Ella Rule: Lenin on revolutionary theory (What Is To Be Done?)

What is the continuing significance of Lenin’s seminal work on the importance of revolutionary theory?

In this succinct presentation, our party chair Comrade Ella Rule gives an overview of VI Lenin‘s foundational text on revolutionary theory, What Is To Be Done?

What is the continuing significance of this work? How can we take its lessons and apply them to the situation facing workers in Britain and around the world today?

More than just a discussion document for Russian Marxists in the early 20th century, Lenin’s seminal work set out clearly the difference between trade union and communist work – and explained why the latter is so desperately needed.

As far as the working class is concerned, socialist theory is not something that can be left to academics and armchair warriors, it is a vitally important guide to action. Without it, workers have no way to work out what action they should be taking, what they should ultimately be aiming to achieve, and how they should organise to ensure their success.

Connecting Marxism with the masses is not easy in an environment of rampant anticommunism and all-prevalant bourgeois media, but it must be done. The history of the 20th century shows clearly that only a working class armed with the theory of scientific socialism is able to successfully organise to demolish the existing economic and social order and replace it with a planned economy and working-class rule.

And only a complete change in the social system can enable workers to solve the problems that now beset them from all sides, from poverty and hunger to war, crisis and environmental degradation.

A cornerstone of Leninism

What Is To Be Done? is one of the cornerstones of Leninism.

Lenin developed Marxist theory in two ways. The first was in working out the strategy and tactics of proletarian (working-class) revolution, and the core features and programme of the workers’ revolutionary party.

And the second was in analysing the new stage of capitalist development that became fully dominant as a world economic system at the turn of the 20th century: imperialism.

This was the theoretical work which underlaid the success of the Bolshevik party in carrying out the October Revolution and in building the mighty socialist Soviet Union. And it is work which remains absolutely relevant today, when the majority of the world’s masses are still suffering under the decrepit rule of monopoly capitalism (imperialism).

At the time of its publication, What Is To Be Done? clarified the issues at stake very clearly for socialist activists. Lenin’s deep theoretical understanding enabled him to cut to the heart of the matter and expose what was wrong with the apparently attractive (and no doubt very ‘busy’) activity of those who believed the working class should focus primarily on its economic (trade union) struggle, and leave theoretical work and wider political struggle to others.

So effective was Lenin’s book that it convinced the mass of thinking and sincere workers that he was right on every point. “Within a year of its publication … nothing but a distasteful memory remained of the ideological stand of ‘economism’, and to be called an ‘economist’ was regarded by the majority of the members of the party as an insult.”

The book’s main messages were:

  1. That the workers need to fight not only for their terms and conditions of enslavement under capitalist conditions, but for the total abolition of the capitalist system, since only that will ultimately solve their problems.
  2. That the communist party has a leading role to play in this struggle. It is not merely a ‘recorder of events’, following at the tail of the struggle, but a necessary body without which the class struggle is unarmed in the face of heavily armed enemies, lacks coherent direction and will therefore fail.
  3. That the workers need socialist theory to guide their struggle, and that withholding it is both patronising and dangerous. Without being guided by clear scientific theory, the party will lose its direction and sink into the bog of opportunism (selling out the long-term interests of the movement for real or perceived short-term gains).
  4. That socialist ideology does not arise spontaneously from the struggle itself (which only gives rise to trade union consciousness) but is the result of scientific endeavour. Ignoring the need to bring this scientific understanding to workers means leaving them at the mercy of bourgeois ideology and prejudices and depriving them of the ability to struggle for socialism, which is the only struggle that offers them any real hope for the future.
  5. That those putting forward a trade union focus (the economists) didn’t really want socialism at all but were actually reformists, whose activity was based on the assumption that capitalism would remain, and that the best the workers could hope for was a better deal under the present system.
  6. That economism was an instrument of bourgeois influence in the working-class movement that had allies and parallels in the revisionism and reformism that had developed in the socialist movement of every other advanced capitalist country.

This work’s primary historical significance was:

  1. That it laid bare the ideological roots of opportunism (worshiping spontaneity and belittling the role of theory).
  2. That it showed the fundamental importance of revolutionary theory in guiding the spontaneously arising working-class movement.
  3. That it substantiated the Marxist principle that a communist party must connect the working-class movement with socialist science.
  4. That it laid out the ideological foundations of a Marxist party.

All worship of the spontaneity of the labour movement, all belittling of the role of ‘the conscious element’, of the role of the party of social-democracy [communism], means, altogether irrespective of whether the belittler likes it or not, strengthening the influence of the bourgeois ideology among the workers.”

“Without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement … The role of vanguard can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory.” (Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, 1901)