Lenin: The Working Class as the Vanguard Fighter for Social Democracy by Gaither Stewart, Part 3


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by Gaither Stewart
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Rome, Italy
April 27, 2016

Above all, due to the grave obstacles it must overcome, the party of the working class must be a party of disciplined, professional revolutionaries…nothing short of this can succeed in acquiring and defending people’s power…

In 1902, Lenin published his long pamphlet What Is To Be Done, his first systematic development of his views on the nature of the revolutionary party. That writing is widely regarded today as one of the most influential political documents of the twentieth century. The following is a look at the main ideas contained in this famous pamphlet, published in Irving Howe’s collection of writings on socialism/communism. I am obliged to remind readers that in Lenin’s time of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the words “social democracy” corresponded to what became socialism/communism.

Lenin begins this section of What Is To Be Done with the statement that on the grounds of the pressing needs of the working class for political knowledge and political training, “the organization of wide political agitation and consequently of all-sided political exposures are an absolutely necessary and paramount task of activity, if that activity is to be truly social democratic.” (Bold italics ours).

But, as was Lenin’s dialectic style, he immediately adds that this kind of organization is insufficient in that it ignores the general tasks of social democracy as a whole. First, he approaches the subject from what he calls the “economist or practical” aspect. “Everyone agrees that it is necessary to develop the political consciousness of the working class,” he writes, before posing the question as to how that is to be accomplished? Seen only from the economic point of view, workers are concerned merely with the economic relations between the government and the working class, devoid of a political character. Therefore, he says, if we confine ourselves to the economic struggle, we will never develop the political consciousness of the workers.

“The workers,” he continues, “can acquire political consciousness only from outside the sphere of worker-employers relations. The sphere from which it is possible to obtain this (political) knowledge is the sphere between all classes and the state—the sphere of interrelations between all classes. Therefore, the way for workers to acquire political knowledge is for social democrats “to go among all classes of the population, and dispatch units of their army in all directions.”

Lenin explains that he expresses himself in this awkward way in order to “stimulate the economists to take up their tasks which they unpardonably ignore, to make them understand the difference between trade unionism and social democratic politics, which they refuse to understand.” The type of social democratic circles of the period, he charges, was content with its “contact with the workers” and issuing leaflets about abuses in the factories, government partiality toward capitalists, and the tyranny of the police. Their group discussions reach no farther. No talk about the history of the revolutionary movement or questions of home and foreign policy of the government or the economic evolution of Russia and Europe or the positions of the various classes in society. No one dreams, Lenin remarks, of extending contacts with other classes of society. The leader of such circles is more like a trade union leader than a socialist political leader.

“It cannot be too strongly insisted that this is not enough to constitute social democracy.…The social democrat’s ideal (leader) should not be a trade union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; he must be able to group all these manifestions into a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; he must be able to  take advantage of every petty event in order to explain …his social democratic demands to all, in order to explain to everyone the world historical significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Before continuing with Lenin and What Is To Be Done, I have to mention my own reactions at this point: it seems we are speaking also of America and Europe, of applying a historical situation to our own contemporary situation. And I must remind readers that the Leninist category “proletariat” is alive today and in the USA includes both the diminishing workers class and the rapidly growing and ever poorer former affluent middle class, so that Lenin’s encouragement to reach out to all classes rings super modern.

At the point we left off, Lenin asserts the following five points concerning the heart of Leninism:

  1. no movement can be durable without a stable organization of leaders to maintain continuity;
  2. the more widely the masses are drawn into the struggle and form the basis of the movement, the more necessary is it to have such an organization and the more stable must it be…;
  3. the organization must consist chiefly of persons engaged in revolution as a profession;
  4. in a country with a despotic government, the more we restrict the membership of this organization to persons who are engaged in revolution as a profession and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult it will be to catch the organization;
  5. and 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 ….

