Gerry Healy



80 Years On - Lenin’s What is to be Done?

By G. Healy,

News Line 6 July 1982

   The first edition of Lenin’s book, What is to be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement, was published in Stuttgart towards the middle of March 1902.

   It was in this very important work that Lenin outlined and developed the theoretical and practical base for the Bolshevik Party. Whilst the form of the contents is drawn from Russian conditions prevailing at the time the book was written, the content itself is universally pertinent to the urgent political tasks which we face in Britain today.

   Needless to say, revisionists of all kinds go to great lengths in separating the form from the content by dismissing What is to be Done as something related to Russian conditions only at the beginning of this century. Yet, a glance at its contents will soon reveal that this is by no means the case.

   ‘History’, wrote Lenin, ‘has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country’ … Indeed, no one, we think, has until now doubted that the strength of the present day movement lies in the awakening of the masses, (principally the industrial proletariat), and that its weakness lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders’  (P. 373, Vol. 5, Lenin’s Collected Works)  

   In the conclusion of the first section of Chapter II Lenin remarks:

   ‘For this reason the question of the relations between consciousness and spontaneity is of such enormous general interest, and for this reason the question must be dealt with in great detail’. (P. 374, Vol. 5).

   On a previous page Lenin remarks:

   ‘In particular it will be the duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer insight into all theoretical questions, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old world outlook and constantly to keep in mind that socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, ie., that it be studied.  (P.372, Vol. 5, my emphasis, GH)

What is Spontaneity?

   The historical origins of ‘spontaneity’ go back to the slave owning society out of which the division between mental and manual labour originally emerged. By ‘spontaneity’ we mean a process of social development whose objective laws are not organised by men and therefore beyond their control.

   This process eventually led to the manual worker becoming the object of exploitation for the ruling classes. Whilst at first the division played a progressive role, later, deep-going class antagonisms were revealed when the privilege of being engaged in mental labour fell to the ruling class and its agents, whilst the manual worker became more and more nailed to his job. Thus the division which was at first progressive, now became transformed more and more into a class struggle in capitalist society, which as time went by became predominantly reactionary.

   In The German Ideology Marx and Engels Explain how the original purveyors of mental labour now dominated the working class with their bourgeois ideas:

   ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

   ‘The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. In so far, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self evident that they do this in their whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.’ (P. 38, The German Ideology, Lawrence and Wishart 1939)

   ‘But why’, wrote Lenin, ‘the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the dominance of bourgeois ideology?’ And he answers:

   ‘For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination. And the younger the socialist movement in any country, the more vigorously it must struggle against all attempts to enrich non-socialist ideology, and the more resolutely the workers must be warned against bad counsellors who shout against “overrating the conscious element”, etc.’ (P. 386, Vol. 5)

   In the early part of the century is was the ‘economists’ who were an opportunist trend within Russian social democracy and who endeavoured to subordinate the working class to spontaneity through the economic struggle. Through these limitations they injected the poison of bourgeois ideology and its influence into the working class by keeping the issues in dispute confined to wages and working conditions.

   What the ‘economists’ were doing in Russia in Lenin’s day, the Labour and trade union leaders are doing here today, under conditions where spontaneity as long ago become a real dander to the future of the working class.

   It is not only the Labourites, but the Stalinist also, with their ‘peaceful road’, and their renegade ex-Trotskyist allies who preach subservience to the Labour Party as well as a trade union level of politics. All these forces pursue downright reactionary roles be cause whether or not they are right wingers or pseudo ‘lefts’, there is one thing that they are all in agreement on and that is the keep the working class tied down to spontaneity and bourgeois ideology.

   Meanwhile the trade union bureaucracies, with the powerful resources at their disposal, remain the backbone of spontaneity in Britain. Not only are they for class peace, they are for waving the flag for any imperialist war Thatcher cares to embark upon. Their affiliation to the Labour Party is nothing more than what Lenin called ‘lending the economic struggle a political character’. In this way they constantly strengthen the backward ties with spontaneity.

