Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Dogmatism and "Freedom of Criticism" (Part 1 of 2 from the first chapter of What Is To Be Done)
by V.I. Lenin
Estimated Reading Time: 9 min

Leaving Russia in 1900, Lenin went to Geneva to join Plekhanov's circle of older Russian Marxists in publishing a paper for the new Social-Democratic party—Iskra, "The Spark." In the course of this work he formulated what in retrospect proved to be the fundamental ideas underlying the Communist movement—his theory of the tightly organized and disciplined party of "professional revolutionaries." This idea Lenin first developed in "What Is to Be Done?," a lengthy polemic against the "Economists"—those Marxists who preferred to stress the economic struggle of the workers rather than a separate revolutionary movement. The publication of "What Is to Be Done?" in 1902 marks the true beginning of Leninism as a distinctive political current.

A Documentary History of
Communism in Russia edited
by Robert V. Daniels

Get ready. We're going to read a lot, not exclusively, but a lot of Lenin this month.

A. What Does “Freedom of Criticism” Mean?

Footnotes abridged

“Freedom of criticism” is undoubtedly the most fashionable slogan at the present time, and the one most frequently employed in the controversies between socialists and democrats in all countries. At first sight, nothing would appear to be more strange than the solemn appeals to freedom of criticism made by one of the parties to the dispute. Have voices been raised in the advanced parties against the constitutional law of the majority of European countries which guarantees freedom to science and scientific investigation? “Something must be wrong here,” will be the comment of the onlooker who has heard this fashionable slogan repeated at every turn but has not yet penetrated the essence of the disagreement among the disputants; evidently this slogan is one of the conventional phrases which, like nicknames, become legitimised by use, and become almost generic terms.”

1. Incidentally, in the history of modern socialism this is a phenomenon, perhaps unique and in its way very consoling, namely, that the strife of the various trends within the socialist movement has from national become international. Formerly, the disputes between Lassalleans and Eisenachers (two parties in the German working-class movement in the 1860s/70s; Lassalleans were supporters of Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864) who directed the workers towards peaceful, parliamentary forms of struggle, believing that the introduction of universal suffrage would make Prussia a “free people’s state”. To obtain universal suffrage he promised Bismarck the support of his Association against the liberal opposition and also in the implementation of Bismarck’s plan to reunite Germany “from above” under the hegemony of Prussia. Lassalle repudiated the revolutionary class struggle, denied the importance of trade unions and of strike action, ignored the international tasks of the working class, and infected the German workers with nationalist ideas. Eisenachers—members of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, founded in 1869 at the Eisenach Congress. Thanks to the regular advice and criticism of Marx and Engels, the Eisenachers pursued a more consistent revolutionary policy than did Lassalle’s General Association of German Workers; in particular, on the question of German reunification, they followed “the democratic and proletarian road, struggling against the slightest concession to Prussianism, Bismarckism, and nationalism.Under the influence of the growing working-class movement and of increased government repressions, the two parties united at the Gotha Congress in 1875 to form the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, of which the Lassalleans formed the opportunist wing.) ) between Guesdists and Possibilists, (Guesdists and Possibilists—two trends in the French socialist movement arising out of the split in the French Workers’ Party in 1882. Guesdists—followers of Jules Guesde, constituted the Marxist wing of the movement and advocated an independent revolutionary policy of the proletariat. In 1901 they formed the Socialist Party of France. Possibilists—a petty-bourgeois, reformist trend that sought to divert the proletariat from revolutionary methods of struggle. The Possibilists advocated the restriction of working-class activity to what is “possible” under capitalism. In 1902, in conjunction with other reformist groups, the Possibilists organised the French Socialist Party. In 1905 the Socialist Party of France and the French Socialist Party united to form a single party. During the imperialist war of 1944–18, Jules Guesde, together with the entire leadership of the French Socialist Party, went over to the camp of social-chauvinism.) between Fabians and Social-Democrats, and between Narodnaya Volya adherents and Social-Democrats, remained confined within purely national frameworks, reflecting purely national features, and proceeding, as it were, on different planes. At the present time (as is now evident), the English Fabians, the French Ministerialists, the German Bernsteinians, and the Russian Critics – all belong to the same family, all extol each other, learn from each other, and together take up arms against “dogmatic” Marxism. In this first really international battle with socialist opportunism, international revolutionary Social-Democracy will perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe? —Lenin

In fact, it is no secret for anyone that two trends have taken form in present-day international1 Social-Democracy. The conflict between these trends now flares up in a bright flame and now dies down and smoulders under the ashes of imposing “truce resolutions”. The essence of the “new” trend, which adopts a “critical” attitude towards “obsolete dogmatic” Marxism, has been clearly enough presented by Bernstein and demonstrated by Millerand.

