Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Political Exposures And “Training In Revolutionary Activity” (Section C from the third chapter of What Is To Be Done)
by V.I. Lenin
Estimated Reading Time: 6 min

Today's reading will hopefully be a little shorter, but let's take a second and look at a few things. First, we skipped a section in this chapter because Lenin spends too much goddamn time picking fights with other factions and it gets boring after a while. But in the earlier section ("B. How Martynov Rendered Plekhanov More Profound"), there is a good bit that we want to include here on the role of the agitator and the propagandist:

"We congratulate Russian-and international-Social-Democracy on having found, thanks to Martynov, a new terminology, more strict and more profound. Hitherto we thought (with Plekhanov, and with all the leaders of the international working class movement) that the propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of this society into a socialist society, etc. In a word, he must present “many ideas”, so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole only by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator, however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience, say, the death of an unemployed worker’s family from starvation, the growing impoverishment, etc., and, utilising this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses”, e.g., the senselessness of the contradiction between the increase of wealth and the increase of poverty; he will strive to rouse discontent and indignation among the masses against this crying injustice, leaving a more complete explanation of this contradiction to the propagandist. Consequently, the propagandist operates chiefly by means of the printed word; the agitator by means of the spoken word. The propagandist requires qualities different from those of the agitator."

Not bad, Lenin. Anyway, we keep talking about three different publications: Iskra (The Spark), Rabocheye Dyelo (the Workers' Cause), and Rabochaya Mysl (Worker's Thought). The Two Rabochaya papers, Dyelo and Mysl, represented the economism side of the debate. Rabocheye Dyelo was an organ of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad and it was the foreign center of the economists; Rabochaya Mysl was basically the same but based in Russia. Iskra was initially Lenin's paper, he first managed it, it was the official organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and it had a great motto: "From a spark a fire will flare up." What is to be Done? sometimes reads like Lenin's early analysis, heavily influenced by Plekhanov, with a particular anger for the two publications of the economism side.

We're going to round out this chapter in the coming days with where Lenin goes next in the chapter: comparing the weak analysis of "Economism" (and its fetish of spontaneity) with the "terrorists" AND understanding the Working Class as the vanguard fighter for Democracy. Later, we're going to need to think about how this compares to later Lenin and where we are today with a whole non-profit industrial complex that very much does not place the working class as the vanguard of anything except maybe cover photos on slick websites. Anyway, enjoy your reading.

C. Political Exposures And “Training In Revolutionary Activity”

Footnotes mercifully abridged.

In advancing against Iskra his theory of “raising the activity of the working masses”, Martynov actually betrayed an urge to belittle that activity, for he declared the very economic struggle before which all economists grovel to be the preferable, particularly important, and “most widely applicable” means of rousing this activity and its broadest field. This error is characteristic, precisely in that it is by no means peculiar to Martynov. In reality, it is possible to “raise the activity of the working masses” only when this activity is not restricted to “political agitation on an economic basis”. A basic condition for the necessary expansion of political agitation is the organisation of comprehensive political exposure. In no way except by means of such exposures can the masses be trained in political consciousness and revolutionary activity. Hence, activity of this kind is one of the most important functions of international Social-Democracy as a whole, for even political freedom does not in any way eliminate exposures; it merely shifts somewhat their sphere of direction. Thus, the German party is especially strengthening its positions and spreading its influence, thanks particularly to the untiring energy with which it is conducting its campaign of political exposure. Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected — unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats; for the self-knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a fully clear theoretical understanding — or rather, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical, understanding — of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political life. For this reason the conception of the economic struggle as the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into the political movement, which our Economists preach, is so extremely harmful and reactionary in its practical significance. 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; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grasp the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real “inner workings”; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected. But this “clear picture” cannot be obtained from any book. It can be obtained only from living examples and from exposures that follow close upon what is going on about us at a given moment; upon what is being discussed, in whispers perhaps, by each one in his own way; upon what finds expression in such and such events, in such and such statistics, in such and such court sentences, etc., etc. These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity.

Why do the Russian workers still manifest little revolutionary activity in response to the brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.? Is it because the “economic struggle” does not “stimulate” them to this, because such activity does not “promise palpable results”, because it produces little that is “positive”? To adopt such an opinion, we repeat, is merely to direct the charge where it does not belong, to blame the working masses for one’s own philistinism (or Bernsteinism). We must blame ourselves, our lagging behind the mass movement, for still being unable to organise sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants 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 irresistible desire to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, etc. As yet we have done very little, almost nothing, to bring before the working masses prompt exposures on all possible issues. Many of us as yet do not recognise this as our bounden duty but trail spontaneously in the wake of the “drab everyday struggle”, in the narrow confines of factory life. Under such circumstances to say that “Iskra displays a tendency to minimise the significance of the forward march of the drab everyday struggle in comparison with the propaganda of brilliant and complete ideas” (Martynov, op. cit., p. 61), means to drag the Party back, to defend and glorify our unpreparedness and backwardness.

