Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
The Working Class As Vanguard Fighter For Democracy (Section E from the third chapter of What Is To Be Done)
by V.I. Lenin
Estimated Reading Time: 13 min

Here Lenin really gets into what is meant by the Vanguard. Many years ago, I was talking with a friend about political struggle and flippantly dismissed something he said as "vanguardist." He stopped and asked me if I really thought everyone was at the same level of political consciousness, if there were't backward sectors and more advanced groups. We should acknowledge, he counseled, that there were more advanced groups. We didn't get to the end of this section because Lenin goes back into his arguing with the shortcomings of the Economism of Rabocheye Dyelo (see yesterday's reading notes for more on that), but another part of this reading that really spoke to me is how Lenin argues against a tidy discrete set of economic demands, but instead calls for an agitation on how the entire system works and its interrelated parts. Who has come back from a protest march only to hear the admonishment "Why can't they just have one sign or one issue? Why does all this other stuff have to be included?" Food for thought. Enjoy.

P.S. Enjoy footnote 25. How to Live. How to Die.

Footnotes mercifully abridged.

We have seen that the conduct of the broadest political agitation and, consequently, of all-sided political exposures is an absolutely necessary and a paramount task of our activity, if this activity is to be truly Social-Democratic. However, we arrived at this conclusion solely on the grounds of the pressing needs of the working class for political knowledge and political training. But such a presentation of the question is too narrow, for it ignores the general democratic tasks of Social-Democracy, in particular of present-day Russian Social-Democracy. In order to explain the point more concretely we shall approach the subject from an aspect that is “nearest” to the Economist, namely, from the practical aspect. “Everyone agrees” that it is necessary to develop the political consciousness of the working class. The question is, how that is to be done and what is required to do it. The economic struggle merely “impels” the workers to realise the government’s attitude towards the working class. Consequently, however much we may try to “lend the economic, struggle itself a political character”, we shall never be able to develop the political consciousness of the workers (to the level of Social-Democratic political consciousness) by keeping within the framework of the economic struggle, for that framework is too narrow. The Martynov formula has some value for us, not because it illustrates Martynov’s aptitude for confusing things, but because it pointedly expresses the basic error that all the Economists commit, namely, their conviction that it is possible to develop the class political consciousness of the workers from within, so to speak, from their economic struggle, i.e., by making this struggle the exclusive (or, at least, the main) starting-point, by making it the exclusive (or, at least, the main) basis. Such a view is radically wrong. Piqued by our polemics against them, the Economists refuse to ponder deeply over the origins of these disagreements, with the result that we simply cannot understand one another. It is as if we spoke in different tongues.

Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. For that reason, the reply to the question as to what must be done to bring political knowledge to the workers cannot be merely the answer with which, in the majority of cases, the practical workers, especially those inclined towards Economism, mostly content themselves, namely: “To go among the workers.” To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions.

We deliberately select this blunt formula, we deliberately express ourselves in this sharply simplified manner, not because we desire to indulge in paradoxes, but in order to “impel” the Economists to a realisation of their tasks which they unpardonably ignore, to suggest to them strongly the difference between trade-unionist and Social-Democratic politics, which they refuse to understand. We therefore beg the reader not to get wrought up, but to hear us patiently to the end.