   There is also a dangerous manifestation of spontaneity within the revolutionary party itself. The sharp division between mental and manual labour is expressed in a tendency which separated theory from practice. Such a position lends itself easily to scepticism and positivism, thus reinforcing powerful anti-theory moods.  

   The labour and trade union bureaucracy continuously counter-pose the many forms of spontaneity such as anti-theory, backwardness, ‘lending the economic struggle a political character’, inside the Labour Party against the struggle for a higher theoretical analysis of the revolutionary struggles ahead. This is strengthened by the capitalist state through its television media. A good deal of viewing time is devoted towards films of trade unions on strike, under conditions where they are always the ‘gallant losers’.

   ‘The economic struggle’, wrote Lenin, ‘is the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour power. This struggle is necessarily a trade union struggle, because working conditions differ greatly in different trades and consequently the struggle to improve them can only be conducted on the basis of trade organisations, (in the western countries through trade unions, in Russia through temporary trade associations and through leaflets etc.)

   ‘Lending the “economic struggle itself a political character” means, thereby striving to secure satisfaction for these trade demands, the improvement of working conditions in each separate trade by means of “legislative and administrative measures” (as Martynov puts it on the ensuing page of his article p.43). This is precisely what all workers’ trade unions do and always have done.  Read the works of the soundly scientific and (“soundly” opportunist) Mr. and Mrs. Webb and you will see that the British trade unions have long ago been carrying out the task of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”.’ (P.404, Vol. 5)

   Is this not happening in Britain today? Is this not what all the Labour Government have been doing since 1924? This is at the heart of the ‘in-fighting’ which is now blowing apart the Labour Party.  The world economic crisis of capitalism has decreed that the days of ‘lending the economic struggle a political character’ play right into the hands of the Tory enemy and that capitalism here and elsewhere is heading for the most brutal dictatorships, since Hitler, Franco and Mussolini.

   Those like the wretched ‘Militant’ group of Ted Grant, whose policy is to transform the Labour Party into a revolutionary party, also in their own way ‘lend the economic struggle a political character’. This amounts to nothing more than the crudest subservience to bourgeois reformist ideology and ‘spontaneity’. As a consequence, by disarming the working class, they too open the door to dictatorship, despite their legal Marxist differences with the right wing.

   It is the petty-bourgeois trade union bureaucracy which rules the Labour Party through a high-powered group of equally petty-bourgeois careerist intellectuals who, deep down, hate the working class and secretly worship at the feet of Mrs. Thatcher and her anti-union laws. They do everything in their power, therefore, to deprive the working class of its revolutionary role, and together with the trade union bureaucrats keep it chained in the background, whilst the upper petty-bourgeois of Thatcher’s cabinet trample and spit all over it.

   Trade union bureaucrats run the Labour Party precisely for this purpose today. That is why, together with their puppet politicians, they stand together to keep the Labour Party safe for bourgeois ideology and ‘spontaneity’, which taken together lead to subservience to Trotskyism.

What is Consciousness?

   ‘Spontaneity’ and ‘bourgeois ideology’ have their roots in a period which has long since become historically outmoded. Today, when we face the ‘death agony of capitalism’, as Trotsky put it, the revolutionary cadres of the Party must clearly understand this, otherwise we will be tail-ending the spontaneity of the trade union bureaucrats and the bourgeois ideology disguised as the ‘leftist’ politics of the Labourite and revisionist politicians. To understand the real dangers ahead, let us turn to Lenin’s view on ‘class political consciousness’.

   ‘Class political consciousness’, he wrote, ‘can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers.’ P.422, Vol. 5)

   Both ‘spontaneity’ and ‘consciousness’ are dialectical categories and polar opposites. Just as mental labour separated itself from manual labour, spontaneity must be regarded separately from consciousness. Lenin, in What is to be Done?, posed the issue in its sharpest immediacy.