Social-Democracy must change from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms. Bernstein has surrounded this political demand with a whole battery of well-attuned “new” arguments and reasonings. 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 the 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. In view of the fact that this criticism of Marxism has long been directed from the political platform, from university chairs, in numerous pamphlets and in a series of learned treatises, in view of the fact that the entire younger generation of the educated classes has been systematically reared for decades on this criticism, it is not surprising that the “new critical” trend in Social-Democracy should spring up, all complete, like Minerva from the head of Jove. The content of this new trend did not have to grow and take shape, it was transferred bodily from bourgeois to socialist literature.

To proceed. If Bernstein’s theoretical criticism and political yearnings were still unclear to anyone, the French took the trouble strikingly to demonstrate the “new method”. In this instance, too, France has justified its old reputation of being “the land where, more than anywhere else, the historical class struggles were each time fought out to a decision...”12. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Engels, Introduction to Marx’s Der 18 Brumaire).12 The French socialists have begun, not to theorise, but to act. The democratically more highly developed political conditions in France have permitted them to put “Bernsteinism into practice” immediately, with all its consequences. Millerand has furnished an excellent example of practical Bernsteinism; not without reason did Bernstein and Vollmar rush so zealously to defend and laud him. Indeed, if Social-Democracy, in essence, is merely a party of reform and must be bold enough to admit this openly, then not only has a socialist the right to join a bourgeois cabinet, but he must always strive to do so. If democracy, in essence, means the abolition of class domination, then why should not a socialist minister charm the whole bourgeois world by orations on class collaboration? Why should he not remain in the cabinet even 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? Why should he not personally take part in greeting the tsar, for whom the French socialists now have no other name than hero of the gallows, knout, and exile (knouteur, pendeur et deportateur)? And the reward for this utter humiliation and self-degradation of socialism in the face of the whole world, for the corruption of the socialist consciousness of the working masses – the only basis that can guarantee our victory – the reward for this is pompous projects for miserable reforms, so miserable in fact that much more has been obtained from bourgeois governments!

He who does not deliberately close his eyes cannot fail to see that the new “critical” trend in socialism is nothing more nor less than a new variety of opportunism. And if we judge people, not by the glittering uniforms they don or by the highsounding appellations they give themselves, but by their actions and by what they actually advocate, it will be clear that “freedom of criticism” 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.

“Freedom” is a grand word, but under the banner of freedom for industry the most predatory wars were waged, under the banner of freedom of labour, the working people were robbed. The modern use of the term “freedom of criticism” contains the same inherent falsehood. 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. The cry heard today, “Long live freedom of criticism”, is too strongly reminiscent of the fable of the empty barrel.

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 neighbouring 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 are prepared 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!

B. The New Advocates of “Freedom of Criticism”

Now, this slogan (“freedom of criticism”) has in recent times been solemnly advanced by Rabocheye Dyelo (No. 10), organ of the Union of Russian Social-Democrats Abroad, not as a theoretical postulate, but as a political demand, as a reply to the question, “Is it possible to unite the Social-Democratic organisations operating abroad?”: “For a durable unity, there must be freedom of criticism” (p. 36).

From this statement two definite conclusions follow: (1) that Rabocheye Dyelo has taken under its wing the opportunist trend in international Social-Democracy in general, and (2) that Rabocheye Dyelo demands freedom for opportunism in Russian Social-Democracy. Let us examine these conclusions.

2. A comparison of the two trends within the revolutionary proletariat (the revolutionary and the opportunist), and the two trends within the revolutionary bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century (the Jacobin, known as the Mountain, and the Girondist) was made in the leading article in No. 2 of Iskra (February 1901).

