Vladimir Lenin: What is to Be Done? (1902)

In Lenin’s 1902 treatise What is to Be Done? he argues that a coherent, strictly controlled party of dedicated revolutionaries is a basic necessity for a revolution:

“The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness – that is, it may realise the necessity for combining in unions, for fighting against the employers and for striving to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.

The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. According to their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. Similarly, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose quite independently of the spontaneous growth of the labour movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia…

It is only natural that a Social Democrat, who conceives the political struggle as being identical with the “economic struggle against the employers and the government,” should conceive of an “organisation of revolutionaries” as being more or less identical with an “organisation of workers.” And this, in fact, is what actually happens; so that when we talk about organisation, we literally talk in different tongues.

I recall a conversation I once had with a fairly consistent economist, with whom I had not been previously acquainted. We were discussing the pamphlet Who Will Make the Political Revolution? and we were very soon agreed that the principal defect in that brochure was that it ignored the question of organisation. We were beginning to think that we were in complete agreement with each other – but as the conversation proceeded, it became clear that we were talking of different things…

What was the source of our disagreement? The fact that on questions of organisation and politics the economists are forever lapsing from Social Democracy into trade unionism. The political struggle carried on by the Social Democrats is far more extensive and complex than the economic struggle the workers carry on against the employers and the government. Similarly (and indeed for that reason), the organisation of a revolutionary Social Democratic Party must inevitably die from the organisations of the workers designed for the latter struggle…

On the other hand, the organisations of revolutionaries must consist first and foremost of people whose profession is that of a revolutionary (that is why I speak of organisations of revolutionaries, meaning revolutionary Social Democrats). In view of this common feature of the members of such an organisation, all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, and certainly distinctions of trade and profession, must be obliterated. Such an organisation must of necessity be not too extensive and as secret as possible.

I assert:

1. That no movement can be durable without a stable organisation of leaders to maintain continuity.

2. That the more widely the masses are spontaneously drawn into the struggle to form the basis of the movement and participate in it, the more necessary is it to have such an organisation, and the more stable must it be…

3. That the organisation must consist chiefly of persons engaged in revolutionary activities as a profession.

4. That in a country with an autocratic government, the more we restrict the membership of this organisation to persons who are engaged in revolutionary activities as a profession and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to catch the organisation.

5. The wider will be the circle of men and women of the working class or of other classes of society able to join the movement and perform active work in it… the active and widespread participation of the masses will not suffer; on the contrary, it will benefit by the fact that a “dozen” experienced revolutionaries, no less professionally trained than the police, will centralise all the secret side of the work… prepare leaflets, work out approximate plans and appoint bodies of leaders for each urban district, for each factory district and to each educational institution, etc. (I know that exception will be taken to my “undemocratic” views, but I shall reply to this altogether unintelligent objection later on.)

The centralisation of the more secret functions in an organisation of revolutionaries will not diminish, but rather increase the extent and the quality of the activity of a large number of other organisations intended for wide membership and which, therefore, can be as loose and as public as possible, for example, trade unions, workers’ circles for self education and the reading of illegal literature, and socialist and also democratic circles for all other sections of the population. etc, etc We must have as large a number as possible of such organisations having the widest possible variety of functions, but it is absurd and dangerous to confuse those with organisations of revolutionaries…

The most grievous sin we have committed in regard to organisation is that by our primitiveness we have lowered the prestige o revolutionaries in Russia. A man who is weak and vacillating on theoretical questions, who has a narrow outlook who makes excuses for his own slackness on the ground that the masses are awakening spontaneously; who resembles a trade union secretary more than a people’s tribune, who is unable to conceive of a broad and bold plan, who is incapable of inspiring even his opponents with respect for himself, and who is inexperienced and clumsy in his own professional art-the art of combating the political police-such a man is not a revolutionary but a wretched amateur!

Let no active worker take offence at these frank remarks, for as far as insufficient training is concerned, I apply them first and foremost to myself. I used to work in a circle that set itself great and all-embracing tasks; and every member of that circle suffered to the point of torture from the realisation that we were proving ourselves to be amateurs at a moment in history when we might have been able to say, paraphrasing a well known epigram: “Give us an organisation of revolutionaries, and we shall overturn the whole of Russia!”