The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of the Party”
This essay was originally published in 1990 by Amerikan Trotskyist, Hal Draper. We are posting it here for critical discussion, specifically around the issue of vanguard organizing in different contexts of class struggle. Reposting here obviously does not imply endorsement or agreement, but we do so none-the-less for critical discussion. -Nick
The myth for today is an axiom of what we may call Leninology – a branch of Kremlinology that has rapidly grown in the hands of the various university Russian Institutes, doctoral programs, political journalists, et al. According to this axiom, Lenin’s 1902 book What Is To Be Done? (for short, WITBD) represents the essential content of his “operational code” or “concept of the party”; all of Bolshevism and eventually Stalinism lies in ambush in its pages; it is the canonical work of “Leninism” on party organization, which in turn bears the original sin of totalitarianism. It establishes the “Leninist type of party” as an authoritarian structure controlled from the top by “professional revolutionaries” of upper-class provenance lording it over a proletarian rank and file.
My focus here will be on WITBD itself, and on Lenin’s views and practices in the period between WITBD and the Russian Revolution. Issues ramifying farther into the inevitable multitude of questions will not be treated in the same detail.
The Leninological axiom under discussion is commonly reinforced from two directions. As was pointed out by the prominent Leninologist Utechin (for whom see the appended Special Note), WITBD is given a similar exalted position in the party schools of the Stalinist regime. In fact, Utechin’s way of demonstrating the basic importance of WITBD is to quote the Kremlin’s official History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on this point. The work, says Utechin (much like other Leninologists), “became a guide-book for his followers in matters of organization, strategy and tactics and … has been adhered to by Communists ever since. Lenin himself consistently applied these views … In WITBD … his argument has a general validity and has in fact been generally applied by Communists …”  In short, both the Western Leninologists and the Stalinists agree that Lenin’s book was a totalitarian bible: which is not surprising but does not settle the matter.
“Lenin himself consistently applied these views”: we will see how far from the truth this lies. My subject is not my own interpretation of WITBD, but a survey of Lenin’s own opinions, recorded many times, on the question raised, viz., the place of WITBD in his thought. According to the myth, endlessly repeated from book to book, Lenin’s “concept of the party” –
- saw the party as consisting mainly of “intellectuals,” on the basis of a theory according to which workers cannot themselves develop to socialist consciousness; rather, the socialist idea is always and inevitably imported into the movement by bourgeois intellectuals;
- posited that the party is simply a band of “professional revolutionaries” as distinct from a broad working-class party;
- repudiated any element of spontaneity or spontaneous movement, in favor of engineered revolution only;
- required that the party be organized not democratically but as a bureaucratic or semi-military hierarchy.
In point of fact, we will see that these allegations are contrary to Lenin’s views as many times repeated and explained by him, beginning with WITBD itself. We will indeed begin with WITBD, where we will find something different from the myth. But even more important, it must be understood that WITBD was not Lenin’s last word – it was closer to being his first word. It is only the Leninologists who write as if WITBD were the sum-total of Lenin’s writings on the issue.
We will find, for example, that Lenin protested more than once that his initial formulations in WITBD were being distorted and misinterpreted by opponents, after which he went on to clarify and modify. If we want to know Lenin’s “concept of the party” we must look at the formulations he came to, after there had been discussions and attacks. There is not a single prominent Leninologist who has even mentioned this material in his exposition of WITBD’s original sin.
1. Socialist Consciousness and Intellectuals
Let us start with the myth which claims that, according to Lenin’s views in 1902 and forever, the workers cannot come to socialist ideas of themselves, that only bourgeois intellectuals are the carriers of socialist ideas.
We will be eager to see what WITBD actually said on this point; but there is an introductory point to be made beforehand.
- It is a curious fact that no one has ever found this alleged theory anywhere else in Lenin’s voluminous writings, not before and not after WITBD. It never appeared in Lenin again. No Leninologist has ever quoted such a theory from any other place in Lenin.