Rabocheye Dyelo is “particularly” displeased with the “inclination of Iskra and Zarya to predict a rupture between the Mountain and the Gironde in international Social-Democracy”.2

“Generally speaking,” writes B. Krichevsky, editor of Rabocheye Dyelo, “this talk of the Mountain and the Gironde heard in the ranks of Social-Democracy represents a shallow historical analogy, a strange thing to come from the pen of a Marxist. The Mountain and the Gironde did not represent different temperaments-, or intellectual trends, as the historians of social thought may think, but different classes or strata – the middle bourgeoisie, on the one hand, and the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat, on the other. In the modern socialist movement, however, there is no conflict of class interests; the socialist movement in its entirety, in all of its diverse forms (Krichevsky’s italics), 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” (pp. 32-33).

A bold assertion! Has not Krichevsky heard of the fact, long ago noted, that it is precisely the extensive participation of an “academic” stratum in the socialist movement in recent years that has promoted such a rapid spread of Bernsteinism? And what is most important – on what does our author found his opinion that even “the most pronounced Bernsteinians” stand on the basis of the class struggle for the political and economic emancipation of the proletariat? No one knows. This determined defence of the most pronounced Bernsteinians is not supported by any argument or reasoning whatever. Apparently, the author believes that if he repeats what the most pronounced Bernsteinians say about themselves his assertion requires no proof. But can anything more “shallow” be imagined than this judgement of an entire trend based on nothing more than what the representatives of that trend say about themselves? Can anything more shallow be imagined than the subsequent “homily” on the two different and even diametrically opposite types, or paths, of party development? (Rabocheye Dyelo, pp. 34-35.) The German Social-Democrats, in other words, recognise complete freedom of criticism, but the French do not, and it is precisely their example that demonstrates the “bane of intolerance”.

13. Ilovaisky, D. I. (1832–1920)—historian; author of numerous official textbooks of history that were extensively used in primary and secondary schools in pre-revolutionary Russia. In Ilovaisky’s texts history was reduced mainly to acts of kings and generals; the historical process was explained through secondary and fortuitous circumstances.
14. Katheder-Socialism—a trend in bourgeois political economy that emerged in Germany in the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century. Under the guise of socialism the Katheder-Socialists preached bourgeois-liberal reformism from university chairs (Katheder). They maintained that the bourgeois state was above classes, that it was capable of reconciling hostile classes and gradually introducing “socialism”, without affecting the interests of the capitalists, while, at the same time, taking the demands of the workers as far as possible into consideration. In Russia the views of the Katheder-Socialists were disseminated by the “legal Marxists”.
15. Nozdryov—a character In Gogol’s Dead Souls whom the author called “an historical personage” for the reason that wherever he went he left behind him a scandalous “history”.
16. The Hanover resolution—resolution on “Attacks on the Fundamental Views and Tactics of the Party”, adopted by the German Social-Democratic Party Congress at Hanover, Sept/Oct 1899. A discussion of this question at the Congress and the adoption of a special resolution were necessitated by the fact that the opportunists, led by Bernstein, launched a revisionist attack on Marxist theory and demanded a reconsideration of Social-Democratic revolutionary policy and tactics. The resolution adopted by the Congress rejected the demands of the revisionists, but failed to criticise and expose Bernsteinism. Bernstein’s supporters also voted for the resolution.

To this we can only say that the very example B. Krichevsky affords us attests to the fact that the name Marxists is at times assumed by people who conceive history literally in the “Ilovaisky manner”.13 To explain the unity of the German Socialist Party and the disunity of the French Socialist Party, there is no need whatever to go into the special features in the history of these countries, to contrast the conditions of military semiabsolutism in the one with republican parliamentarism in the other, to analyse the effects of the Paris Commune and the effects of the Exceptional Law Against the Socialists, to compare the economic life and economic development of the two countries, or to recall that “the unexampled growth of German Social-Democracy” was accompanied by a strenuous struggle, unique in the history of socialism, not only against erroneous theories (Mühlberger, Dühring, the Katheder-Socialists14), but also against erroneous tactics (Lassalle), etc., etc. All that is superfluous! The French quarrel among themselves because they are intolerant; the Germans are united because they are good boys.

