Letter to Iskra, November 1903
|Written||25 November 1903|
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, pubdate??, Moscow, Volume 7, pages 115-118.
This Letter to “Iskra” was written by Lenin in reply to Plekhanov’s article “What Should Not Be Done” in Iskra, No. 52 (November 7, 1903).
The article “What Should Not Be Done” raises issues in our Party life tbat are so important, and at this partic ular juncture so urgent, that it is difficult to repress the desire to respond immediately to the editorial board’s kind and hospitable offer to throw open the columns of their paper; and it is all the more difficult for one who has been a constant contributor to Iskra, especially at a time when to delay voicing one’s opinion for a week may mean forfeiting the opportunity altogether.
And I would like to contribute my opinion in order to prevent certain possible, if not inevitable, misunderstand ings.
Let me say, first of all, that I think the author of the article is a thousand times right when he insists that it is essential to safeguard the unity of the Party and avoid new splits—especially over differences which cannot be con sidered important. To appeal for peaceableness, mildness, and readiness to make concessions is highly praiseworthy in a leader at all times, and at the present moment in par ticular. To anathemise or expel from the Party, not only former Economists, but even little groups of Social-Democrats who suffer from “a certain inconsistency” would certainly be unreasonable, so unreasonable that we quite understand the irritable tone of the author of the article towards those whom he considers arbitrary, stiff-necked and stupid Sobakeviches capable of advocating expul sion. We even go further: when we have a Party programme and a Party organisation, we must not only hospitably throw open the columns of the Party organ for exchanges of opinion, but must afford those groups—or grouplets, as the author calls them—which from inconsistency support some of the dogmas of revisionism, or for one reason or another insist upon their separate and individual existence as groups, the opportunity of systematically setting forth their differences, however slight these may be. Precisely in order to avoid being too harsh and stiff-necked d la Sobakevich towards “anarchistic individualism”, it is necessary, in our opinion, to do the utmost—even if it involves a certain departure from tidy patterns of centralism and from absolute obedience to discipline—to enable these grouplets to speak out and give the whole Party the opportunity to weigh the importance or unimportance of these differences and determine just where, how and on whose part inconsistency is shown.
Indeed, it is high time to make a clean sweep of the tra ditions of circle sectarianism and—in a party which rests on the masses—resolutely advance the slogan: More light/—let the Party know everything, let it have all, abso lutely all the material required for a judgement of all and sundry differences, reversions to revisionism, departures from discipline, etc. More confidence in the independent judgement of the whole body of Party workers!—they, and they alone, will be able to curb the excessive hothead edness of grouplets inclined to splits, will be able, by their slow, imperceptible but persistent influence, to imbue them with the “good will” to observe Party discipline, will be able to cool the ardour of anarchistic individualism and, by the very fact of their indifference, document, prove and demonstrate the triviality of differences exaggerated Thy the elements tending towards a split.
To the question—"what should not be done?" (what should not be done in general, and what, in particular, should not be done so as to avoid a split), my reply is, first of all: do not conceal from the Party the appearance and growth of potential causes of a split, do not conceal any of the circumstances and events that constitute such causes; and, what is more, do not conceal them not only from the Party, but, as far as possible, from the outside public either. I say “as far as possible” having in mind the things that, in a secret organisation, must necessarily be concealed— hut in our splits things of this kind play next to no part. Broad publicity—that is the surest, the only reliable means of avoiding such splits as can be avoided, and of reducing to a minimum the harm of splits that are no longer avoidable.
For indeed, just reflect on the obligations devolving on the Party from the fact that it is dealing now with the masses, not with mere circles. To be a party of the masses not only in name, wg must get ever wider masses to share in all Party affairs, steadily elevating them from political indifference to protest and struggle, from a general spirit of protest to the conscious adoption of Social-Democratic views, from the adoption of these views to support of the movement, from support to organised membership in the Party. Can we achieve this result without giving the widest publicity to matters on whose decision the nature of our influence on the masses will depend? The workers will cease to understand us and will desert us, as a general staff without an army, if splits take place in our ranks over trivial differences, says the author; and it is quite true. And in order that the workers may not cease to understand us, in order that their fighting experience and proletarian instinct may teach us “leaders” something too, the organised workers must learn to keep an eye on any potential causes of splits (in any mass party such causes have always arisen and will always recur), to properly evaluate these causes, to appraise what happens in some “backwater”, in Russia or abroad, from the standpoint of the interests of the entire Party, of the entire movement.
