page)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Feb 7 09:57:29 MST 2002

Comrades and Friends,

I can't let the 100th anniversary of the publication of Lenin's great work,
<What Is To Be Done?>, pass without notice and comment.

Lenin published his polemic against liberal capitulation in February, 1902,
to end what he called the "third period" in the evolution of Russian
Social-Democracy, a period of drift in the revolutionary movement.
Social-Democracy had emerged almost 20 years earlier in the break with
Narodism and the embrace of Marxism; then, in its second period, it swelled
as Russia's revolutionary intelligentsia reached out to the nation's
nascent working class during the strikes of 1894-98. The state, however,
reacted, arresting and exiling much of the movement's leadership (Lenin
included); in the vacuum, under the mantle of "freedom of criticism", many
basic tenants of Marxism were questioned by the new "leaders".

Lenin made three points that I think are worth recalling.

First, he attacked those who called themselves revolutionary but failed to
uphold the basic tenants of revolutionary theory.

"Denied was the possibility of putting socialism on a scientific basis and
of demonstrating its necessity and inevitability from the point of view of
the materialist conception of history. Denied was the fact of growing
impoverishment, the process of proletarisation, and the intensification of
capitalist contradictions; the very concept, "<ultimate aim>," was declared
to be unsound, and the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat was
completely rejected. Denied was the antithesis in principle between
liberalism and socialism. Denied was the <theory of class struggle>, on the
alleged grounds that it could not be applied to a strictly democratic
society governed according to the will of the majority, etc.

"Thus, the demand for a decisive turn from revolutionary Social-Democracy
to bourgeois social-reformism was accompanied by a no less decisive turn
towards bourgeois criticism of all the fundamental ideas of Marxism>
(Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 353 (emphasis in original)).

Lenin's critique led directly to, perhaps, his most famous and important
insight on what humans must grasp if we are, effectively, to advance
revolutionary change:

"Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement" (369).

Much has changed since Lenin's time, but the fact remains that social
change follows dicta beyond human control. Sometimes, as has been the case
for much of the last century, conditions ripen for revolution precisely
because institutions of decaying but entrenched elites block social
progress. If revolutionaries are going to provide leadership to the masses,
they must understand the real dynamics of the given social and political
reality - the dynamics that, actually, are undermining established
authority and creating the basis of a new one. For this, theory is critical.

Lenin's second point concerned "the spontaneity of the masses and the
consciousness of the Social-Democrats" (373).

In Lenin's day it was necessary to critique those - Lenin called them
economists - who found in the strike movement of the mid 1890s reason to
glorify in its potential. Lenin also had to critique those who went to the
opposite extreme, endorsing "excitive terror" as a means to revolution.

Today, too many of us who, theoretically, "know better" stand in awe of the
popular anti-globalization movement while others make excuses for
terrorism. Theoretical confusion and political opportunism still go

Let me start with the anti-globalization movement which, this week, is
reviving - after the setback provided by September 11th - and conducting
fresh protest. It is a combination of three things: organized labor,
environmentalists (and some other progressive special interests such as
animal rights) and youthful student idealism.

I am unaware of anyone who claims the anti-globalization movement is
revolutionary, though I'm sure many of its student activists hope it will
be. Yet, many of us who once strived for revolution now praise the energy
of this movement and cheer it on in our hearts and minds. Perhaps, since we
seem unprepared to offer leadership, it is best that we stand aside, but,
in our absence, the movement is led by Trotskyists and trade unionists who
share a common perspective that the movement is everything, its direction
nothing. These "leaders", demanding that the U.S. state better control and
regulate the world's multinational corporations, channel the movement down
the hopeless path of bourgeois reformism. These are our modern-day

Similarly, I know of no one who endorses the attacks of al Qaeda, but some
progressives spend far too much time informing the public that it is the
conditions of modern life that breed terrorist activity. What is the point
of this?

In Lenin's time, terrorist attacks were carried out by youthful bombers who
attempted to kill members of the aristocracy or its police forces. Lenin's
own brother was executed by the Tsar for participation in such
conspiracies. The young, early leaders of the Russian Social-Democracy came
out of this orientation.

