Rereading What Is To Be Done?
Australian Marxist Review No 43 January 2006
In 1902, Lenin published What Is To Be Done? It has remained the most definitive exposition of the tasks of a communist party. In it, Lenin did battle with those in the working-class movement who objected to “outsiders” foisting their views on the workers; those same people criticised the Marxists for “belittling the significance of the objective or spontaneous element of development.”
In exploring the relationship between the ideology generated by the spontaneous struggle of the working class and the ideology of class (and socialist) consciousness, Lenin formulates some of the fundamental propositions which guide the work of communist parties.
Lenin contrasts “revolts” by the Russian working class with “systematic strikes”, saying the latter “represented the class struggle in embryo, but only in embryo.” “Taken by themselves,” he says, “these strikes were simply trade-union struggles, not yet Social-Democratic struggles. [guided by communist ideology]” Lenin indicates the workers were becoming aware of the antagonism between themselves and their employers, but “could not be conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system.”
Such consciousness, says Lenin, “would have to be brought to them (the working class) from without.” The history of all countries shows, he continues, “that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.”
Lenin explained that the theory of socialism was developed from philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated mainly by intellectuals who had the means and time to study and critically assess existing knowledge and develop new theories to arm the working class in its quest to reconstruct society. He notes that Marx and Engels themselves were members of the bourgeois intelligentsia.
The main task of the time, as Lenin saw it, was to “unite the strike movement with the revolutionary movement against the autocracy.” This was the basis of the formation of the Bolshevik Party. In Australia, the Communist Party of Australia was founded in 1920 “as the issue of a marriage between sectarian socialists and militant industrial workers” as Australian Marxist historian Edgar Ross writes in Of Storm and Struggle.
Once the Bolshevik Party was established, Lenin’s overriding concern was that the working class gain a thoroughgoing class and indeed socialist consciousness. The working class must realise that it is a well defined group, whose interests were opposed to those of the employers, irreconcilable in fact with the interests of the employers.
The working class must know how capitalist society works; that it is exploited by the capitalists, the landlords, the bankers. The working class must have a real political understanding of the class and social forces in society, who lines up with whom, and why. It must be able to see the actions and interests of other classes and strata and groups in the population in each specific struggle, know their interrelationships and be able to discern their political motivation. It has to understand the role of the press, the police, the courts, the university professors, and, if they were around in Lenin’s time, the talk-show hosts.
The working class must be firmly convinced there is a better way to organise society, a socialist way, and that they have the major responsibility in getting there and bringing others along too. This duty is known as the leading role of the working class.
One of the main barriers was what Lenin called “economism”, the idea that only issues related to the economic struggle of the working class, i.e. their immediate workplace issues, should be taken up by the trade unions.
Lenin was scathing of economism, noting that economic concessions are relatively easy to win and when granted, often “win the confidence of the working masses”.
For this reason he said, “we Social-Democrats [communists] must not under any circumstances or in any way whatever create grounds for the belief (or the misunderstanding) that we attach greater value to economic reforms, or that we regard them as being particularly important, etc.”
In 1981, the NSW Industrial Committee of the then Socialist Party of Australia committed precisely this economist mistake. In the pamphlet Strategy for Workers Action in 1981, the committee wrote: “While conservative forces in the community are trying to belittle the importance of the wage struggle and convince workers that it is not worthwhile, in reality it is the most fundamental issue in the class conflict between the interests of capital and labour.”
In justifying this view, the committee added: “It is the exploitation of workers’ labour power and the subsequent appropriation of surplus value by employers that creates profits and provides the economic basis of our capitalist society.”
Lenin was convinced the economists were wrong. He branded their view, that the economic struggle was the best way to involve the masses in the political movement, as “erroneous and reactionary”.
It’s not that Lenin thought a wages struggle or a “factory exposure” to be wrong in principle, but when prosecuted as purely economic struggles, all the workers learned, as sellers of labour-power, was “to sell their ‘commodity’ on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal.”
“These exposures” he added, “could have served (if properly utilised by an organisation of revolutionaries) as a beginning and a component part of Social-Democratic activity; ...” The way the economists fought struggles was to limit the working class to “narrow parochial interests”.
Lenin thought it necessary to organise the political education of the working class on the basis of the exposure of all aspects of the existing system. Social-Democratic [communist] propaganda should expose the maltreatment of workers by individual capitalists; it should disclose police oppression and “autocratic outrages” in all spheres of life, be they industrial, civic, scientific etc. Lenin wanted every conscious worker to react to the “tyranny of landlords, corporal punishment of peasants, bribery among officials, harassment by the police, the regimentation of soldiers, and the persecution of students.” Workers must develop a responsibility towards all oppressed strata.
Communists had to be genuine political fighters. According to Lenin, the ideal Social-Democrat [communist] 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.”
Such an extensive understanding and practice of “political education” benefited not only the workers, but also the broad masses, highlighting a most important aspect of communist work – what we today call “building alliances” with nonworking class sections of the population.
The economists faced a major “dilemma”. If we have to undertake nation-wide exposures of the government, how will the “class character” of our movement be expressed, they asked. Lenin gave a clear answer. “ ... we Social-Democrats will organise these nation-wide exposures; all questions raised by the agitation will be explained in a consistently Social-Democratic [communist] 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.”