As for calling the masses to action, that will come of itself as soon as energetic political agitation, live and striking exposures come into play. To catch some criminal red-handed and immediately to brand him publicly in all places is of itself far more effective than any number of “calls”; the effect very often is such as will make it impossible to tell exactly who it was that “called” upon the masses and who suggested this or that plan of demonstration, etc. Calls for action, not in the general, but in the concrete, sense of the term can be made only at the place of action; only those who themselves go into action, and do so immediately, can sound such calls. Our business as Social-Democratic publicists is to deepen, expand, and intensify political exposures and political agitation.

A word in passing about “calls to action”. The only newspaper which prior to the spring events called upon the workers to intervene actively in a matter that certainly did not promise any palpable results whatever for the workers, i.e., the drafting of the students into the army, was Iskra. Immediately after the publication of the order of January 11, on “drafting the 183 students into the army”, Iskra published an article on the matter (in its February issue, No. 2), and, before any demonstration was begun, forthwith called upon “the workers to go to the aid of the students”, called upon the “people” openly to take up the government’s arrogant challenge. We ask: how is the remarkable fact to be explained that although Martynov talks so much about “calls to action”, and even suggests “calls to action” as a special form of activity, he said not a word about this call? After this, was it not sheer philistinism on Martynov’s part to allege that Iskra was one-sided because it did not issue sufficient “calls” to struggle for demands “promising palpable results”?

11. The demand “to lend the economic struggle itself a political character” most strikingly expresses subservience to spontaneity in the sphere of political activity. Very often the economic struggle spontaneously assumes a political character, that is to say, without the intervention of the “revolutionary bacilli — the intelligentsia”, without the intervention of the class-conscious Social-Democrats. The economic struggle of the English workers, for instance, also assumed a political character without any intervention on the part of the socialists. The task of the Social-Democrats, however, is not exhausted by political agitation on an economic basis; their task is to convert trade-unionist politics into Social-Democratic political struggle, to utilise the sparks of political consciousness which the economic struggle generates among the workers, for the purpose of raising the workers to the level of Social-Democratic political consciousness. The Martynovs, however, instead of raising and stimulating the spontaneously awakening political consciousness of the workers, bow to spontaneity and repeat over and over ad nauseam, that the economic struggle “Impels” the workers to realise their own lack of political rights. It is unfortunate, gentlemen, that the spontaneously awakening trade-unionist political consciousness does not “impel” you to an understanding of your Social-Democratic tasks.—Lenin

Our Economists, including Rabocheye Dyelo, were successful because they adapted themselves to the backward workers. But the Social-Democratic worker, the revolutionary worker (and the number of such workers is growing) will indignantly reject all this talk about struggle for demands “promising palpable results”, etc., because he will understand that this is only a variation of the old song about adding a kopek to the ruble. Such a worker will say to his counsellors from Rabochaya Mysl and Rabocheye Dyelo: you are busying yourselves in vain, gentlemen, and shirking your proper duties, by meddling with such excessive zeal in a job that we can very well manage ourselves. There is nothing clever in your assertion that the Social-Democrats’ task is to lend the economic struggle itself a political character; that is only the beginning, it is not the main task of the Social-Democrats. For all over the world, including Russia, the police themselves often take the initiative in lending the economic struggle a political character, and the workers themselves learn to understand whom the government supports.11 The “economic struggle of the workers against the employers and the government”, about which you make as much fuss as if you had discovered a new America, is being waged in all parts of Russia, even the most remote, by the workers themselves who have heard about strikes, but who have heard almost nothing about socialism. The “activity” you want to stimulate among us workers, by advancing concrete demands that promise palpable results, we are already displaying and in our everyday, limited trade union work we put forward these concrete demands, very often without any assistance whatever from the intellectuals. But such activity is not enough for us; we are not children to be fed on the thin gruel of “economic” politics alone; we want to know everything that others know, we want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every single political event. In order that we may do this, the intellectuals must talk to us less of what we already know. and tell us more about what we do not yet know and what we can never learn from our factory and “economic” experience, namely, political knowledge. You intellectuals can acquire this knowledge, and it is your duty to bring it to us in a hundred- and a thousand-fold greater measure than you have done up to now; and you must bring it to us, not only in the form of discussions, pamphlets, and articles (which very often — pardon our frankness — are rather dull), but precisely in the form of vivid exposures of what our government and our governing classes are doing at this very moment in all spheres of life. Devote more zeal to carrying out this duty and talk less about “raising the activity of the working masses”. We are far more active than you think, and we are quite able to support, by open street fighting, even demands that do not promise any “palpable results” whatever. It is not for you to “raise” our activity, because activity is precisely the thing you yourselves lack. Bow less in subservience to spontaneity, and think more about raising your own activity, gentlemen!

What is to be Done
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
   To tell us what needs to be guarded in the van, write to   ?s    YTD All the available strength of the old order faced the unorganised power of the new, the unknown