Lenin’s fight against economism

21 June 1999

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the European Marxist movement was gripped by a major debate between ‘revisionism’ and ‘orthodoxy’. The revisionists were led by the German social democrat Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein rejected revolution as a goal and argued in its place for a strategy of reforms, which were designed to make life under capitalism more acceptable for workers. Modern reformism was born.

In Russia, the revisionist trend in the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) organised itself into a faction which became known as the ‘Economists’.

The RSDLP had made an important turn to factory work in the 1890s, during an upsurge of strikes. Vladimir Lenin, a Russian revolutionary who went on to found the Bolshevik Party and lead the victorious workers’ revolution of October 1917, had wholeheartedly supported this turn as a serious attempt by Russian Marxists to break out of small intellectual circles and address the Russian workers.

For Lenin this turn involved a systematic attempt to raise the social democratic (socialist) programme among workers by starting with their immediate concerns and connecting those concerns with the general goals of the party, in particular the political struggle to overthrow the absolute monarch, the Tsar. His leaflets and pamphlets were fine examples of socialist agitation.

However, the Economists drew very difference conclusions from the turn to agitation. They concluded that the ‘least line of resistance’ needed to be followed. That is, the socialists should go no further in their agitation than the demands, primarily those of an economic character, spontaneously raised by the workers. Political struggle should be reserved for the intelligentsia, the liberal bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie. These classes would overthrow Tsarism while the workers got on with their day to day economic struggle.

They believed that the economic struggle would, in a piecemeal and spontaneous fashion, turn workers into socialists. But the socialism the Economists had in mind was increasingly the reformist socialism of Bernstein—it was legislative change for the benefit of the working class, not the emancipation of the working class by the working class through social and political revolution. For the Economists, revolution was ‘primitive Marxism’ as opposed to their own ‘democratic Marxism’.

Their ideas were spelt out by one of their leaders, Kusova, in a text that became known as the Credo. This argued that the party’s goal of seizing power would, through participation in the everyday struggle of the workers, ‘be transformed into a desire for change, for the reform of contemporary society along democratic lines that are adapted to the present state of affairs, with the object of protecting, in the most complete and effective way, all the rights of the labouring classes.’

The practical consequence of this, for Kusova and the Economists, was clear: ‘participation in, that is assistance to, the economic struggle of the proletariat and participation in liberal opposition activity.’

Politics for the bosses and the intellectuals, bread and butter economics for the workers. This was the nub of Economism.

Lenin is frequently called an elitist because of the ideas he put forward against the Economists, principally his claim that the workers themselves, in their everyday struggle, would not get beyond trade union, reformist bourgeois consciousness.

But the real elitists were the Economists. For them, the workers had no business participating in politics. They should stick to their factory demands. And socialism would be a legislative fight from above.

Lenin countered these arguments in a series of polemics in the paper Iskra as well as the book, What is to be done? (1902). His struggle culminated at the second congress of the RSDLP in 1903, when the party divided into two factions, the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority).

The charge of elitism against Lenin rests on quotes such as this one, from What is to be done?:

‘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, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation etc.’

There is nothing elitist about this. It is simply true. That is why to this very day workers all over the world remain enchained by capitalism. They have not, despite decades of heroic trade union struggle, attained socialist consciousness and without an international party bringing that consciousness to them—through participation in their struggles but not through liquidation into their existing politics—they never will.

The reason for this lies in the nature of the trade union struggle itself and the nature of capitalism itself. The workers have to organise together to resist the constant attempts of the bosses to raise the pace of work or cut real wages. This is the beginning of class consciousness and class organisation. But the trade union struggle does not look beyond this to the wider question of the overthrow of the whole system of exploitation. The true nature of that exploitation—and the possibility of overthrowing it—remains disguised in the day to day battle over wages and conditions. Socialist consciousness has to be brought to the working class from outside the confines of that day to day struggle.

The Economists attacked Lenin for these arguments, claiming that he was ignoring the significance of the spontaneous struggle of workers and that he was promoting the importance of the professional revolutionary at the expense of the ordinary worker. To this day the Economists on the British left, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), echo these criticisms of Lenin. SWP leader Tony Cliff wrote of Lenin’s insistence that ‘class political consciousness can be brought workers only from without’:

‘There is no doubt that this formulation overemphasised the difference between spontaneity and consciousness. For in fact, the complete separation of spontaneity from consciousness is mechanical and non-dialectical.’