Let us take the type of Social-Democratic study circle that has become most widespread in the past few years and examine its work. It has “contacts with the workers” and rests content with this, issuing leaflets in which abuses in the factories, the government’s partiality towards the capitalists, and the tyranny of the police are strongly condemned. At workers’ meetings the discussions never, or rarely ever, go beyond the limits of these subjects. Extremely rare are the lectures and discussions held on the history of the revolutionary movement, on questions of the government’s home and foreign policy, on questions of the economic evolution of Russia and of Europe, on the position of the various classes in modern society, etc. As to systematically acquiring and extending contact with other classes of society, no one even dreams of that. In fact, the ideal leader, as the majority of the members of such circles picture him, is something far more in the nature of a trade union secretary than a socialist political leader. For the secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket (i. e., to warn all and sundry that a strike is proceeding at a certain factory), explains the partiality of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes, etc., etc. In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government”. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. Compare, for example, a leader like Robert Knight (the well-known secretary and leader of the Boiler-Makers’ Society, one of the most powerful trade unions in England), with Wilhelm Liebknecht, and try to apply to them the contrasts that Martynov draws in his controversy with Iskra. You will see — I am running through Martynov’s article — that Robert Knight engaged more in “calling the masses to certain concrete actions” (Martynov, op. cit., p. 39), while Willielin Liebknecht engaged more in “the revolutionary elucidation of the whole of the present system or partial manifestations of it” (38-39); that Robert Knight “formulated the immediate demands of the proletariat and indicated the means by which they can be achieved” (41), whereas Wilhelm Liebknecht, while doing this, did not hold back from “simultaneously guiding the activities of various opposition strata”, “dictating a positive programme of action for them”15 15. For example, during the Franco-Prussian War, Liebknecht dictated a programme of action for the whole of democracy; to an even greater extent Marx and Engels did this in 1848. (41); that Robert Knight strove “as far as possible to lend the economic struggle itself a political character” (42) and was excellently able “to submit to the government concrete demands promising certain palpable results” (43), whereas Liebknecht engaged to a much greater degree in “one-sided” “exposures” (40); that Robert Knight attached more significance to the “forward march of the drab everyday struggle” (61), whereas Liebknecht attached more significance to the “propaganda of brilliant and completed ideas” (61); that Liebknecht converted the paper he was directing into “an organ of revolutionary opposition that exposed the state of affairs in our country, particularly the political state of affairs, insofar as it affected the interests of the most varied strata of the population” (63), whereas Robert Knight “worked for the cause of the working class in close organic connection with the proletarian struggle” (63) — if by “close and organic connection” is meant the subservience to spontaneity which we examined above, by taking the examples of Krichevsky and Martynov — and “restricted the sphere of his influence”, convinced, of course, as is Martynov, that “by doing so he deepened that influence” (63). In a word, you will see that de facto Martynov reduces Social-Democracy to the level of trade-unionism, though he does so, of course, not because he does not desire the good of Social-Democracy, but simply because he is a little too much in a hurry to render Plekhanov more profound, instead of taking the trouble to understand him.

Let us return, however, to our theses. We said that a Social Democrat, if he really believes it necessary to develop comprehensively the political consciousness of the proletariat, must “go among all classes of the population”. This gives rise to the questions: how is this to be done? have we enough forces to do this? is there a basis for such work among all the other classes? will this not mean a retreat, or lead to a retreat, from the class point of view? Let us deal with these questions.

We must “go among all classes of the population” as theoreticians, as propagandists, as agitators, and as organisers. No one doubts that the theoretical work of Social-Democrats should aim at studying all the specific features of the social and political condition of the various classes. But extremely little is done in this direction as compared with the work that is done in studying the specific features of factory life. In the committees and study circles, one can meet people who are immersed in the study even of some special branch of the metal industry; but one can hardly ever find members of organisations (obliged, as often happens, for some reason or other to give up practical work) who are especially engaged in gathering material on some pressing question of social and political life in our country which could serve as a means for conducting Social-Democratic work among other strata of the population. In dwelling upon the fact that the majority of the present-day leaders of the working-class movement lack training, we cannot refrain from mentioning training in this respect also, for it too is bound up with the Economist conception of “close organic connection with the proletarian struggle”. The principal thing, of course, is propaganda and agitation among all strata of the people. The work of the West European Social-Democrat is in this respect facilitated by the public meetings and rallies which all are free to attend, and by the fact that in parliament he addresses the representatives of all classes. We have neither a parliament nor freedom of assembly; nevertheless, we are able to arrange meetings of workers who desire to listen to a Social-Democrat. We must also find ways and means of calling meetings of representatives of all social classes that desire to listen to a democrat; for he is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice that “the Communists support every revolutionary movement”, that we are obliged for that reason to expound and emphasise general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing our socialist convictions. He is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question.