This should give pause at least. In ordinary research, a scholar would tend to conclude that, even if Lenin perhaps held this theory in 1902, he soon abandoned it. The scholar would at least report this interesting fact, and even perhaps try to explain it. The Leninologists do not behave in this fashion. On the contrary, they endlessly repeat that the virtually nonexistent theory (nonexistent after WITBD) is the crux of Leninism forever and onward – though they never quote anything other than WITBD. (The explanation for the curious fact itself will emerge from the points that follow.)
- Did Lenin put this theory forward even in WITBD? Not exactly.
The fact is that Lenin had just read this theory in the most prestigious theoretical organ of Marxism of the whole international socialist movement, the Neue Zeit. It had been put forward in an important article by the leading Marxist authority of the International, Karl Kautsky. And this was why and how it got into WITBD. In WITBD Lenin first paraphrased Kautsky.  Then he quoted a long passage from Kautsky’s article, almost a page long. Here is Kautsky, whom Lenin then looked up to as the master (some said the “pope”) of socialist theory:
Of course, socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships … But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither the one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [emphasis by Kautsky]: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians … Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously. 
There it is – the whole theory laid out, the devilish crux of “Leninism”; and it turns out to be the product of Kautsky’s pen! When Lenin paraphrased it a few pages before, he began, “We have said that …” – that is, he tied it up immediately as the accepted view of the movement (or so he seemed to think). His summary was by no means as brash as Kautsky’s formulation. But we will return to Lenin’s formulation.
Why did Kautsky emphasize this view of socialist history at this time? The reason is perfectly clear: the new reformist wing of the movement, the Bernsteinian Revisionists, were arguing that all one needed was the ongoing movement of the workers, not theory; that the spontaneous class activity of the trade-union movement and other class movements was enough. “The movement is everything, the goal is nothing” was Bernstein’s dictum, thereby seeking to shelve theoretical considerations in favor of shortsighted concentration on the day-to-day problems. Reform was the concern of today (the movement); revolution had to do with tomorrow (theory). Kautsky’s generalization about the role of the “bourgeois intelligentsia” in importing socialist ideas into the raw class movement was one way, in his eyes, of undercutting the Revisionist approach. And this, of course, gave it equal appeal for other opponents of the new right wing, like Lenin.
It is no part of my subject to explain why Kautsky was misguided in this line of argument, and why his theory was based on a historical half-truth. But it is curious, at any rate, that no one has sought to prove that by launching this theory (which he never repudiated, as far as I know) Kautsky was laying the basis for the demon of totalitarianism.
- So it turns out that the crucial “Leninist” theory was really Kautsky’s, as is clear enough to anyone who really reads WITBD instead of relying only on the Leninological summaries. Did Lenin, in WITBD, adopt Kautsky’s theory?
Again, not exactly. Certainly he tried to get maximum mileage out of it against the right wing; this was the point of his quoting it. If it did something for Kautsky’s polemic, he no doubt figured that it would do something for his. Certainly this young man Lenin was not (yet) so brash as to attack his “pope” or correct him overtly. But there was obviously a feeling of discomfort. While showing some modesty and attempting to avoid the appearance of a head-on criticism, the fact is that Lenin inserted two longish footnotes rejecting (or if you wish, amending) precisely what was worst about the Kautsky theory on the role of the proletariat.
The first footnote was appended right after the Kautsky passage quoted above. It was specifically formulated to undermine and weaken the theoretical content of Kautsky’s position. It began: “This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology.” But this was exactly what Kautsky did mean and say. In the guise of offering a caution, Lenin was proposing a modified view. “They [the workers] take part, however,” Lenin’s footnote continued, “not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when they are able …” In short, Lenin was reminding the reader that Kautsky’s sweeping statements were not even 100% true historically; he pointed to exceptions. But he went on to a more important point: once you get beyond the original initiation of socialist ideas, what is the role of intellectuals and workers? (More on this in the next point.)
Lenin’s second footnote was not directly tied to the Kautsky article, but discussed the “spontaneity” of the socialist idea. “It is often said,” Lenin began, “that the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism. This is perfectly true in the sense that socialist theory reveals the causes of the misery of the working class … and for that reason the workers are able to assimilate it so easily,” but he reminded that this process itself was not subordinated to mere spontaneity. “The working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, … bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.” 
