Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
What Is There In Common Between Economism and Terrorism? (Section D from the third chapter of What Is To Be Done)
by V.I. Lenin
Estimated Reading Time: 4 min

Tomorrow, we get into who plays the role of vanguard fighter for democracy, but first we're going to hear Lear Lenin make the connection between the terrorist and the economist (of the Economism faction, not the field of economics) and their embrace of spontaneity. Yesterdaym I was talking with my helpful neighbor about Lenin just going HAM on Rabocheye Dyelo (the Workers' Cause), and Rabochaya Mysl (Worker's Thought). He pointed out that while Lenin may have been quick to paint his opponents as a the leading voices of Economism, that economism as an argument was on the decline and that Lenin was interested in framing his opponents as its voice to accentuate the importance of the Iskra faction. It was good food for thought and he advised us to read those who were excoriated. Let's do that. But we're going to read at least two more pieces by Lenin first. Get ready, tomorrow is a doozy.

Footnotes mercifully abridged.

In the last footnote we cited the opinion of an Economist and of a non-Social-Democratic terrorist, who showed themselves to be accidentally in agreement. Speaking generally, however, there is not an accidental, but a necessary, inherent connection between the two, of which we shall have need to speak later, and which must be mentioned here in connection with the question of education for revolutionary activity. The Economists and the root, namely, subservience to spontaneity, with which we dealt in the preceding chapter as a general phenomenon and which we shall now examine in relation to its effect upon political activity and the political struggle. 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. Thus, both forms of subservience to spontaneity we have mentioned are nothing but the beginning of the implementation of the notorious Credo programme: Let the workers wage their “economic struggle against the employers and the government” (we apologise to the author of the Credo for expressing her views in Martynov’s words. We think we have a right to do so since the Credo, too, says that in the economic struggle the workers "come up against the political regime and let the intellectuals conduct the political struggle by their own efforts — with the aid of terror, of course! This is an absolutely logical and inevitable conclusion which must be insisted on — even though those who are beginning to carry out this programme do not themselves realise 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”, along the line of the purely bourgeois Credo programme. Surely it is no accident either 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.

13. Martynov “conceives of another, more realistic [?] dilemma” (Social-Democracy and the Working Class, p. 19): “Either Social-Democracy takes over the direct leadership of the economic struggle of the proletariat and by that [!] transforms it into a revolutionary class struggle....” “By that”, i.e., apparently by the direct leadership of the economic struggle. Can Martynov cite an instance in which leading the trade-union struggle alone has succeeded in transforming a trade-unionist movement into a revolutionary class movement? Can he not understand that in order to bring about this “transformation” we must actively take up the “direct leadership” of all-sided political agitation?... “Or the other perspective: Social-Democracy refrains from assuming the leadership of the economic struggle of the workers and so ... clips its own wings ... ” In Rabocheye Dyelo’s opinion, quoted above, it is Iskra that “refrains”. We have seen, however, that the latter does far more than Rabocheye Dyelo to lead the economic struggle, but that, moreover, it does not confine itself thereto and does not narrow down its political tasks for its sake. —Lenin

The formation of the Revolutionary-Socialist Svoboda Group which set itself the aim of helping the working-class movement in every possible way, but which included in its programme terror, and emancipation, so to speak, from Social-Democracy — once again confirmed the remarkable perspicacity of P. B. Axelrod, who literally foretold these results of Social-Democratic waverings as far back as the end of 1897 (Present Tasks and Tactics), when he outlined his famous “two perspectives”. All the subsequent disputes and disagreements among Russian Social-Democrats are contained, like a plant in the seed, in these two perspectives.13

From this point of view it also becomes clear why Rabocheye Dyelo, unable to withstand the spontaneity of Economism, has likewise been unable to withstand the spontaneity of terrorism. It is highly interesting to note here the specific arguments that Svoboda has advanced in defence of terrorism. It “completely denies” the deterrent role of terrorism (The Regeneration of Revolutionism, p. 64), but instead stresses its “excitative significance”. This is characteristic, first, as representing one of the stages of the breakup and decline of the traditional (pre-Social-Democratic) cycle of ideas which insisted upon terrorism. The admission that the government cannot now be “terrified” and hence disrupted, by terror, is tantamount to a complete condemnation of terror as a system of struggle, as a sphere of activity sanctioned by the programme. Secondly, it is still more characteristic as an example of the failure to understand our immediate tasks in regard to “education for revolutionary activity”. Svoboda advocates terror as a means of “exciting” the working-class movement and of giving it a “strong impetus”. It is difficult to imagine an argument that more thoroughly disproves itself. 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 fact is that the working masses are roused to a high pitch of excitement by the social evils in Russian life, but we are unable to gather, if one may so put it, and concentrate all these drops and streamlets of popular resentment that are brought forth to a far larger extent than we imagine by the conditions of Russian life, and that must be combined into a single gigantic torrent. That this can be accomplished is irrefutably proved by the enormous growth of the working-class movement and the eagerness, noted above, with which the workers clamour for political literature. On the other hand, calls for terror and calls to lend the economic struggle itself a political character are merely two different forms of evading the most pressing duty now resting upon Russian revolutionaries, namely, the organisation of comprehensive political agitation. Svoboda desires to substitute terror for agitation, openly admitting that “as soon as intensified and strenuous agitation is begun among the masses the excitative function of terror will be ended” (The Regeneration of Revolutionism, p. 68). This proves precisely that both the terrorists and the Economists 14. The big street demonstrations which began in the spring of 1901. (Author’s note to the 1907 edition.—Ed.) —Lenin underestimate the revolutionary activity of the masses, despite the striking evidence of the events that took place in the spring,14 and whereas the one group goes out in search of artificial “excitants”, the other talks about “concrete demands”. But both fail to devote sufficient attention to the development of their own activity in political agitation and in the organisation of political exposures. And no other work can serve as a substitute for this task either at the present time or at any other.

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