And observe, this piece of matchless profundity is designed to “refute” the fact that puts to rout the defence of the Bernsteinians. The question whether or not the Bernsteinians stand on the basis of the class struggle of the proletariat is one that can be completely and irrevocably answered only by historical experience. Consequently, the example of France holds greatest significance in this respect, because France is the only country in which the Bernsteinians attempted to stand independently, on their own feet, with the warm approval of their German colleagues (and partly also of the Russian opportunists; cf. Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 2-3, pp. 83-84). The reference to the “intolerance” of the French, apart from its “historical” significance (in the Nozdryov15 sense), turns out to be merely an attempt to –hush up very unpleasant facts with angry invectives.

Nor are we inclined to make a present of the Germans to Krichevsky and the numerous other champions of “freedom of criticism”. If the “most pronounced Bernsteinians” are still tolerated in the ranks of the German party, it is only to the extent that they submit to the Hanover resolution,16 which emphatically rejected Bernstein’s “amendments”, and to the Lubeck resolution, which (notwithstanding the diplomatic terms in which it is couched) contains a direct warning to Bernstein. It is debatable, from the standpoint of the interests of the German party, whether diplomacy was appropriate and whether, in this case, a bad peace is better than a good quarrel; in short, opinions may differ as to the expediency of any one of the methods employed to reject Bernsteinism, but that the German party did reject Bernsteinism on two occasions, is a fact no one can fail to see. Therefore, to think that the German example confirms the thesis that “the most pronounced Bernsteinians stand on the basis of the class struggle of the proletariat, for political and economic emancipation”, means to fail completely to understand what is going on under our very eyes.

Nor is that all. As we have seen, Rabocheye Dyelo demands “freedom of criticism” and defends Bernsteinism before Russian Social-Democracy. Apparently it convinced itself that we were unfair to our “Critics” and Bernsteinians. But to which ones? who? where? when? What did the unfairness represent? About this, not a word. Rabocheye Dyelo does not name a single Russian Critic or Bernsteinian! We are left with but one of two possible suppositions. Either the unfairly treated party is none other than Rabocheye Dyelo itself (this is confirmed by the fact that in the two articles in No. 10 reference is made only to the wrongs suffered by Rabocheye Dyelo at the hands of Zarya and Iskra). If that is the case, how is the strange fact to be explained that Rabocheye Dyelo, which always vehemently dissociated itself from all solidarity with Bernsteinism, could not defend itself without putting in a word in defence of the “most pronounced Bernsteinians” and of freedom of criticism? Or some third persons have been treated unfairly. if this is the case, then what reasons may there be for not naming them?

17. Starover (Old Believer)—the pseudonym of A. N. Potresov, a member of the Iskra Editorial Board; he subsequently became a Menshevik.

We see, therefore, that Rabocheye Dyelo is continuing to play the game of hide-and-seek it has played (as we shall show below) ever since its founding. And let us note further this first practical application of the vaunted “freedom of criticism”. In actual fact, not only was it forthwith reduced to abstention from all criticism, but also to abstention from expressing independent views altogether. The very Rabocheye Dyelo, which avoids mentioning Russian Bernsteinism as if it were a shameful disease (to use Starover’s17 apt expression), proposes, for the treatment of this disease, to copy word for word the latest German prescription for the German variety of the malady! Instead of freedom of criticism slavish (worse: apish) imitation! The very same social and political content of modern international opportunism reveals itself in a variety of ways according to national peculiarities. In one country the opportunists have long ago come out under a separate flag; in another, they have ignored theory and in fact pursued the policy of the Radicals-Socialists; in a third, some members of the revolutionary party have deserted to the camp of opportunism and strive to achieve their aims, not in open struggle for principles and for new tactics, but by gradual, imperceptible, and, if one may so put it, unpunishable corruption of their party; in a fourth country, similar deserters employ the same methods in the gloom of political slavery, and with a completely original combination of “legal” and “illegal” activity, etc. To talk of freedom of criticism and of Bernsteinism as a condition for uniting the Russian Social Democrats and not to explain how Russian Bernsteinism has manifested itself and what particular fruits it has borne, amounts to talking with the aim of saying nothing.

Let us ourselves try, if only in a few words, to say what Rabocheye Dyelo did not want to say (or which was, perhaps, beyond its comprehension).

What is to be Done
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