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Review – ‘Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context’
by Lars T Lih, Brill Publishers, Leiden & Boston

Part 2 Russian Social Democracy and the merger formula

Joe Craig

16 November 2006

In the first part of our review we traced the merger formula back to Marx and Engels and then to German Social Democracy which set the example for Marxists across Europe and beyond at the turn of the last century.  The question presented itself: did this narrative also apply to Russia?  Was the German example relevant to a country which at that time hardly had a workers movement, certainly no trade unions, was backward and autocratic and had no national Social Democratic Party?

Lenin pointed out that Marx had developed scientific socialism before the workers movement had developed in Germany, he had written the Communist Manifesto in 1847.  Yet today there existed the mighty German Social Democratic Party.  Essentially he argued that what the Germans had done the Russians will do too. Far from seeking to graft Marxism onto the native Russian populist tradition and develop a new type of party, he wanted to apply the German example to Russia, at least in so far as it could be done, and with whatever adjustments were necessary to account for the repressive nature of Russian society.

Lenin’s programme for Russian Social Democracy, written in 1895-1896 while in prison, clearly models itself on the German Erfurt Programme.  In it he defines Russian Social Democracy: ‘The Russian Social-Democratic Party announces as its task: to help the struggle of the Russian working class by development of the class self-awareness of the workers, by assistance to their organisations and by pointing out the tasks and aims of the struggle.’(Lenin quoted in LR, p.124)

This involved a two-fold approach which furthered the merger of socialism and the workers through intervention into the workers own struggles and on the other hand through Social Democracy explaining socialism.  In other words awareness, or ‘consciousness’ of socialism, does not grow automatically from workers own struggles. It can do so, in fact Lenin is most optimistic that it will do so, and do so rapidly, but for this to happen the Social Democrats have to do their job.  In other words workers will embrace the socialist message if socialists are organised effectively to bring it to them.  Workers own struggles will point them to the correctness of this message but by themselves these struggles will be insufficient.  This view might have scandalised anarchism but then anarchism did not and does not understand the need for working class political power.  It sees no problem, so it doesn’t like the question and attacks the answer.  But for all Social Democrats this position of Lenin’s was, as we saw in the first part of our review, not in dispute but part of the common understanding of their politics.


Lih is extremely keen to demonstrate that this view, repeated in WITBD, makes Lenin an archetypal Social Democrat.  Lenin is always to be found arguing that the workers can and will embrace the teachings of Marxism.  If he seems dogmatic this is for two reasons.  Firstly he argues strongly against those who doubt this. Secondly, he argues that the workers can be won directly to Social Democracy, not to any watered down substitute for it.  Hence the zeal of his polemical attacks against those who try to say the workers need to go through lower stages of political development, or aren’t ready, or should not embrace political tasks which are beyond them.  His view of the relationship between Social Democracy and the workers movement is therefore entirely faithful to the original project of Marx and Engels:

‘In all European countries, socialism and the workers movement at first existed separately one from the other.  The workers carried on a struggle with the capitalists and set up strikes and unions; meanwhile, the socialists kept their distance from the workers movement and created teachings that criticised the contemporary capitalist bourgeois social system and demanded the replacement of that system with a higher, socialist system.  The separation of the workers movement from socialism meant weakness and lack of development in both the one and the other.  Socialist teachings that did not merge with the workers struggle remained only utopias – good intentions without any influence on real life.  The workers movement remained petty and fragmented; it didn’t acquire political significance, it wasn’t illuminated by the advanced science of its time.  For this reason we see in all European countries a stronger and stronger striving to fuse socialism and the workers movement into a single Social-Democratic movement.’

‘Given such a fusion, the class struggle of the workers became a purposive struggle of the proletariat for its liberation from the exploitation of the owner classes; this class struggle worked out the highest form of the socialist workers movement – an independent workers Social-Democratic Party.  The central contribution of K. Marx and F. Engels was to direct socialism toward a merger with the workers movement: they created a revolutionary theory that explained the necessity of this fusion and gave socialists the task of organising a class struggle of the proletariat.’

‘Exactly the same process occurred here in Russia.  With us as well socialism existed for a very long time – for many decades – at a distance from the struggle of the workers with the capitalists, the strikes of the workers and all the rest.  On the one hand, the socialists didn’t understand Marx’s theory and considered it inapplicable to Russia; on the other hand, the Russian workers movement was still in a completely embryonic form.’