A most characteristic feature of economism, says Lenin, is “its failure to understand this connection, more, this identity of the most pressing need of the proletariat (a comprehensive political education through the medium of political agitation and political exposures) with the need of the general democratic movement.”
Lenin takes up the question of going “among all classes of the population” to comprehensively develop the political consciousness of the proletariat. “This gives rise to the questions”, says Lenin “ ... 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?”
In answering these objections, Lenin observes that most communists would agree that the conditions of all classes need to be studied theoretically, but that “extremely little is done in this direction” compared with the work carried out around the “specific features of factory life.” Lenin concludes by noting that: he is no communist “who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question.”
It is clear that Lenin did not think any issue more important than any other in the political education of the working class; it all depended on what was made of each issue, how it was handled politically.
Indeed, the historical experience of the working class movement and the many successful struggles for socialism illustrate this point. The Russian Revolution itself was built on the demands of “Peace, Bread and Land”. They were issues for all the oppressed people struggling against the Kerensky Government and the capitalist class it represented and the remnants of the autocracy.
In the light of Lenin’s analysis in What Is To Be Done, I strongly disagree with some main propositions in SA’s “The working class and the people”, in Discussion Journal No. 2, published prior to the CPA 10th Congress.
He writes: “ ... it is important to avoid the tendency of focusing on “people’s issues” in a way which assumes that “people’s issues” (better education, health, etc) are the same as working class issues. Equating people’s issues with working class issues obviates the need for a working class movement and a working class party. The main focus must be on those issues which directly concern the working class, with emphasis given to issues associated with labour exploitation.”
Further to this theme, he writes: “A ‘people-orientated’ approach sets policies on social and economic issues at a general level in a way that class forces operating in Australian society are not exposed. The consequence is that the Australian capitalist class is left unchallenged and class struggle is inhibited.”
Besides smacking of economism, (not working class issues but people’s issues) such views misrepresent the manner in which our party has tackled the issues of health, education, environment, peace and war. We have consistently said for example, that Star Wars is the military arm of globalisation, a very dangerous addition to the arsenal of imperialism. Is this not a class approach?
Health, education, social welfare etc are massive issues for the working class. They embrace issues of government budget allocation, privatisation, user pays, exploitation, the reserve army of labour, the role and responsibilities of governments and the need for a new type of people’s government with working class representatives at its core.
The CPA has always raised these issues by exposing class interests. Such issues are issues for the working class; they are issues for the people; they are issues for the Communist Party. There is no contradiction involved. Those who present them as contradictory will only cause division between the working class and the people.
Yes, the working class should be able to analyse wages issues, but it should also see the relevance of the struggle against war and for peace. It should know why the monopoly mass media says what it does. It should understand why students are fighting against voluntary student unionism. The working class must know the issues involved in the fight for a decent public transport system. It should understand why the health system is under attack, via privatisation. It should understand the issues on the land, the crisis which small farmers (those who are left) face. It should see the connections between a host of issues.
Our party does not give “exclusive attention to “the people” in a way which “renders a class approach to social change redundant” as is implied by SA’s article.
What is the purpose of creating feelings of alienation, estrangement, even hostility by the working class to certain issues, deemed by SA Anthony to be “people’s issues”? As if the working class can afford in its overall struggle, to neglect health, education, peace or environmental issues. Can the problems of these areas be solved outside of the arena of working-class struggle? Does anyone seriously suggest this?
What underpins this schematic division between “working class” and “people”? It is the understanding of what comprises the working class.
SA writes: “One of the problems is the tendency to characterise all wage earners as or all working people as working class, and thus artificially inflating working class numbers. If it is taken that 90% of those engaged in the economy are wage earners and therefore working class, then our policies can be validly directed at virtually all the people without differentiation. This is a serious error. Many wage earners are not in any way working class. CEOs, academics, judges, bureaucrats, social workers, police and politicians receive wages!”
In contrast, Lenin’s definition of class does away with such simplistic distortions, which are, again, designed to divide the working class, by rejecting the concept “working people” and justifying this with some spurious examples.
Lenin says that “classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy.” (A Great Beginning, 1919)
Lenin insists we must analyse, among other factors, the role people play in the “social organisation of labour”. It is therefore quite wrong to say CEOs, judges, politicians and others who earn their money administering capitalism on behalf of the ruling class, are part of the working class. SA misleadingly implies the CPA makes such a claim, in order to bolster his case that the party commits a “serious error” in talking of “working people”.
Rereading Lenin’s definition makes it clear in my mind who is committing the “serious error”! SA’s argument that the party’s recognition of and representation of classes (or strata) other than the working class equates to the party losing its class orientation and therefore the reason for its existence is quite at odds with communist practice the world over and especially with Lenin’s characterisation of communists as “tribunes of the people”.
The narrowing down of the concepts “working class” and “working people” and the subsequent division of issues into “working class” and “people’s” issues are born of metaphysical thinking, cut the working class off from major political battles and lead to economism.
The Communist Party is correct to talk of the “working people”. It is no contradiction to say the party is based on the working class but must represent the interests of (and help the working class form alliances with) all those oppressed by monopoly and imperialism. That is certainly how Lenin saw things. In liberating itself, the working class liberates all humanity (from the system of capitalism).