“But everyone agrees with this!” the impatient reader will exclaim, and the new instructions adopted by the last conference of the Union Abroad for the Editorial Board of Rabocheye Dyelo definitely say: “All events of social and political life that affect the proletariat either directly as a special class or as the vanguard of all the revolutionary forces in the struggle for freedom should serve as subjects for political propaganda and agitation” (Two Conferences, p. 17, our italics). Yes, these are very true and very good words, and we would be fully satisfied if Rabocheye Dyelo understood them and if it refrained from saying in the next breath things that contradict them. For it is not enough to call ourselves the “vanguard”, the advanced contingent; we must act in such a way that all the other contingents recognise and are obliged to admit that we are marching in the vanguard. And we ask the reader: Are the representatives of the other “contingents” such fools as to take our word for it when we say that we are the “vanguard”? Just picture to yourselves the following: a Social-Democrat comes to the “contingent” of Russian educated radicals, or liberal constitutionalists, and says, We are the vanguard; “the task confronting us now is, as far as possible, to lend the economic struggle itself a political character”. The radical, or constitutionalist, if he is at all intelligent (and there are many intelligent men among Russian radicals and constitutionalists), would only smile at such a speech and would say (to himself, of course, for in the majority of cases he is an experienced diplomat): “Your ’vanguard’ must be made up of simpletons. They do not even understand that it is our task, the task of the progressive representatives of bourgeois democracy to lend the workers’ economic struggle itself a political character. Why, we too, like the West-European bourgeois, want to draw the workers into politics, but only into trade-unionist, not into Social-Democratic politics. Trade-unionist politics of the working class is precisely bourgeois politics of the working class, and this ‘vanguard’s’ formulation of its task is the formulation of trade-unionist politics! Let them call themselves Social-Democrats to their heart’s content, I am not a child to get excited over a label. But they must not fall under the influence of those pernicious orthodox doctrinaires, let them allow ’freedom of criticism’ to those who unconsciously are driving Social-Democracy into trade-unionist channels.”

And the faint smile of our constitutionalist will turn into Homeric laughter when he learns that the Social-Democrats who talk of Social-Democracy as the vanguard, today, when spontaneity almost completely dominates our movement, fear nothing so much as “belittling the spontaneous element”, as “underestimating the significance of the forward movement of the drab everyday struggle, as compared with the propaganda of brilliant and completed ideas”, etc., etc.! A “vanguard” which fears that consciousness will outstrip spontaneity, which fears to put forward a bold “plan” that would compel general recognition even among those who differ with us. Are they not confusing “vanguard” with “rearguard”?

Indeed, let us examine the following piece of reasoning by Martynov. On page 40 he says that Iskra is one-sided in its tactics of exposing abuses, that “however much we may spread distrust and hatred of the government, we shall not achieve our aim until we have succeeded in developing sufficient active social energy for its overthrow”. This, it may be said parenthetically, is the familiar solicitude for the activation of the masses, with a simultaneous striving to restrict one’s own activity. But that is not the main point at the moment. Martynov speaks here, accordingly, of revolutionary energy (“for overthrowing”). And what conclusion does he arrive at? Since in ordinary times various social strata inevitably march separately, “it is therefore, clear that we Social-Democrats cannot simultaneously guide the activities of various opposition strata, we cannot dictate to them a positive programme of action, we cannot point out to them in what manner they should wage a day-to-day struggle for their interests.... The liberal strata will themselves take care of the active struggle for their immediate interests, the struggle that will bring them face to face with our political regime” (p. 41). Thus, having begun with talk about revolutionary energy, about the active struggle for the overthrow of the autocracy, Martynov immediately turns toward trade union energy and active struggle for immediate interests! It goes without saying that we cannot guide the struggle of the students, liberals, etc., for their “immediate interests”; but this was not the point at issue, most worthy Economist! The point we were discussing was the possible and necessary participation of various social strata in the overthrow of the autocracy; and not only are we able, but it is our bounden duty, to guide these “activities of the various opposition strata”, if we desire to be the “vanguard”. Not only will our students and liberals, etc., themselves take care of “the struggle that brings them face to face with our political regime”; the police and the officials of the autocratic government will see to this first and foremost. But if “we” desire to be front-rank democrats, we must make it our concern to direct the thoughts of those who are dissatisfied only with conditions at the university, or in the Zemstvo, etc., to the idea that the entire political system is worthless. We must take upon ourselves the task of organising an all-round political struggle under the leadership of our Party in such a manner as to make it possible for all oppositional strata to render their fullest support to the struggle and to our Party. We must train our Social-Democratic practical workers to become political leaders, able to guide all the manifestations of this all-round struggle, able at the right time to “dictate a positive programme of action” for the aroused students, the discontented Zemstvo people, the incensed religious sects, the offended elementary schoolteachers, etc., etc. For that reason, Martynov’s assertion that “with regard to these, we can function merely in the negative role of exposers of abuses... we can only dissipate their hopes in various government commissions” is completely false (our italics). By saying this, Martynov shows that he absolutely fails to understand the role that the revolutionary “vanguard” must really play. If the reader bears this in mind, he will be clear as to the real meaning of Martynov’s concluding remarks: “Iskra is the organ of the revolutionary opposition which exposes the state of affairs in our country, particularly the political state of affairs, insofar as it affects the interests of the most varied strata of the population. We, however, work and will continue to work for the cause of the working class in close organic contact with the proletarian struggle. By restricting the sphere of our active influence we deepen that influence” (63). The true sense of this conclusion is as follows: Iskra desires to elevate the trade-unionist politics of the working class (to which, through misconception, through lack of training, or through conviction, our practical workers frequently confine themselves) to the level of Social-Democratic politics. Rabocheye Dyelo, however, desires to degrade Social-Democratic politics to trade-unionist politics. Moreover, it assures the world that the two positions are “entirely compatible within the common cause” (63). O, sancta simplicitas! or holy innocence —often used ironically in reference to another's naïveté O, sancta simplicitas!