   First he referred to the universal absorption of the Russian youth in the middle nineties in the ‘theories of Marxism’. In the same period he wrote, ‘the strikes that followed the famous St. Petersburg industrial war of 1896, assumed a similar general character’. (P. 374, Vol. 5)

   The strike, or the ‘industrial war’ (1896), as Lenin put it, was ‘spread over the whole of Russia’ and thus ‘clearly showed the depth of the newly awakening popular movement.’ Whilst regarding such a strike as ‘spontaneous’, he went on, it could not be compared with the seventies and sixties, which ‘were accompanied by the spontaneous destruction of machinery. (Ibid.)

   ‘But there is spontaneity and spontaneity’, he comments, ‘… Compared with these “revolts”, the strikes of the nineties might even be described as “conscious” to such an extent do they mark to progress which the working-class movement made in that period. This shows that the “spontaneous element” in essence represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in an embryonic form’. (Ibid.)

   Those who fail to understand what Lenin was writing about sometimes draw the erroneous conclusion that when Lenin referred to ‘spontaneity and spontaneity’ he was suggesting that ‘consciousness’ automatically unfolded out of ‘spontaneity’ when the strike movement became more militant and instinctively revolutionary. Such revisionists are also great believers in the struggle of ‘economic demands’ and do their utmost to confuse the revolutionary vanguard by reducing the struggle of the Marxist world outlook to subservience to the increasing militancy of strike movements.

   Lenin insisted that such increasing militancy simply revealed ‘the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers.’ Lenin goes on:

   ‘But the workers were not and could not be conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system … In a sense, the strikes on the nineties, despite the enormous progress they represented as compared with the “revolts”, remained a purely spontaneous movement .’ (P, 375, Vol. 5)

   Lenin then concludes:

   ‘We have said that there could not have been social-democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows 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, to fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.*’ (Ibid., My emphasis – GH.)

   In a footnote denoted by the asterisk Lenin remarks: ‘Trade unionism does not exclude “politics” altogether, as some imagine.’

   It is easy to see why the Tory ruling class today are doing everything possible to strengthen ‘spontaneous realism’ in the ranks of the broad masses. With the Labour Party and Stalinist Parties from their inception steeped in bourgeois ideology, and dominated by the so-called ‘politics’ of the trade unions, the consciousness of the working class in particular has never risen above that of ‘spontaneity’.

   This is the heart of their domination by the ‘two-party system’. It also explains why the votes of the WRP in elections are always very small in comparison to those candidates from the Labour and Tory Parties. In addition the class hostility towards the Tories is exploited by the Labourites in order to return Labour voters after the election to the safety and reactionary tranquillity of spontaneity and bourgeois ideology.

   In order to combat the opportunism emanating from the reactionary swamp, our Party has to constantly wage political war against all forms of opportunism and trace their historical source. Without a continuous campaign developing revolutionary theory and policies, the working class can never consciously transcend the mental prison of ‘spontaneity’ which is advocated by the organisations of the trade union and Labour bureaucracy.

   ‘In practice’, wrote Trotsky, ‘a reformist party considers unshakable the foundations of that which it intends to reform. It thus inevitably submits to the ideas and morals of the ruling class. Having risen on the backs of the proletariat the social democrats become merely a bourgeois party of the second order.’ (History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1016)

   This applies very powerfully to the Labour Party and the trade unions at the present time. Since spontaneity as ‘embryonic consciousness’ expresses the being of a living person it must be understood in unity with consciousness. Only in this dialectical relation can the relative significance of the sharp conflict between them by analysed and understood.

   It is reality of a higher stage emerging out of a reality of a lower stage. The development of consciousness, however, cannot by accomplished except through the dialectical process of cognition, wherein the impulse towards revolutionary Practice which will change the world is initially derived. In the course of this a break from spontaneity becomes imperative.