At this point, Lenin raises the question whether it is possible to have a mass organization when strict secrecy is essential? He agrees that we can never guarantee the degree of secrecy required but he believes that the concentration of secret functions in the hands of a small number of professional revolutionaries does not mean that they will think for all and that the masses will have no active part in the movement. On the contrary, Lenin affirms optimistically, more and more  professional revolutionaries should emerge from the masses … after years of training and experience. Lenin speaks of the reading and dissemination of “illegal literature” that will not diminish because a dozen professional revolutionaries concentrate the secret work in their hand, but it will increase tenfold. On the contrary, Lenin believed, the professional revolutionaries will be no less trained than the police. They will see to organizational matters like the construction of the organization territorially, appointing leaders in districts and towns and factories and institutions, at the same time expanding contacts with other organization such as trade unions, workers circles and circles for the whole population.

“We must have as large a number possible of such (associated) organizations having the widest possible variety of functions, but it is absurd and dangerous to confuse these with organizations of revolutionists, to erase the line of demarcation between them, to dim still more the already hazy appreciation by the masses that to serve the mass movement we must have people who will devote themselves exclusively to social-democratic activities, and that others must train themselves … to become professional revolutionaries….

In this short section of his famous work, Lenin lays out clearly and lucidly his revolutionary tactics for the execution of one of history’s greatest revolutions, which had worldwide effects comparable to those of the Great French Revolution a century and a half earlier. In sum, Lenin visualized a workers vanguard led by a small group of professional revolutionaries who dedicated their lives to overthrowing an oppressive state and its ideology by use of and collaboration with the many diverse classes of society and instituting a new classless order. Because of his early death at age 54 we cannot know, we can only speculate as to what kind of a state leader Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, or Lenin, would have become. I personally have come to believe that whatever the circumstances of the succession to Lenin, Stalin did become the right leader for a Russia riddled by civil war, political divisions and anarchy, foreign interventions, an ignorant population, poverty, a nascent industry at a standstill and agriculture in chaos, and the hostility of the surrounding capitalist world with Socialist Russia in their sights. Though the power of the contemporary capitalist state might penetrate deeper into society and into the mentality of the population than in Lenin’s time via cradle to the grave brainwash, also modern technology offers much to the opposition to capitalist hegemony, both nationally and internationally.

Crossposted at The Greanville Post

Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.

from the archives:

Lenin on State and Revolution by Gaither Stewart, Part 5

Lenin on Imperialism and Capitalism by Gaither Stewart, Part 4

Lenin on Tactics of the Democratic Revolution by Gaither Stewart, Part 2

Lenin on Compromises by Gaither Stewart, Part 1

Putin: The Spy Who Came in Out of the Cold

10 thoughts on “Lenin: The Working Class as the Vanguard Fighter for Social Democracy by Gaither Stewart, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Chris Hedges, Kali Akuno and Richard Wolff: Lenin: His Works’ Pertinence Here and Now, Left Forum 2019 – Dandelion Salad

  2. Pingback: Lenin on Tactics of the Democratic Revolution by Gaither Stewart | Dandelion Salad

  3. Pingback: Lenin on Compromises by Gaither Stewart, Part 1 | Dandelion Salad

  4. Pingback: Lenin on State and Revolution by Gaither Stewart | Dandelion Salad

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  6. Thought provoking article and an excellent one at that! (I first read Marxist/Leninist literature as a 17 yr old in a prison cell and it was as close to what religious people describe as an ‘awakening.’ I naively thought why don’t the majority see the logic of this???) Since then I have always believed that only the discipline, as espoused by Lenin, can bring about the necessary revolutionary situation where the structures of the Bourgeois state can be overthrown. Instead of ‘tearing it all down and starting again’ we can use the advances of Capitalism for the use of the majority instead of the few.

  7. Although we are quite obviously in agreement on the vanguard party led by professional revolutionaries, I have acquired a new respect over the years for Stalin’s accomplishments such as saving the revolution, educating a nation, creating a powerful industrial nation in a short time and defeating Nazi Germany and I personally have come understandings of the Chinese system which I recognize as Communist despite certain methods. So I am not a Trotskyist, although I believe–as did Lenin–in the widest possible cooperation among all anti-capitalists. I appreciate and concur fully with you concerning the potential of the American working people. GS.

