Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Excerpts of The Scope of Organisational Work and “Conspiratorial” Organisation and “Democratism” (from the fourth chapter of What Is To Be Done)
by V.I. Lenin
Estimated Reading Time: 11 min

Reading this in 2023, can one imagine anything currently like this in countries like the United States? We have NGOs, voting as total participation, and left groups doing the same live action roleplay performances of earlier struggles.

Text and footnotes abridged.

B-v is Boris Savinkov (1879-1925) Writer and revolutionary. Member Social Revolutionary Combat Organization. Involved in assassination of Count Plehve and Grand Duke Sergei. Volunteer in French Army during the War. Assistant Minister of War to Kerensky. Anti-Bolshevik 1918-21. Sentenced to 10 years under the Bolsheviks. Committed suicide 1925?

D. The Scope of Organisational Work

We have heard B-v tell us about “the lack of revolutionary forces fit for action which is felt not only in St. Petersburg, but throughout Russia”. Hardly anyone will dispute this fact. But the question is, how is it to be explained? B-v writes:

“We shall not go into an explanation of the historical causes of this phenomenon; we shall merely state that a society, demoralised by prolonged political reaction and split by past and present economic changes, promotes from its own ranks an extremely small number of persons fit for revolutionary work; that the working class does produce revolutionary workers who to some extent reinforce the ranks of the illegal organisations, but that the number of such revolutionaries is inadequate to meet the requirements of the times. This is all the more so because the worker who spends eleven and a half hours a day in the factory is in such a position that he can, in the main, perform only the functions of an agitator; but propaganda and organisation, the delivery and reproduction of illegal literature, the issuance of leaflets, etc., are duties which must necessarily fall mainly upon the shoulders of an extremely small force of intellectuals” (Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 6, pp. 38-39).

On many points we disagree with B-v, particularly with those we have emphasised, which most saliently reveal that, although weary of our amateurism (as is every thinking practical worker), B-v cannot find the way out of this intolerable situation because he is weighted down by Economism. The fact is that society produces very many persons fit for “the cause”, but we are unable to make use of them all. The critical, transitional state of our movement in this respect may be formulated as follows: There are no people — yet there is a mass of people. There is a mass of people, because the working class and increasingly varied social strata, year after year, produce from their ranks an increasing number of discontented people who desire to protest, who are ready to render all the assistance they can in the struggle against absolutism, the intolerableness of which, though not yet recognised by all, is more and more acutely sensed by increasing masses of the people. At the same time, we have no people, because we have no leaders, no political leaders, no talented organisers capable of arranging extensive and at the same time uniform and harmonious work that would employ all forces, even the most inconsiderable. “The growth and development of the revolutionary organisations” lag, not only behind the growth of the working-class movement, which even B-v admits, but behind that of the general democratic movement among all strata of the people. (In passing, probably B-V would now regard this as supplementing his conclusion.) The scope of revolutionary work is too narrow, as compared with the breadth of the spontaneous basis of the movement. It is too hemmed in by the wretched theory of “economic struggle against the employers and the government”. Yet, at the present time, not only Social-Democratic political agitators, but Social-Democratic organisers must “go among all classes of the population”.10 10. Thus, an undoubted revival of the democratic spirit has recently been observed among persons in military service, partly as a consequence of the more frequent street battles with “enemies” like workers and students. As soon as our available forces permit, we must without fail devote the most serious attention to propaganda and agitation among soldiers and officers, and to the creation of “military organisations” affiliated to our Party.—Lenin There is hardly a single practical worker who will doubt that the Social-Democrats could distribute the thousand and one minute functions of their organisational work among individual representatives of the most varied classes. Lack of specialisation is one of the most serious defects of our technique, about which B-v justly and bitterly complains. The smaller each separate “operation” in our common cause the more people we can find capable of carrying out such operations (people who, in the majority of cases, are completely incapable of becoming professional revolutionaries); more difficult will it be for the police to “net” all these “detail workers”, and the more difficult will it be for them to frame up, out of an arrest for some petty affair, a “case” that would justify the government’s expenditure on “security”. As for the number of people ready to help us, we referred in the preceding chapter to the gigantic change that has taken place in this respect in the last five years or so. On the other hand, in order to unite all these tiny fractions into one whole, in order not to break up the movement while breaking up its functions, and in order to imbue the people who carry out the minute functions with the conviction that their work is necessary and important, without which conviction they will never do the work,11 11. I recall that once a comrade told me of a factory inspector who wanted to help the Social-Democrats, and actually did, but complained bitterly that he did not know whether his “information” reached the proper revolutionary centre, how much his help was really required, and what possibilities there were for utilising his small and petty services. Every practical worker can, of course, cite many similar instances in which our primitiveness deprived us of allies. These services, each “small” in itself, but invaluable when taken in the mass, could and would be rendered to us by office employees and officials, not only in factories, but in the postal service, on the railways, in the Customs, among the nobility, among the clergy, and in every other walk of life, including even the police and the Court! Had we a real party, a real militant organisation of revolutionaries, we would not make undue demands on every one of these “aides”, we would not hasten always and invariably to bring them right into the very heart of our “illegality”, but, on the contrary, we would husband them most carefully and would even train people especially for such functions, bearing in mind that many students could be of much greater service to the Party as “aides” holding some official post than as “short-term” revolutionaries. But, I repeat, only an organisation that is firmly established and has no lack of active forces would have the right to apply such tactics.—Lenin it is necessary to have a strong organisation of tried revolutionaries. The more secret such an organisation is, the stronger and more widespread will be the confidence in the Party. As we know, in time of war, it is not only of the utmost importance to imbue one’s own army with confidence in its strength, but it is important also to convince the enemy and all neutral elements of this strength; friendly neutrality may sometimes decide the issue. If such an organisation existed, one built up on a firm theoretical foundation and possessing a Social-Democratic organ, we should have no reason to fear that the movement might be diverted from its path by the numerous “outside” elements that are attracted to it.


