What Is To Be Done?
V. I. Lenin
1902

There is, obviously, no single traceable text or single cause behind the rise of the Bolshevik Party, which seized power in Russia in 1917 to establish the world’s first socialist state and which would – rivaled only by the holocaust and the Second World War – come to define the twentieth century. If you’re looking for somewhere to begin, though, this little booklet by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – or V.I. Lenin as he is known – is a good choice. Theoretician, organizer and a key leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), Ulyanov went into exile in 1900 after a number of years of communist propagandizing and organizing in Russia. In 1902, he took the alias “Lenin” and penned a short book that would shake the world.

What Is To Be Done argues that trade union and work-based struggles will not automatically politicize the working class. What is required is a formal political party whose aim is the conquest of state power. What is more, such a party can only be successful if it is a relatively small and tight-knit group – a vanguard – composed of the most conscious, the most dedicated of revolutionaries (who typically will be sympathetic intellectuals from the middle class rather than workers, as they have the education required to produce the political and economic analysis that must be taken to workers). Different conceptions of the workers’ party and its membership led to a split in the RSDLP in 1903, with Lenin’s group becoming known as Bolsheviks and the other, larger faction Mensheviks.  Over the next years, the debate widened and the split intensified, as Lenin’s Bolsheviks began to campaign for an immediate revolution of workers and peasants in Russia while the Mensheviks maintained – consistent with the view of most Marxists at the time – that Russia was not yet economically-developed enough to sustain a workers’ revolution and that a liberal democratic revolution, led by the middle classes against the aristocracy, was a necessary first step. Lenin’s bunch remained the minority – until, of course, that day in October 1917 that the Bolsheviks seized power only months after the Tsar was deposed and parliament took direct power over the machine of state.

The rest, as they say, is history. Lenin’s variety of Marxism became the orthodoxy of the world’s left in the decades to follow, his legacy claimed by all variety of socialists even as they fought and purged and murdered one another. Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Castro – all claimed a direct link to the political program of V.I. Lenin as it increasingly appeared there was no Marxism but Marxism-Leninism. And in practice, too, Lenin won – at least for a time. Less than thirty years after his death, half the world lived in socialist states which traced their origins to the theoretical brilliance and political strategies of Lenin, credited as the man who made Marx’ vision an achievable and tangible politics, and who defined and refined the Communist Party as the primary organizational form of the world’s left for much of the century.

With the collapse Soviet socialism in the 1990s, Lenin’s star, falling for some time, definitively crashed. Anti-communists painted him another Hitler, discouraged communists distanced themselves from his anti-democratic errors, and other socialisms took root. By the early 2010s, though, Lenin was back on the agenda among the left, as leading socialist intellectuals – among them Toni Negri, Alain Badieu and Slavov Zizek – began to revisit Lenin’s legacy, his errors and contributions, as representing perhaps the most significant politics the left had developed and a heritage that could not be simply discarded and denied. After all, the question remains unanswered for those who seek an alternative to capitalism – what, indeed, is to be done? And if you want to answer that question, you’d better start with those who have already tried.

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