This second footnote was obviously written to modify and recast the Kautsky theory, without coming out and saying that the Master was wrong. There are several things that happen “spontaneously,” and what will win out is not decided only by spontaneity! – so went the modification. It cannot be overemphasized that if one wants to analyze Lenin’s developing views about “spontaneity” one cannot stick at this by-play in WITBD, but rather one must go on to examine precisely what the developing views were going to be. All that was clear at this point was that Lenin was justifiably dissatisfied with the formulation of Kautsky’s theory, however conveniently anti-Bernstein it might have been. We will see more about his dissatisfaction.
- Even Kautsky’s theory, as quoted in WITBD, was not as crass as the Leninologists make it out to be (while calling it Lenin’s theory, to be sure). The Leninologists run two different questions together: (a) What was, historically, the initial role of intellectuals in the beginnings of the socialist movement, and (b) what is – and above all, what should be – the role of bourgeois intellectuals in a working-class party today.
Kautsky was not so ignorant or dull-witted as to believe (as so many Leninologists apparently do) that if it can be shown that intellectuals historically played a certain initiatory role, they must and should continue to play the same role now and forever. It does not follow; as the working class matured, it tended to throw off leading strings. The Leninologists do not argue this point because they do not see it is there.
As a matter of fact, in the International of 1902 no one really had any doubts about the historical facts concerning the beginnings of the movement. But what followed from those facts? Marx for one (or Marx and Engels for two) concluded, from the same facts and subsequent experiences, that the movement had to be sternly warned against the influence of bourgeois intellectuals inside the party.  “Precisely in Germany these are the most dangerous people,” they averred. The historical facts were so many reasons to take the dangers seriously, to combat intellectuals’ predominance as a social stratum in the movement.
- No one in the international movement was more forceful or frequent than Lenin in decrying and combating the spread of intellectuals’ influence in the movement. This is easy to demonstrate, but I will not take the space to do so here. In any case a mere couple of well-chosen specimens would not be enough. Just to cull the most virulent passages alone would fill a book. As against this indubitable fact, let us ask a question: can anyone cite any passage in which Lenin ever advocated increased influence, or predominant influence, by intellectuals in the party?
There is no such passage, in point of fact. None is cited by the Leninologists. Their whole case on this point is hung on a deduction (of theirs) from a theory in WITBD which is essentially Kautsky’s, it turns out. We know indeed that the typical social-democratic reformist party is very much dominated on top by intellectuals derived from the bourgeoisie. We do not typically see the leaders of these parties denouncing this state of affairs. On the other hand, Lenin’s collected works are chock-full of denunciations of increased influence by intellectuals. Obviously, this does not settle the matter, but still less is it reasonable to rest virtually the whole case against Lenin, on this point, on what is not in Lenin’s 1902 book.
In the Russian movement, the Marxist left’s denunciations of intellectuals in the movement started with the founding congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party itself (the congress to which WITBD was directed). In fact, the Bolshevik-Menshevik split over the notorious membership rule (who could be a party member) was directly connected with the Mensheviks’ anxiety to make it easier for nonparty intellectuals to be accounted as members, while Lenin fought to make it harder. (This is hardly disputed.) The Leninological myth that, according to Lenin’s “concept of the party,” the organization is to consist only or mainly or largely of bourgeois intellectuals – this is contrary to fact.
- Lastly, since it is a question of a “party concept” alleged to be peculiar to Lenin and Leninism, we should find that it is not true of the other Russian socialist parties – the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries. But just the reverse is true. The case is most clear-cut with regard to the S-Rs, for while this party aspired to represent the peasants’ interests and mentality, it was very far from being a party of peasants. Notoriously it was a party composed overwhelmingly of bourgeois intelligentsia. (You need only read the main scholarly work on the S-Rs, by O.H. Radkey.) The proportion of bourgeois intellectuals in the Mensheviks or supporting the Mensheviks was greater than in the case of the Bolsheviks, not less.