To be fully prepared for his task, the worker-revolutionary must likewise become a professional revolutionary. Hence B-v is wrong in saying that since the worker spends eleven and a half hours in the factory, the brunt of all other revolutionary functions (apart from agitation) “must necessarily fall mainly upon the shoulders of an extremely small force of intellectuals”. But this condition does not obtain out of sheer “necessity”. It obtains because we are backward, because we do not recognise our duty to assist every capable worker to become a professional agitator, organiser, propagandist, literature distributor, etc., etc. In this respect, we waste our strength in a positively shameful manner; we lack the ability to husband that which should be tended and reared with special care. Look at the Germans: their forces are a hundredfold greater than ours. But they understand perfectly well that really capable agitators, etc., are not often promoted from the ranks of the “average”. For this reason they immediately try to place every capable working man in conditions that will enable him to develop and apply his abilities to the fullest: he is made a professional agitator, he is encouraged to widen the field of his activity, to spread it from one factory to the whole of the industry, from a single locality to the whole country. He acquires experience and dexterity in his profession; he broadens his outlook and increases his knowledge; he observes at close quarters the prominent political leaders from other localities and of other parties; he strives to rise to their level and combine in himself the knowledge of the working-class environment and the freshness of socialist convictions with professional skill, without which the proletariat cannot wage a stubborn struggle against its excellently trained enemies. In this way alone do the working masses produce men of the stamp of Bebel and Auer. But what is to a great extent automatic in a politically free country must in Russia be done deliberately and systematically by our organisations. A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and “promising” must not be left to work eleven hours a day in a factory. We must arrange that he be maintained by the Party; that he may go underground in good time; that he change the place of his activity, if he is to enlarge his experience, widen his outlook, and be able to hold out for at least a few years in the struggle against the gendarmes. As the spontaneous rise of their movement becomes broader and deeper, the working-class masses promote from their ranks not only an increasing number of talented agitators, but also talented organisers, propagandists, and “practical workers” in the best sense of the term (of whom there are so few among our intellectuals who, for the most part, in the Russian manner, are somewhat careless and sluggish in their habits). When we have forces of specially trained worker-revolutionaries who have gone through extensive preparation (and, of course, revolutionaries “of all arms of the service”), no political police in the world will then be able to contend with them, for these forces, boundlessly devoted to the revolution, will enjoy the boundless confidence of the widest masses of the workers. We are directly to blame for doing too little to “stimulate” the workers to take this path, common to them and to the “intellectuals”, of professional revolutionary training, and for all too often dragging them back by our silly speeches about what is “accessible” to the masses of the workers, to the “average workers”, etc.