‘The fusion of the advanced workers with Social-Democratic organisations was completely natural and inevitable.  It was the result of that important historical fact that during the 1890s two profound social movements met in Russia: one was the stikhiinyi people’s movement in the worker class and the other was the movement of social thought toward the theories of Marx and Engels, to the teachings of Social Democracy . . .‘

‘At the present time, the central task of all Russian socialists and all purposive Russian workers is to make this fusion durable, to strengthen and organise the Workers Social-Democratic Party.  He who doesn’t want to recognise this fusion, he who strives artificially to bring some kind of division between the workers movement and Social Democracy in Russia – that person brings harm, nor benefit, to the cause of worker socialism and the workers movement in Russia.’ (quoted in LR p. 143-144)

Compare this with the traditional analysis of Lenin’s views which makes him say that the working class spontaneously comes under the influence of the bourgeoisie.  Lih compares Lenin’s optimism with what he calls the ‘worry about the workers’ views of most interpreters of Lenin’s thought.  Lih reviews Lenin’s writings before WITBD and acknowledges that the reader of his book may be stifling a yawn at the number of quotes from these writings setting out Lenin’s demand that Social Democracy fight for the merger of socialism with the workers movement.  Far from Lenin advancing the native populist tradition, this tradition moved closer to Social Democracy in its emphasis on the need for political freedom.

Lih gives one telling example of the sort of ignorance which has informed criticisms of Lenin.  Rosa Luxembourg wrote an article in 1904 which criticised him for underestimating the creative movement of Russian workers.  She quotes an article from the paper ‘Iskra’ to demonstrate this creativity.  She was however unaware of who wrote the article that pointed out the great development of the Russian workers movement.  It was Lenin.  She was quoting Lenin to show the sort of thing he had overlooked!


The importance of political freedom to the merger narrative and the nature of Russian society combined to make political freedom the centre of the Russian Social Democratic struggle. The most notorious opponents of the importance given to it were called ‘economists.’  This label might confuse.  It did not mean that Social Democrats opposed the economic struggles of workers, they supported and tried to lead them.  Nor did it mean that economists opposed any and all political agitation.  A favourite formulation of theirs was to describe Social Democracy’s task as to ‘impart a political character to the economic struggle’, a formulation Lenin ridiculed.  It meant that their perspective was often only seeking after partial political rights.  Other economists were of a view that setting the struggle against autocracy as an over-riding priority was taking on too much.

The most radical economist thinkers laughed at the idea that the workers were aware of any grand historical tasks or that they could become so aware.  Not the activities of Social Democracy but ‘life’ itself would make workers aware of their interests. It was therefore material conditions themselves which spread awareness among the workers, not the Erfurtian ‘circles of awareness’ which envisaged socialist awareness radiating out from Social Democracy into the workers movement, then to the whole proletariat and then to all labouring classes.  For the economists the programme of Social Democracy put across demands that the workers could not accomplish, certainly not in the immediate future.  These should therefore be dropped.  Social Democracy had and would win the sympathy of workers through practical activity that responded to workers’ needs of the day.  ‘Revolutionising’ of minds was for students.  It was not grand ideas but their stomach that revolutionized workers.  Prokopovich, the economist author, summed up the experience of the Belgian socialists by saying that the workers were won by practical reforms, not by high and abstract ideas - they were like ‘children.’

Plekhanov, speaking as an orthodox Social Democrat, acknowledged that workers did not always understand their true interests and position in society and agreed that social existence determined social awareness.  He agreed that the awareness of the workers more or less always lags behind the real development of social relations.  For him however this was no reason to reject the merger formula or the leadership role of Social Democracy.  It made this formula and this role all the more necessary.

For Prokopovich the determining role of material conditions meant that the tactics of the party developed along the lines of least resistance, not where party leaders wanted them to go.  The aims that came from within the workers themselves were in sharp contrast to those coming from without, from Social Democracy and from its merger formula.  When Lenin defended the ideas of Social Democracy coming to the workers from ‘without’ he was not therefore rejecting the traditional politics of Social Democracy but responding to its critics using the terminology of the critics.  This use of terminology is one important reason why the most controversial passages of WITBD have been so misinterpreted.

For the economists in Russia ‘the line of least resistance’ meant following the workers’ own struggles which were economic in character.  Political struggle meant facing a wall of political repression.  Russian conditions did not allow the sort of political development that had taken place in the West and it was wrong of Social Democrats to try to impose western models of political organisation and development.  Political freedom was important for workers but for some economist thinkers the achievement of the sort of constitutional government that existed in parts of the west was no big prize.  Seeking above all else the overthrow of the autocracy was to seek to foist the aims of intellectuals onto the workers.

