Lecture three: The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?
6 September 2005
This is the first part of the lecture “The Origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” delivered by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The lecture will be posted in seven installments. (See Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7).
This is the third lecture that was given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, entitled “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. These lectures were also authored by David North.The origins of Russian Marxism
Today’s lecture will be devoted to an analysis of one of the most important, profound and, without question, revolutionary works of political theory ever written, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Few works have ever been subjected to such a degree of misrepresentation and falsification. To the innumerable Lenin-haters of the bourgeois academy—some of whom professed to be until 1991 great admirers of Lenin—this is the book that is ultimately responsible for many if not all of the evils of the twentieth century. I intend to reply to these denunciations, and also explain why this work—written in 1902 for a small socialist movement operating within the political environment of tsarist Russia—retains such an extraordinary level of theoretical and practical relevance for the socialist movement in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
When speaking of the development of the Marxist movement in Germany during the last third of the nineteenth century, I stressed the stormy and apparently unstoppable character of its development. Within an amazingly short period of time, the Social Democratic Party emerged as the mass organization of the working class. Its victories could not have been won without real struggle and sacrifices, but one cannot avoid the impression that German socialists worked in an environment that was, at least when compared to that which confronted Russian revolutionaries, relatively benign.
In one of his later works, seeking to explain the reasons for the emergence within Russia of what proved to be the most powerful revolutionary socialist organization, Lenin wrote that Russia “achieved Marxism, the only correct revolutionary theory, virtually through suffering, by a half century of unprecedented torment and sacrifice, of unprecedented revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, testing in practice, disappointment, verification and comparison with European experience.”
Beginning in 1825, with the unsuccessful attempt by a group of high-ranking officers in the imperial Army to overthrow the tsarist autocracy, a tradition of self-sacrifice, incorruptibility and fearless passion emerged within Russia. The search for a way to transform the terrible and degrading reality of tsarist autocracy and the social backwardness over which it presided assumed the dimension of a crusade that underlay the emergence of the extraordinary social and cultural phenomenon of the Russian intelligentsia, from which arose the Russian novel and literary criticism, and the Russian revolutionary movement.
In a very fine passage in his biography of The Young Trotsky, Max Eastman (in what were still his socialist years) gave us this description of the Russian revolutionary personality:
“A wonderful generation of men and women was born to fulfill this revolution in Russia. You may be traveling in any remote part of that country, and you will see some quiet, strong, thoughtful face in your coach or omnibus—a middle-aged man with white, philosophic forehead and a soft brown beard, or an elderly woman with sharply arching eyebrows and a stern motherliness about her mouth, or perhaps a middle-aged man, or a younger woman who is still sensuously beautiful, but carries herself as though she had walked up a cannon—you will inquire, and you will find out that they are the ‘old party workers.’ Reared in the tradition of the Terrorist movement, a stern and sublime heritage of martyr-faith, taught in infancy to love mankind, and to think without sentimentality, and to be masters of themselves, and to admit death into their company, they learned in youth a new thing—to think practically. And they were tempered in the fires of goal and exile. They became almost a noble order, a selected stock of men and women who could be relied upon to be heroic, like the Knights of the Round Table or the Samurai, but with the patents of their nobility in the future, not the past.”
The Russian revolutionary movement did not in its initial stages direct itself to the working class. Rather, it was oriented to the peasantry, of which the overwhelming majority of the population was comprised. The formal liberation of the peasants from serfdom, proclaimed by Tsar Alexander II in 1861, intensified the contradictions of the socio-political structure of the Russian Empire. The 1870s saw the beginning of a significant movement of student youth, who went out among the peasants to educate and draw them into conscious social and political life. The major political influence in these movements came from the theorists of anarchism, principally Lavrov and Bakunin. The latter especially envisaged the revolutionary transformation of Russia emerging out of an uprising of the peasant masses. The combination of peasant indifference and state repression drove the movement to adopt conspiratorial and terrorist methods of struggle. The most significant of the terrorist organizations was Narodnaia Volya, the People’s Will.
To be continued
 “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder (New York: International Publishers, 1969), p. 11.
 London: New Park, 1980, pp. 53-54