Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.1 (2003) 5-49
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How a Founding Document Was Found, or One Hundred Years of Lenin's What Is to Be Done?*
Lars T. Lih
Once upon a time I taught in the political science department of a small liberal arts college. As one of the teachers of the introductory course for first-year students, I proposed that the reading for the session we spent on Lenin be switched from selections from What Is to Be Done? to Lenin's final articles of 1923 (this was during the perestroika period when these late articles were by far the most prominent Lenin texts). A colleague — a specialist in Chinese politics — quashed my proposal. After citing the famous sentence in What Is to Be Done? about "consciousness from without," he commented approximately as follows: "According to Marx, being determines consciousness. According to Lenin, consciousness is independent of working-class being. Lenin stood Marx on his head and this is the basic fact we have to get across to our students."
This little episode defined for me the undisputed ascendancy of what I will call the textbook interpretation of Lenin's What Is to Be Done? (henceforth WTBD). If a teacher could say only one thing about the outlook of the founder of the Soviet Union and of 20th-century communism, he or she should use this or similar sentences from Lenin's book of 1902. As is the way with textbooks, this reading of Lenin is presented to students as a plain and simple fact. Indeed, although I was the Soviet specialist in the department, it was my colleague who expressed the consensus of the academic specialists on Russian and Soviet history.
The textbook interpretation has three mutually reinforcing strands. The first is that the essence of Lenin's outlook is his loss of confidence in the workers and his fear of their "spontaneity" (stikhiinost´). Lenin's hard-eyed realism about the incapacity of the workers, combined with his own fanatical will to revolution, gave birth to the idea of a party based on "professional revolutionaries" from the [End Page 5] intelligentsia. Second, Lenin's outlook is a profound revision of orthodox Marxism. "Lenin is quite ready to reinterpret Marx, while claiming, of course, that he is merely following the letter of the doctrine." 1 Third, the book where this profound innovation is set forth — What Is to Be Done? — is therefore the founding document of Bolshevism and the key text for understanding communism.
The continuity of the specialist consensus on Lenin's distrust of the workers is striking. In 1956, Alfred Meyer wrote that Lenin's "generally prevailing opinion was that the proletariat was not and could not be conscious." More than 40 years later, James D. White makes the same point by contrasting Lenin to Kautsky. According to Kautsky, "once the socialist consciousness had been communicated to the workers, the workers would then be in possession of the consciousness. Not so with Lenin; in his view the socialist consciousness always remained outside the working class because it could never see beyond its narrow material class interests." 2
My own research on WTBD and its context has convinced me that all three strands of the textbook interpretation are profoundly incorrect (at the end of this essay, I will present a brief statement of my own reading). 3 I was thus forced to ask myself (especially since I knew that others would ask): how is it that such an imposing consensus of learned specialists came to such an erroneous conclusion? This question led me to investigate the shifting interpretations of WTBD in the hundred years since its publication in March 1902.
This investigation turned out to be an unexpected and revealing story in its own right — a case study in the creation of an undisputed textbook fact. Mensheviks in 1904 fiercely berated Lenin for his lack of confidence in the intellectuals. The generation of leaders that made the Bolshevik...