  8. Very nice article on one of Lenin’s most important writings. The Leninist vanguard party is the ONLY type of organization that has EVER successfully led a workers revolution – in Russia (1917); China (1949); Korea (1948); Cuba (1959); and Vietnam (1975). The anarchists (who are very popular these days thanks to their puerile and counterrevolutionary hatred for any kind of state – including a workers’ state) have never led a successful revolution of any kind – and they never will. Their philosophy was proven bankrupt in 1917 and again even more conclusively in Spain in the 1930s. Any worker who aspires to be a socialist revolutionary must read “What Is To Be Done?” and understand its implications.
    The utter bankruptcy of the fake-socialist Bernie Sanders campaign, which is nothing more than a “pink herring” being used to entrap young workers into voting for worker-hating, wholly-owned servant of the 1% Hillary Clinton stands in sharp contrast to the type of revolutionary socialist workers party Lenin built. Also among the modern fake-socialists standing firmly opposed to the creation of a revolutionary socialist Leninist vanguard party are the reformist Chavistas in Venezuela and the Moralesistas in Bolivia. Their pathetic fawning over bourgeois democratic norms and their refusal to overthrow capitalism and lead a workers revolution proceeds from their contempt for the Leninist vanguard party model. Without a Leninist vanguard party – a party of professional socialist revolutionaries – at the helm of the revolution, it is impossible in the 21st century to overthrow capitalism and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. This concept was enhanced by Leon Trotsky, who fought against the degeneration of Lenin’s Bolshevik party which was undertaken by the Stalin clique. The rise and domination of Stalinism – as Trotsky predicted would happen in the absence of a pro-socialist political revolution in the USSR to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and re-establish workers democracy – led to the collapse of the USSR and is leading to the restoration of capitalism in Stalinist/Maoist China, Vietnam and Cuba today.
    Irving Howe’s version of “What Is To Be Done” is apparently a bastardized version of Lenin’s original. Comparing Howe’s “version” of “WITBD” to our own International Publishers version we discovered many inconsistencies in Howe. We question why Comrade Stewart used Howe’s version as his source material. We recommend the International Publishers’ versions which are available at used bookstores around the world and which comprise the majority if not all of the versions of Lenin’s works available on marxists.org.
    The most important task which stands in front of the workers of the world who seek to prevent the impending disaster of WWIII is the immediate establishment of modern Leninist vanguard parties – Trotskyist vanguard parties – all over the world, which incorporate the lessons of the abject failure of Stalinist/Maoist dogmas. We must not repeat the monstrous errors of Stalinism and Maoism which have undermined and continue to undermine the remaining degenerated workers republics of the world!
    Workers of the World, Unite!
    Independent Workers Party of Chicago
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  9. Having lived in Italy for many years, I understand where the author is coming from but since Lenin’s time, two things have happened: Globalization so the means of production are distant and not really seizable by the working class of the consumer country and as Marx more or less predicted, we’ve entered in a time of “financial products” that really have nothing to do with tangible wealth.

    • The bourgeoisie spreads so many lies about the alleged “impossibility” of workers revolution in the 21st century. “Globalization” has not changed anything. Service workers here in the USA have as much power to bring the capitalist system to a halt as the industrialized workers of the 20th century did. Electricians, construction workers, steel workers, miners, airport and airline, agricultural and all transportation workers (truckers, railroad workers, dockworkers, etc.) possess tremendous power to bring the US capitalist system to a halt. The working class of the USA has all the power necessary to lead a workers revolution in the USA right this minute!
      Your last comment about “financial products” – we doubt that the phrase “financial products” can even be found in the works of Marx or Engels. Workers create ALL profits under capitalism. This will remain the case until the capitalists automate all production with robots – which they may be able to do in the not-too-distant future! That’s why we need to overthrow capitalism now before workers become fully “redundant”. That is why we say: “Capitalism must die so the working class may live!”
      Building revolutionary internationalist Leninist/Trotskyist vanguard parties (wow that’s a lot of NECESSARY “-ists”! lol) is absolutely imperative if the working class is to prevent WWIII from happening.


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