2. “Professional Revolutionaries” and Spontaneity
Let us take the second claim, that the Leninist “concept of the party” demanded that the party should consist of so-called professional revolutionaries only. This view was “deduced” from WITBD by opponents. As soon as the deduction and the claim appeared, Lenin denied (scores of times) that he wanted a party made up of professional revolutionaries only. The Leninologists endlessly repeat the “deduction,” and do not mention that Lenin consistently and firmly repudiated it.
One of the difficulties (not Lenin’s) is that there are several questions confused under this head, as usual. In the first place, the most important background fact was the condition of illegality suffered in Russia by any revolutionary party. It was not a question of some general or suprahistorical “concept of the party” offering a formula for any country at any time. WITBD asked what was to be done in this autocratic czarism in this year of 1902. Whatever views on this question are discerned in WITBD, it is false to ascribe them to a generalized program of organization good for any time or place.
In WITBD Lenin was discussing the need for a core of “professional revolutionaries” in the party for the sake of effective functioning – to make sure that the history of the party was not simply one shipment of revolutionaries after another to Siberia. A good part of the Leninological myth rests on a confused definition of “professional revolutionary.” The Leninologists seem to assume that to Lenin a “professional revolutionary” meant a full-time party worker or functionary, devoting all his time to party activity. This is absurd from Lenin’s viewpoint; it would indeed exclude workers, as the Leninologists deduce.
It can easily be shown, from Lenin’s copious discussions of the professional revolutionary for years after WITBD, that to Lenin the term meant this: a party activist who devoted most (preferably all) of his spare time to revolutionary work. The professional revolutionary considers his revolutionary activity to be the center of his life (or of his life-style, if you will). He must work to earn a living, of course, but this is not his life’s center. Such is the professional revolutionary type.
I have come to believe that part of the confusion stems from the important difference in the meaning of professional between English and most Continental languages. In French (and I think the German, etc. usage stems directly from the French) the word professionnel refers simply to occupation. Whereas in English only lawyers, doctors and other recognized “professions” can be said to have “professional” activity, in French this can be said of anyone in any occupation; the reference is simply to occupational activity. Under the aegis of the English language, a “professional” revolutionary must be as full-time as a doctor or lawyer. (Of course this does not account for non-English Leninologists, and is only one factor in the confusion.)
It follows from Lenin’s view that even the “core” of professional revolutionaries were not necessarily expected to be full-time party activists, which usually means functionaries. (The number of functionaries in a revolutionary group is a question with its own history, but this history is not presently ours.) The point of defining a professional revolutionary as a full-timer, a functionary, is to fake the conclusion, or “deduction”: only non-workers can make up the party elite, hence only intellectuals. This conclusion is an invention of the Leninologists, based on nothing in Lenin.
From Lenin’s standpoint, professional-revolutionary workers were important to the movement for two reasons. One is obvious: the greater amount of time and activity that they could devote to the work of the movement. A professional revolutionary regarded even the hours he spent on the job as opportunities for socialist and trade-union propaganda and organization. The second aspect of the professional revolutionary type, much emphasized by Lenin, was that such a worker could be trained in revolutionary work, in a more meaningful way; that is, given conscious education and courses in self-development on how to operate as a revolutionary. The professional revolutionary worker was, or could become, a trained revolutionary worker.
Lenin had no trouble understanding and acknowledging that only a “core” of the party could consist of such elements. All he argued was that the more such the party had, the more effective its work. This is a far cry from the Leninological myth.
As for the myths about the alleged “theory of spontaneity” versus “conscious organization”: much of this is the result simply of failing to understand what the issues were. No one in the movement, certainly not Lenin, had any doubts about the important and positive role played by “spontaneity” – spontaneous revolts, struggles, etc. (In many cases, when we say a certain revolt was “spontaneous,” all we mean is: we do not know how it was organized or by whom.)
