What Is to Be Done?

What Is to Be Done?

What to do? Burning Questions of Our Movement (Russian: Что делать? Shto delat’?) is a political pamphlet written by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in 1901 and published in 1902.[1] Its title is inspired by the novel of the same name by the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky.

In What Is to Be Done?, Lenin argues that the working class will not spontaneously become political simply by fighting economic battles with employers over wages, working hours and the like. To convert the working class to Marxism, Lenin argues that Marxists should form a political party, or "vanguard", of dedicated revolutionaries to spread Marxist political ideas among the workers.

The piece partly precipitated the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) between Lenin's Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.


Main points

Lenin argues that workers will not spontaneously become Marxists just by fighting battles over wages with their employers. Lenin argues that Marxists need to form a political party to publicise Marxist ideas and persuade workers to become Marxists.

Lenin argues that to understand politics you must understand all of society, not just workers and their economic struggles with their employers. To become political and to become Marxists, workers need to learn about all of society, not just their own corner of it:

Class political consciousness 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. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes.[2]

Writing about the wave of strikes in late nineteenth century Russia, Lenin states that "The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness," that is, combining into unions, etc. Socialist theory, however, in Russia, as elsewhere in Europe, was the product of the "educated representatives of the propertied clases", the intellectuals or "revolutionary socialist intellectuals". Lenin states that the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves, belonged to this bourgeois intelligentsia.[3]

Lih interpretation

However, it has recently been argued in a book on the pamphlet by the translator Lars Lih that What Is to be Done? has been widely misinterpreted,[4] partly due to mistranslations of key terms used by Lenin.

"Lih also argues that even if we examine the controversial passages in What is to be Done? we misunderstand them if we are not alive to the meanings of the words used. Some of these have been translated in such a way as to confuse or even to draw readers to the opposite of what Lenin’s real views were. Pages and pages of Lih's book therefore are devoted to explaining why and how the word stikhiinyi, when translated as spontaneity, distorts his views; how konspiratsiia does not mean ‘conspiracy’; tred-iunionizm does not mean ‘trade unionism’ and revoliutsioner po professii should not be translated as ‘professional revolutionary.’"[4][5]


  • Malia, Martin (1994). The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 978-0-02-919795-0. 
  1. ^ Paul Le Blanc, Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings of Lenin, London: Pluto Press, London (2008), pp. 9, 128
  2. ^ Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1901), Lenin Internet Archive.
  3. ^ Paul Le Blanc (2008) Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings of Lenin. Pluto Press, London: 31, 137-8
  4. ^ a b Lih, Lars (2005). Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 978-90-04-13120-0. 
  5. ^ Joe Craig, Review – ‘Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context’ by Lars T Lih, Brill Publishers, Leiden & Boston Part 1 The Merger Formula 10 November 2006. http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/Reviews/ReviewLeninRediscoveredPart1.html

External links

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