In this, as in other respects, the narrow scope of our organisational work is without a doubt due directly to the fact (although the overwhelming majority of the “Economists” and the novices in practical work do not perceive it) that we restrict our theories and our political tasks to a narrow field. Subservience to spontaneity seems to inspire a fear of taking even one step away from what is “accessible” to the masses, a fear of rising too high above mere attendance on the immediate and direct requirements of the masses. Have no fear, gentlemen! Remember that we stand so low on the plane of organisation that the very idea that we could rise too high is absurd!

E. “Conspiratorial” Organisation and “Democratism”


We have always protested, and will, of course, continue to protest against confining the political struggle to conspiracy. But this does not, of course, mean that we deny the need for a strong revolutionary organisation. Thus, in the pamphlet mentioned in the preceding footnote, after the polemics against reducing the political struggle to a conspiracy, a description is given (as a Social-Democratic ideal) of an organisation so strong as to be able to “resort to. . .rebellion” and to every other form of attack, in order to “deliver a smashing blow against absolutism”. In form such a strong revolutionary organisation in an autocratic country may also be described as a “conspiratorial” organisation, because the French word “conspiration” is the equivalent of the Russian word “zagovar” (“conspiracy”), and such an organisation must have the utmost secrecy. Secrecy is such a necessary condition for this kind of organisation that all the other conditions (number and selection of members, functions, etc.) must be made to conform to it. It would be extremely naive indeed, therefore, to fear the charge that we Social-Democrats desire to create a conspiratorial organisation. Such a charge should be as flattering to every opponent of Economism as the charge of following a Narodnaya Volya line.

The objection may be raised that such a powerful and strictly secret organisation, which concentrates in its hands all the threads of secret activities, an organisation which of necessity is centralised, may too easily rush into a premature attack, may thoughtlessly intensify the movement before the growth of political discontent, the intensity of the ferment and anger of the working class, etc., have made such an attack possible and necessary. Our reply to this is: Speaking abstractly, it cannot be denied, of course, that a militant organisation may thoughtlessly engage in battle, which may end in a defeat entirely avoidable under other conditions. But we cannot confine ourselves to abstract reasoning on such a question, because every battle bears within itself the abstract possibility of defeat, and there is no way of reducing this possibility except by organised preparation for battle. If, however, we proceed from the concrete conditions at present obtaining in Russia, we must come to the positive conclusion that a strong revolutionary organisation is absolutely necessary precisely for the purpose of giving stability to the movement and of safeguarding it against the possibility of making thoughtless attacks. Precisely at the present time, when no such organisation yet exists, and when the revolutionary movement is rapidly and spontaneously growing, we already observe two opposite extremes (which, as is to be expected, “meet”). These are: the utterly unsound Economism and the preaching of moderation, and the equally unsound “excitative terror”, which strives “artificially to call forth symptoms of the end of the movement, which is developing and strengthening itself, when this movement is as yet nearer to the start than to the end” (V. Zasulich, in Zarya, No. 2-3, p. 353). And the instance of Rabocheye Dyelo shows that there exist Social-Democrats who give way to both these extremes. This is not surprising, for, apart from other reasons, the “economic struggle against the employers and the government” can never satisfy revolutionaries, and opposite extremes will therefore always appear here and there. Only a centralised, militant organisation that consistently carries out a Social-Democratic policy, that satisfies, so to speak, all revolutionary instincts and strivings, can safeguard the movement against making thoughtless attacks and prepare attacks that hold out the promise of success.

A further objection may be raised, that the views on organisation here expounded contradict the “democratic principle”. Now, while the earlier accusation was specifically Russian in origin, this one is specifically foreign in character. And only an organisation abroad (the Union of Russian Social-Democrats Abroad) was capable of giving its Editorial Board instructions like the following:

Organisational Principle. In order to secure the successful development and unification of Social-Democracy, the broad democratic principle of Party organisation must be emphasised, developed, and fought for; this is particularly necessary in view of the anti-democratic tendencies that have revealed themselves in the ranks of our Party” (Two Conferences, p. 18).