To proceed. Have we sufficient forces to direct our propaganda and agitation among all social classes? Most certainly. Our Economists, who are frequently inclined to deny this, lose sight of the gigantic progress our movement has made from (approximately) 1894 to 1901. Like real “tail-enders” they often go on living in the bygone stages of the movement’s inception. In the earlier period , indeed, we had astonishingly few forces, and it was perfectly natural and legitimate then to devote ourselves exclusively to activities among the workers and to condemn severely any deviation from this course. The entire task then was to consolidate our position in the working class. At the present time, however, gigantic forces have been attracted to the movement. The best representatives of the younger generation of the educated classes are coming over to us. Everywhere in the provinces there are people, resident there by dint of circumstance, who have taken part in the movement in the past or who desire to do so now and who, are gravitating towards Social-Democracy (whereas in 1894 one could count the Social-Democrats on the fingers of one’s hand). A basic political and organisational shortcoming of our movement is our inability to utilise all these forces and give them appropriate work (we shall deal with this more fully in the next chapter). The overwhelming majority of these forces entirely lack the opportunity of “going among the workers”, so that there are no grounds for fearing that we shall divert forces from our main work. In order to be able to provide the workers with real, comprehensive, and live political knowledge, we must have “our own people”, Social-Democrats, everywhere, among all social strata, and in all positions from which we can learn the inner springs of our state mechanism. Such people are required, not only for propaganda and agitation, but in a still larger measure for organisation.

Is there a basis for activity among all classes of the population? Whoever doubts this lags in his consciousness behind the spontaneous awakening of the masses. The working-class movement has aroused and is continuing to arouse discontent in some, hopes of support for the opposition in others, and in still others the realisation that the autocracy is unbearable and must inevitably fall. We would be “politicians” and Social-Democrats in name only (as all too often happens in reality), if we failed to realise that our task is to utilise every manifestation of discontent, and to gather and turn to the best account every protest, however small. This is quite apart from the fact that the millions of the labouring peasantry, handicraftsmen, petty artisans, etc., would always listen eagerly to the speech of any Social-Democrat who is at all qualified. Indeed, is there a single social class in which there are no individuals, groups, or circles that are discontented with the lack of rights and with tyranny and, therefore, accessible to the propaganda of Social-Democrats as the spokesmen of the most pressing general democratic needs? To those who desire to have a clear idea of what the political agitation of a Social-Democrat among all classes and strata of the population should be like, we would point to political exposures in the broad sense of the word as the principal (but, of course, not the sole) form of this agitation.

“We must arouse in every section of the population that is at all politically conscious a passion for political exposure,” I wrote in my article “Where To Begin” [Iskra, May (No. 4), 1901], with which I shall deal in greater detail later. “We must not be discouraged by the fact that the voice of political exposure is today so feeble, timid, and infrequent. This is not because of a wholesale submission to police despotism, but because those who are able and ready to make exposures have no tribune from which to speak, no eager and encouraging audience, they do not see anywhere among the people that force to which it would be worth while directing their complaint against the ’omnipotent’ Russian Government.... We are now in a position to provide a tribune for the nation-wide exposure of the tsarist government, and it is our duty to do this. That tribune must be a Social-Democratic newspaper.”