There is nothing mechanical in Lenin’s position. Lenin simply recognises—and insists upon—the simple truth that spontaneity does not create revolutionary class conscious workers. If it did there would be no need for a party, for theory, for a programme, for a conscious struggle against reformism. Spontaneity would do all of this for us. Which is exactly what the Economists believed.

For its part, the SWP essentially agree with the Economists but add that the party is the ‘organisation that groups together the workers who want to fight so that they can have the maximum chance of winning the majority of their fellow workers to taking action’, as another SWP leader, John Rees, puts it.

The importance of Lenin’s understanding was that it posed the party as the leadership, as the means of advancing socialist consciousness, as the only way in which the working class could be won to the fight against all aspects of oppression and exploitation and not simply fight around their own immediate day to day concerns.

Far from denigrating the struggles of workers, or ignoring the significance of spontaneity, Lenin had a clear idea of their relevance to the spread of socialism. Spontaneity, he argued, represented ‘consciousness in embryo’. But for an embryo to develop into a human being, it needs to be nurtured. Without such nurturing, it will not develop at all. For Lenin, the party’s job was not to worship the embryo, the spontaneous struggle, but to develop it into something qualitatively more advanced.

Lenin wanted to take the workers’ struggle beyond the elemental sectional strike towards the conscious struggle to overthrow absolutism and capitalism. He could never have achieved this—and let us remember that this is exactly what the ‘mechanical’ Lenin did achieve—if he had mistaken the elemental strike for the generalised political class struggle, or simply waited until it transformed itself into such a struggle.

None of this meant, for Lenin, that the workers were incapable of being the bearers of consciousness. Quite the reverse. Unlike the Economists, Lenin strove hard to train and develop Russian workers into becoming worker intellectuals, capable—in a manner far superior to bourgeois or petit-bourgeois intellectuals—of convincing ever wider layers of the working class to struggle against capitalism. Such workers would be ‘tribunes of the people’. They would not be limited to agitating against he appalling conditions in their own factory.

Agitation was recognised by both Lenin and the Economists as spreading ‘few ideas to many people’. But for the Economists, this meant steering clear of political agitation. Political questions, they argued, should be dealt with in propaganda—‘many ideas to the few’. Their reasoning was that action—the goal of agitation—would be economic action. Political action was impossible.

Lenin argued that the tribunes of the people should seize the opportunities represented by the spontaneous economic struggle to agitate around a range of immediately relevant political issues. He argued:

‘In conducting agitation among the workers on their immediate economic demands the social democrats inseparably link this with agitation on the immediate political needs, the distress and the demands of the working class, agitation against police tyranny manifested in every strike, in every conflict between workers and capitalists, agitation against the restriction of the rights of the workers as Russian citizens in general and as the class suffering the worst oppression and having the least rights in particular, agitation against every prominent representative and flunkey of absolutism who comes into direct contact with the workers and who clearly reveals to the working class its condition of political slavery.’

Always and in every struggle, it is Lenin who is trying to raise workers’ consciousness. This is the antithesis of the sort of elitism he is so often accused of, and the antidote to the sort of anti-working class elitism that prevails in reformist or bureaucratic socialist organisations.

As for the charge that Lenin’s fight against Economism led him to be undialectical about the relationship of the spontaneous class struggle and the revolutionary party, Lenin’s own estimation of the relationship between the two in 1900 is answer enough:

‘Social democracy is the fusion of the workers’ movement with socialism. Its task is not to serve the workers’ movement passively at each of its separate stages but to represent the interests of the movement as a whole, to direct this movement towards its ultimate goal, its political tasks and to safeguard its political and ideological independence. Divorced from social democracy, the workers’ movement degenerates and inevitably becomes bourgeois: in carrying on the purely economic struggle the working class loses its political independence, becomes an appendage of the other parties and betrays the great principles that “the emancipation of the working class should be a matter for the workers themselves”. In every country there has been a period when the workers’ movement and socialism existed separately, each going its own way—and in every country this separation has weakened both socialism and the workers’ movement; in every country only the fusion of socialism with the workers’ movement has created a lasting basis for the one and for the other.’

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