"Many of them had begun their revolutionary thinking as adherents of
Narodnaya Volya. Nearly all had in their early youth enthusiastically
worshipped the terrorist heroes. It required a struggle to abandon the
captivating impressions of those heroic traditions, and the struggle was
accompanied by the breaking off of personal relations with people who were
determined to remain loyal to the Narodnaya Volya and for whom the young
Social-Democrats had profound respect" (517).

Today's revolutionaries, even among the PLO, need to clear their thinking.
Israel is fascist, but terror is not the answer. It will isolate the
revolution from the broad base of support it must have to succeed. Those of
us who oppose U.S.-Israeli policy in the Holy Land have a special
responsibility to break with Palestinian and Arab terror.

Though he spoke of the actors in his time, Lenin would have pointed out
that the leaders of both today's anti-globalization movement and today's
terrorist cells share a crucial, common perspective.

"The Economists and the present-day terrorists have one common root,
namely, <subservience to spontaneity>...At first sight, our assertion may
appear paradoxical, so great is the difference between those who stress the
'drab everyday struggle' and those who call for the most self-sacrificing
struggle of individuals. But this is no paradox. The Economists and the
terrorists merely bow to different poles of spontaneity; the Economists bow
to the spontaneity of 'the labour movement pure and simple', while the
terrorists bow to the spontaneity of the passionate indignation of
intellectuals, who lack the ability or opportunity to connect the
revolutionary struggle and the working-class movement into an integral
whole. It is difficult indeed for those who have lost their belief, or who
have never believed, that this is possible, to find some outlet for their
indignation and revolutionary energy other than terror...This is an
absolutely logical and inevitable <conclusion> which must be insisted upon
- <even though those> who are beginning to carry out this programme <do not
themselves realize> that it is inevitable. Political activity has its logic
quite apart from the consciousness of those who, with the best intentions,
call either for terror or for lending the economic struggle itself a
political character. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and,
in this case, good intentions cannot save one from being spontaneously
drawn 'along the line of least resistance'...Surely it is no accident that
many Russian liberals - avowed liberals and liberals that wear the mask of
Marxism - whole-heartedly sympathise with terror and try to foster the
terrorist moods that have surged up in the present time" (418 (emphasis in
the original)).

Lenin quotes Karl Kautsky to the effect that "modern socialist
consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge"
(383). Nothing less will do.

Among us, some have abandoned the Marxist principles of class struggle and
the class basis of political power, but have offered no theoretical
explanation or self-criticism. World System Theory is one form of this
obfuscation. Immanuel Wallerstein's classless social reflections are another.

Although Mao long ago pointed out that the Soviet Union was a sham -
"socialist in words, imperialist in deeds" - too many of us seem dispirited
and lost in the aftermath of its collapse. Rather than search out the real
meaning of this demise, we've accepted the simple conclusion that Marxism
was a theoretical fraud.

I beg to differ. As Marxism makes clear, the state - including,
particularly, the U.S. state - is the institutionalized power of the
industrial elite, the ruling class of modern nations, and this power must
be broken if we will have justice and opportunity for the vast majority of
the world's people. This much we might have known, even back in 1902.

But much has changed in the intervening hundred years, including, most
significantly, the emergence of a new mode of human reproduction (service
production), a new class structure and a new (global) marketplace. Thus,
revolutionaries, today, must update our science and our thinking and make
new, global assessments of revolutionary strategy and tactics.

This brings me to Lenin's third point - "the primitiveness of the
economists and the organization of revolutionaries" (440).

In Lenin's time, the revolutionary struggle of workers was confined,
mainly, within nations and directed against the aristocracy and its
industrialist and financial allies. Today, the struggle of workers is but
one part of a larger, global panoramic of struggle against the national
chauvinism and imperialist oppression of the U.S. government and its allied
nation-states. This struggle is driven most consistently (though, at this
early stage, hardly consistently at all) by the forces that stand to gain
from the emergent, global, service-based economy.

The main proponents of this line, today, are George Soros, the World
Federalists, the Global Policy Forum and others who wish to make the United
Nations into a force that can set the world's policy agenda and ensure
subordination of U.S. national interests (and those of other nation-states)
to that larger agenda.