The ideal audience for political exposure is the working class, which is first and foremost in need of all-round and live political knowledge, and is most capable of converting this knowledge into active struggle, even when that struggle does not promise “palpable results”. A tribune for nation-wide exposures can be only an all-Russia newspaper. “Without a political organ, a political movement deserving that name is inconceivable in the Europe of today”; in this respect Russia must undoubtedly be included in present-day Europe. 25. The letter in Iskra, No. 7 (August 1901), was from a weaver. It was published in the section “Workers’ Movement and Letters from the Factories”. The letter testified to the great influence of Lenin’s Iskra among the advanced workers.
The letter reads in part:
“...I showed Iskra to many fellow-workers and the copy was read to tatters; but we treasure it.... Iskra writes about our cause, about the All-Russian cause which cannot be evaluated in kopeks or measured in hours; when you read the paper you understand why the gendarmes and the police are afraid of us workers and of the intellectuals whom we follow. It is a fact that they are a threat, not only to the bosses’ pockets, but to the tsar, the employers, and all the rest.... It will not take much now to set the working people aflame. All that is wanted is a spark, and the fire will break out. How true are the words ‘The Spark will kindle a flame!’ (The motto of Iskra.—Ed.) In the past every strike was an important event, but today everyone sees that strikes alone are not enough and that we must now fight for freedom, gain it through struggle. Today everyone, old and young, is eager to read but the sad thing is that there are no books. Last Sunday I gathered eleven people and read to them ‘Where To Begin’. We discussed it until late in the evening. How well it expressed everything, how it gets to the very heart of things.... And we would like to write a letter to your Iskra and ask you to teach us, not only how to begin, but how to live and how to die.”
The press long ago became a power in our country, otherwise the government would not spend tens of thousands of rubles to bribe it and to subsidise the Katkovs and Meshcherskys. And it is no novelty in autocratic Russia for the underground press to break through the wall of censorship and compel the legal and conservative press to speak openly of it. This was the case in the seventies and even in the fifties. How much broader and deeper are now the sections of the people willing to read the illegal underground press, and to learn from it “how to live and how to die”, to use the expression of a worker who sent a letter to Iskra (No. 7).25 Political exposures are as much a declaration of war against the government as economic exposures are a declaration of war against the factory owners. The moral significance of this declaration of war will be all the greater, the wider and more powerful the campaign of exposure will be and the more numerous and determined the social class that has declared war in order to begin the war. Hence, political exposures in themselves serve as a powerful instrument for disintegrating the system we oppose, as a means for diverting from the enemy his casual or temporary allies, as a means for spreading hostility and distrust among the permanent partners of the autocracy.

In our time only a party that will organise really nation-wide exposures can become the vanguard of the revolutionary forces. The word “nation-wide” has a very profound meaning. The overwhelming majority of the non-working- class exposers (be it remembered that in order to become the vanguard, we must attract other classes) are sober politicians and level-headed men of affairs. They know perfectly well how dangerous it is to “complain” even against a minor official, let alone against the “omnipotent” Russian Government. And they will come to us with their complaints only when they see that these complaints can really have effect, and that we represent a political force. In order to become such a force in the eyes of outsiders, much persistent and stubborn work is required to raise our own consciousness, initiative, and energy. To accomplish this it is not enough to attach a “vanguard” label to rearguard theory and practice.

But if we have to undertake the organisation of a really nationwide exposure of the government, in what way will then the class character of our movement be expressed? — the overzealous advocate of “close organic contact with the proletarian struggle” will ask us, as indeed he does. The reply is manifold: we Social-Democrats will organise these nation-wide exposures; all questions raised by the agitation will he explained in a consistently Social-Democratic spirit, without any concessions to deliberate or undeliberate distortions of Marxism; the all-round political agitation will be conducted by a party which unites into one inseparable whole the assault on the government in the name of the entire people, the revolutionary training of the proletariat, and the safeguarding of its political independence, the guidance of the economic struggle of the working class, and the utilisation of all its spontaneous conflicts with its exploiters which rouse and bring into our camp increasing numbers of the proletariat.

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