Lenin and the majority of Social Democracy argued for the relevance of the western experience of the merger formula, particularly since the Germans themselves had suffered repression under notorious anti-socialist laws but were still able to grow and build their movement. The mobilisation of workers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kharkov in support of protesting students in 1901 also came as striking confirmation of the mainstream Social Democratic view.

For defenders of the merger formula the ideas of the economists reflected disenchantment with the ‘stikhiinost’ character of the workers’ strike movement. (Often translated as ‘spontaneous’ but in this context meaning lack of organizational structure and discipline.)  In the textbook interpretation of WITBD however it is Lenin, who believed the workers would accept the socialist message, who is labeled pessimistic and accused of trying to foist intellectuals onto the RSDWP in order to counter the ‘spontaneous’ development of the workers.  He is accused of a lack of democracy when it is he who asserts that the workers must put political freedom and destruction of the autocracy at the centre of their struggle.

Another opponent of Erfurtianism was K.M. Takhtarev who advanced other arguments against Social Democratic orthodoxy.  He noted that during a period of economic upturn strikes had not only taken place but had been tolerated and successful despite being illegal.  The lesson to be learnt was that political freedom was not something to fight for in its own right, parliaments were something for the ‘revolutionary intelligentsia.’  Freedom for the workers on the other hand was something that arose as a matter of fact from the workers own struggles.  The most desirable struggle was that which was possible and what was possible was that which was taking place.

One academic, Alan Wildman, has summed up this approach as worker’s own initiative determining the course of the movement and counterposes this ‘spontaneity’ to the ‘imposition’ of ‘consciousness’ from the Social Democrats.  Lih however argues that his translation of stikhiinost (that word again) as spontaneity is wrong in this context.  As used in this case it connotes chaotic and disorganized struggle which even the economists opposed.  They too sought Social Democratic leadership of workers’ struggles and giving these struggles ‘purposiveness.’ (In this case Lih’s translation of what is usually termed consciousness.)  The textbook interpretation of Lenin’s intelligentsia versus the workers’ own initiative misses the fact that the debate was between one group of intelligentsia and workers against another group of intelligentsia and workers over how the latter’s interests were to be advanced.  Were they to accept the limits of the existing struggle or were they to seek to win workers to the Social Democratic mission?

In the end the economists rejected this mission which for the rest of Social Democracy gave their struggle, indeed their lives, meaning.  They dismissed the world-historical mission of Social Democracy as irrelevant to the real, existing proletariat’s concerns.  It was utopian and harmful.  For Social Democracy on the other hand it was the very purpose and definition of their party.  It was the foundation of their existence.  To the skeptics they could have done no better than quote Marx: ‘It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim.  It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with its being, it will historically be compelled to do.’ (Quoted in ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution volume II, Hal Draper, p. 36)


Reading WITBD can be a difficult and not completely enlightening experience.  One is assaulted with a host of references to individuals and organisations with whom one has no knowledge unless having already studied the Russian revolutionary movement of the time. Because we don’t know the organisations, don’t know what their existence meant and don’t know what they said the importance and precise meaning of arguments cannot be understood, making one susceptible to the view that Lenin was indeed an incorrigible polemicist obsessively involved in sectarian point scoring.  Much of Lih’s book is devoted to describing these organisations’ and individuals’ ideas. 

Lih argues that these opponents, the economists, had effectively been defeated by the time WITBD was written.  Lenin’s purpose in continuing the polemic with them is to associate their ideas with his main target in WITBD – the paper ‘Rabochee delo’.  If he can associate the latter with the discredited ideas of the former his own arguments will be much nearer being accepted.

Lih is not uncritical of this approach and he states a number of times that ‘Rabochee delo’ was not economist, just perhaps an inconsistent defender of Russian Erfurtianism.  This reviewer is not totally convinced that economism had been definitively defeated nor that ‘Rabochee delo’ did not deserve Lenin’s sharp polemic.  (See Lih’s own qualification on the possible accuracy of the first judgment in page 349)  The main point however is that the arguments of these various actors help explain Lenin’s own views and that the debates are not without resonance or lessons for the socialist movement today.  What is to be Done? was written to explain how Russian Social Democracy would forward the essential interests of the workers towards socialism.  In the next part of the review we look at the debate on this within those who subscribed to the merger narrative of ‘Erfurtianism.’



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