We shall see in the next chapter how Rabocheye Dyelo combats Iskra’s “anti-democratic tendencies”. For the present, we shall examine more closely the “principle” that the Economists advance. Everyone will probably agree that “the broad democratic principle” presupposes the two following conditions: first, full publicity, and secondly, election to all offices. It would be absurd to speak of democracy without publicity, moreover, without a publicity that is not limited to the membership of the organisation. We call the German Socialist Party a democratic organisation because all its activities are carried out publicly; even its party congresses are held in public. But no one would call an organisation democratic that is hidden from every one but its members by a veil of secrecy. What is the use, then, of advancing “the broad democratic principle” when the fundamental condition for this principle cannot be fulfilled by a secret organisation? “The broad principle” proves itself simply to be a resounding but hollow phrase. Moreover, it reveals a total lack of understanding of the urgent tasks of the moment in regard to organisation. Everyone knows how great the lack of secrecy is among the “broad” masses of our revolutionaries. We have heard the bitter complaints of B-v on this score and his absolutely just demand for a “strict selection of members” (Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 6, p. 42). Yet, persons who boast a keen “sense of realities” urge, in a situation like this, not the strictest secrecy and the strictest (consequently, more restricted) selection, of members, but “the broad democratic principle”! This is what you call being wide of the mark.

Nor is the situation any better with regard to the second attribute of democracy, the principle of election. In politically free countries, this condition is taken for granted. “They are members of the Party who accept the principles of the Party programme and render the Party all possible support,” reads Clause 1 of the Rules of the German Social-Democratic Party. Since the entire political arena is as open to the public view as is a theatre stage to the audience, this acceptance or non-acceptance, support or opposition, is known to all from the press and from public meetings. Everyone knows that a certain political figure began in such and such a way, passed through such and such an evolution, behaved in a trying moment in such and such a manner, and possesses such and such qualities; consequently, all party members, knowing all the facts, can elect or refuse to elect this person to a particular party office. The general control (in the literal sense of the term) exercised over every act of a party man in the political field brings into existence an automatically operating mechanism which produces what in biology is called the “survival of the fittest”. “Natural selection” by full publicity, election, and general control provides the assurance that, in the last analysis, every political figure will be “in his proper place”, do the work for which lie is best fitted by his powers and abilities, feel the effects of his mistakes on himself, and prove before all the world his ability to recognise mistakes and to avoid them.

Try to fit this picture into the frame of our autocracy! Is it conceivable in Russia for all who accept the principles of the Party programme and render the Party all possible support to control every action of the revolutionary working in secret? Is it possible for all to elect one of these revolutionaries to any particular office, when, in the very interests of the work, the revolutionary must conceal his identity from nine out of ten of these “all”? Reflect somewhat over the real meaning of the high-sounding phrases to which Rabocheye Dyelo gives utterance, and you will realise that “broad democracy” in Party organisation, amidst the gloom of the autocracy and the domination of gendarmerie, is nothing more than a useless and harmful toy. It is a useless toy because, in point of fact, no revolutionary organisation has ever practiced, or could practice, broad democracy, however much it may have desired to do so. It is a harmful toy because any attempt to practise “the broad democratic principle” will simply facilitate the work of the police in carrying out large-scale raids, will perpetuate the prevailing primitiveness, and will divert the thoughts of the practical workers from the serious and pressing task of training themselves to become professional revolutionaries to that of drawing up detailed “paper” rules for election systems. Only abroad, where very often people with no opportunity for conducting really active work gather, could this “playing at democracy” develop here and there, especially in small groups.


The only serious organisational principle for the active workers of our movement should he the strictest secrecy, the strictest selection of members, and the training of professional revolutionaries. Given these qualities, something even more than “democratism” would be guaranteed to us, namely, complete, comradely, mutual confidence among revolutionaries. This is absolutely essential for us, because there can be no question of replacing it by general democratic control in Russia. It would be a great mistake to believe that the impossibility of establishing real “democratic” control renders the members of the revolutionary organisation beyond control altogether. They have not the time to think about toy forms of democratism (democratism within a close and compact body of comrades in which complete, mutual confidence prevails), but they have a lively sense of their responsibility, knowing as they do from experience that an organisation of real revolutionaries will stop at nothing to rid itself of an unworthy member. Moreover, there is a fairly well-developed public opinion in Russian (and international) revolutionary circles which has a long history behind it, and which sternly and ruthlessly punishes every departure from the duties of comradeship (and “democratism”, real and not toy democratism, certainly forms a component part of the conception of comradeship). Take all this into consideration and you will realise that this talk and these resolutions about “anti-democratic tendencies” have the musty odour of the playing at generals which is indulged in abroad.

What is to be Done
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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