Yet, none of these offer a practical plan to organize the world's
revolutionaries and direct the struggle for global justice. Lenin had
nothing but contempt for such failure.

"Our worst sin with regard to organisation consists in the fact that <by
our primitiveness we have lowered the prestige of revolutionaries>...A
person who is flabby and shaky on questions of theory, who has a narrow
outlook, who pleads the spontaneity of the masses as an excuse for his own
sluggishness, who resembles a trade-union secretary more than a spokesman
of the people, who is unable to conceive of a broad and bold plan that
would command the respect even of opponents, and who is inexperienced and
clumsy in his own professional art...such a (person) is not a
revolutionary, but a wretched amateur!" (466).

What, then, is the correct line and organizational plan to address the
world's crisis?

Around the world, activists are fighting in their localities and in their
nations for justice and opportunity for all. Those who are theoretically
clear - who see the U.S. government as the chief obstacle to progress and
who recognize, for the epoch ahead, that new, globally-oriented economic
forces and the social and political networks they generate are the main
foundation of revolutionary struggle - must organize ourselves to promote
our analysis and political agenda on the global stage.

For Lenin in 1902, "The publication of an All-Russian political newspaper
must be <the main line> by which we may unswervingly develop, deepen, and
expand the organisation..."(501 (emphasis in original)). "A newspaper is
not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a
collective organizer" (502).

Today, the Internet must be our vehicle.

Far from removing our focus from practical, local work, the building of an
Internet Iskra would enable us to network globally, clarify theory and
define our political agenda while laying a foundation for the systematic
broadening of our reach and the consolidation of new forces as the world
confronts catalytic crisis events, like September 11, in the years ahead.

Like Lenin, I share the view that

"(w)hat we require foremost and imperatively is to broaden the field,
establish <real> contacts between the towns on the basis of <regular,
common> work; for fragmentation weighs down on the people and they are
'stuck in a hole'..., not knowing what is happening in the world, from whom
to learn, or how to acquire experience and satisfy their desire to engage
in broad activities. I continue to insist that we can <start> establishing
<real> contacts only with the aid of a common newspaper, as the only
regular, All-Russian enterprise, one which will summarise the results of
the most divers forms of activity and thereby <stimulate> people to march
forward untiringly along <all> the innumerable paths leading to revolution,
in the same way as all roads lead to Rome" (506 (emphasis in original)).

Our enterprise, however, must be all-world, that is, global in nature. We
need to network and engage the old and new revolutionaries all over the
world - in China, in Cuba, in Russia, in Europe, in India, in Iran, in
Japan, in Korea, in the Philippines, in Palestine, in Africa and in Latin
America - who embrace class struggle as the avenue to justice and
opportunity and who are able to lend a hand to its theoretical
clarification and practical implementation.

If we can do this, we can renew our efforts to fulfill the dreams and
visions of our own youthful awakening.

One day, inevitably, our long period of dissolution and confusion will,
like the third period in Russian Social-Democracy, come to conclusion.
"(T)he opportunist rearguard will be 'replaced' by the genuine vanguard of
the most revolutionary class" (520).

Today's third period has stretched far longer than old Russia's. We've been
adrift for more than a decade. Yet, Lenin's succinct reply to the question,
what is to be done? is as true today as 100 years ago: "Put an End to the
Third Period" (520).

P.S. By way of introduction (since I am new to the list). I am an American
Boomer generation activist who was a member of the Communist Workers Party
(US) until its demise in the mid-1980s. Though I consider Marxism critical
to any social and political analysis, I recognize that social science has
advanced since the days of Marx and Lenin. Most significantly, social
science now can explain why the human mode of production sometimes changes
(from hunting-gathering to agriculture to mass production to service
production), and, on this basis, can provide proof that the industrial mode
of production (with its attendant class structure) is giving way, over the
past 50 years, to a new mode and a new class structure. Marxists and
revolutionaries need to upgrade their science and their strategy in light
of this fact. For those who are interested, please visit my site at:

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list