   Since the process of Cognition is derived from the method of Marxism as a world scientific outlook, the development of consciousness can only be undertaken when that break is made from spontaneity. This is what Lenin meant when he wrote:

   ‘Class political consciousness can be brought to the working class only from without.’ (P.422, Vol. 5)

   For the spontaneous movement of the working class cannot by itself develop consciousness, since it has a bourgeois ideological content. This does not mean, as our sterile propagandists insist, that theoretical and historical generalities drummed up from the past and carted into the Labour Party under the guise of ‘entrism’ are adequate. Such a position can only lead to the worst king of opportunism and liquidation into spontaneity and bourgeois ideology. This is proved to the hilt by the experience of those ex-Trotskyist groups who have simply transformed Trotskyism into a sterile brand of ‘legal Marxism’, (Trotskyist legal Marxism). It is against such deserters that Trotsky emphasised the decisive role of the dialectical materialist method in his last writings before he was murdered by Stalin.

   Consciousness, therefore, must be scientifically developed out of the external world which is its source. Unless this interpenetrates our existing theory of knowledge or ‘self-consciousness’, thus allowing synthetic analysis to commence, we are in the camp of bourgeois idealism. ‘Modern socialist consciousness’, affirmed Lenin, can only arise on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.’ (P.383, Vol. 5). Here is the core of the relative nature of the conflict between spontaneity and consciousness of between bourgeois idealism and the process of cognition.

Society and consciousness

   In his preparatory work on What is the be Done? Lenin was guided by the analysis which Marx made 42 years earlier when he wrote:

   ‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (P. 20, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers 1977 edition)

   By starting his analysis from ‘society’ as a ‘whole’, Marx took care to emphasis that:

   ‘The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The pre-history of human society accordingly closes with this social formation’. (Op.Cit., page 21)

   What is to be Done? reflects the urgency which this paragraph had generated for Lenin. It explains why it was so necessary for him to counter-pose in the Sharpest possible way the conflict between consciousness derived from the Historical Materialist analysis of the ‘whole’ of society  as against ‘spontaneity which incorporated bourgeois ideology. The discovery and elaboration of the Historical Materialist method by Marx and Engels was thoroughly understood by Lenin when he wrote:

   ‘A realisation of the inconsistency, incompleteness and one-sidedness of the old materialism convinced Marx of the necessity of “bringing” the science of society into harmony with the materialist foundations and of reconstructing it thereupon. Since materialism in general explains consciousness as the outcome of being and not conversely, then materialism as applied to the social life of mankind has to explain “social consciousness as the outcome of social being.’ (Marx, Engels, Marxism, P.17, 1977 edition)

   By historical Materialism, we mean the abstraction of the dialectical laws from the ‘history of men’ in their actual life process, irrespective of whether they are capitalist or worker, trade unionist or non-trade unionist. Only in this way can the moments of objective truth in the conflict between spontaneity and consciousness emerge in their unity in real life.

   This is the source of Lenin’s references to ‘spontaneity and spontaneity’, of what in physics is the area of invariance between ‘the opposites’ when they are being transformed one into another.

   The working class is only a part of society as a whole and it is only possible to provide it with an all-sided revolutionary education when the objective developments within all classes in society are consciously brought in from without, regardless of the level of working class politics within the trade unions. We must not lower revolutionary politics to the level of trade union politics. Again and again Lenin returned to this main theme in What is to be Done?

   ‘For the secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the laws and of measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket, (ie. to warn all and sundry that a strike is proceeding at a certain factory), explains the particularity of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes etc. In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government”. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social Democracy, that the Social Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people …’ (P. 423 What is to be Done, Lawrence and Wishart. The term “social democracy is used here in the old, pre- 1941 sense – Ed’)

   Lenin’s conception of the ‘Tribune of the People’ one year later became the Bolshevik Party. The Workers Revolutionary Party advocates and implements these same policies in Britain today. Eighty years on, it returns to the same political powers of analysis as the day What is to be done? was first published.