The author is thrice justified when he stresses that much will be given to our central bodies and much will be asked of them. Just so. And for that very reason the whole Party must constantly, steadily and systematically train suitable persons for the central bodies, must see clearly, as in the palm of its hand, all the activities of every candidate for these high posts, must come to know even their personal characteristics, their strong and weak points, their victo ries and “defeats”. The author makes some remarkably acute observations, evidently based on extensive experience, about some of the causes of such defeats. And just because these observations are so acute, it is necessary that the whole Party should benefit by them, that it should always see every “defeat”, even if partial, of one or other of its “leaders”. No political leader has a career that is without its defeats, and if we are serious vhen we talk about influencing the masses, about winning their “good will”, we must strive with all our might not to let these defeats be hushed up in the musty atmosphere of circles and grouplets, but to have them submitted to the judgement of all. That may appear embarrassing at first sight, it may seem “offensive” sometimes to individual leaders—but we must overcome this false feeling of embarrassment, it is our duty to the Party and to the working class. In this way, and in this way alone, shall we enable the whole body of influential Party workers (and not the chance assortment of persons in a circle or grouplet) to know their leaders and to put each of them in his proper category. Only broad publicity will correct all bigoted, one-sided, capricious deviations, it alone will convert the at times absurd and ridiculous “squalls” between “grouplets” into useful and essential material for the self-education of the Party.
Light, more light! We need a vast orchestra; and we must acquire experience in order correctly to distribute the parts, in order to know to whom to assign the sentimen tal violin, to whom the gruff double-bass, to whom the con ductor’s haton. Let the columns of the Party organ and of all Party publications indeed be thrown open hospitably to all opinions, in keeping with the author’s admirable appeal; let all and sundry judge our “janglings and wran glings” over any “note” sounded too sharp, in the opinion of some, too flat, in the opinion of others, too raggedly, in the opinion of others still. Only through a series of such open discussions can we get a really harmonious ensemble of leaders; only given this condition will it he impossible for the workers to cease to understand us; only then will our “general staff” really be backed by the good and con scious will of an army that follows and at the same time directs its general staff!
- Economism was the opportunist trend in Russian Social-Democracy at the turn of the century, a Russian variety of international oppor tunism; its organs were the newspaper Rabochaya Mysl (Worker’s Thought; 1897-1902), published in Russia, and the journal Ra bocheye Dyelo (Workers’ Cause; 1899-1902), published abroad.
The Economists restricted the tasks of the working-class move ment to the economic struggle for higher wages, better working conditions, etc., asserting that the political struggle was the busi ness of the liberal bourgeoisie, and denied the leading role of the workers’ party, which, they considered, should merely observe the spontaneous development of the movement and follow in its wake. In their glorifying of “spontaneity” they belittled the importance of revolutionary theory and consciousness, declaring that the social ist ideology could grow out of the spontaneous movement; and by thus denying the need to imbue the workers’ movement with socialist consciousness, they cleared the way for bourgeois ideology. They championed the scattered, isolated circles, with their parochi al amateurish approach, fostering disunity, confusion, and wavering in the Social-Democratic ranks and opposing the creation of a centralised working-class party. Economism threatened to divert the working class from the revolutionary, class path and re duce it to a political appendage of the bourgeoisie.
The Economists’ programme was set forth in the Credo, a mani festo drawn up in 1899 by Y. D. Kuskova. When this Credo reached Lenin, then in exile in Siberia, he replied with A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats—a trenchant criticism of the Economist ideas. This protest was discussed and unanimously adopted by a meeting of 17 Marxists serviiig terms of political exile, held in the village of Yermakovskoye, Minusinsk Region.
A major part in the fight against Economism was played by Lenin’s Iskra; and by his book What Is To Be Done?, published in March 1902, Lenin completed its ideological defeat.
- Sobakevich—the reference is to the notorious character in Gogol’s Dead Souls.