What Lenin argued against in WITBD and elsewhere was the glorification of spontaneity for its own sake; for what this glorification meant in actuality was a decrying of conscious organizational activity or party work or leadership. This latter attitude made sense only for anarchists, but it was also likely to be assumed by extreme reformists as a cover for opposing independent working-class organization. For the Russian “Economists” (who advocated “economic” action only) the line was that no revolutionary party was necessary and the Russian party should be liquidated; and in this context the glorification of “spontaneity” was simply a way of counterposing something to the organized political struggle by the working class.
The claim that Lenin was hostile to “spontaneous” struggles verges on nonsense. Whenever a Leninologist purports to quote Lenin on this subject, what he really quotes are Lenin’s arguments against relying only on spontaneity to usher in socialism by some millennial date. Lenin advocated that the spontaneous action of the people must be integrated with the element of political leadership by trained socialist workers, and part of such training was precisely the capacity to take advantage of spontaneous struggles when they turned up. The overwhelming majority of the International would heartily agree. There was nothing specially “Leninist” about this, except Lenin’s usual clarity on the point, as compared with the often hazy thinking of reformists.
3. Lenin’s Party Concepts
We still have to take up Lenin’s later comments on WITBD. But something of a historical introduction is necessary here.
The reader of Lenin’s WITBD must understand that if it embodied some specially Leninist “concept of the party” Lenin himself was entirely unaware of it at the time. He thought he was putting forward a view of party and movement that was the same as that of the best parties of the International, particularly the German party under the leadership of August Bebel – only allowing for the big difference that the Russian movement faced the special problems of illegality under an autocracy.
The naive Leninologist seems to assume that when Lenin referred to “centralization” or “centralism,” he was necessarily talking about some supercentralized organizational form. But in fact the Russians (and others) who used this language often meant the same thing that the Germans had once meant when “Germany” was a geographical expression fragmented into thirty-odd states and statelets. Where there was no center at all, the demand for “centralism” was a call to establish a center. In 1902 there was no all-Russian party in existence at all.
A First Congress had taken place in 1898, but had led to nothing. The Russian movement consisted of isolated circles, discrete regional conglomerations, unconnected factory groups, etc. There was no center; in fact there was no “party” except as a future label. The Second Congress scheduled for 1903 was hopefully going to establish an organized all-Russian party for the first time. This was the situation toward which Lenin directed his little book in 1902.
The point of holding a congress was to establish a center at last. No “central” organization whatever existed as yet. Everyone who looked to the congress was in favor of “centralizing” the work of the now-decentralized circles operating inside Russia. This was what “centralization” meant under the circumstances. But it was ambiguous then as now.
The German party had also gone through a period of illegality, from 1878 to 1890; and during this period its practices had not been ideally democratic at all. One of the main features was the domination of practical party work in Germany, insofar as it was possible, not by the elected National Executive in exile, but by the Reichstag Fraction of deputies, who remained legal. But this Fraction had never been elected by the party; the deputies had been elected by local voters. Marx and Engels looked askance at what they considered to be the “dictatorship” of the Reichstag deputies over the party; but the arrangement was generally accepted for its practical usefulness.
As the Russian situation developed from 1902 to 1914, it turned out – in hindsight – that there was something distinctive about Lenin’s “concept of the party,” even though he was not specifically aware of it. There are two points to be made under this head, the second being more important.
(1) Sectism or Mass Party
Throughout the history of the socialist movement, there has been a tendency for socialist currents that considered themselves to have distinctive ideas to organize as a sect. The alternative is to operate as a current in a class movement.
One must distinguish clearly between these two organizational forms. The class movement is based on, and cemented by, its role in the class struggle; the sect is based on, and cemented by, its special ideas or program. The history of the socialist movement began mostly with sects (continuing the tradition of religious movements). It was only the continued development of the working class which gave rise to mass parties that sought to represent and reflect the whole class-in-movement.
The outstanding example of the class movement, as counterposed to the sect, was given by the First International, which broke down sect lines (it did not even start with socialism in its program). In the form that Marx brought about, it sought to organize the entire working-class movement in all its forms. This much of its character was continued by the Second International, except that trade unions were not affiliated. In France the fragmentation of the socialist movement into sects continued until 1905, when a united Socialist Party was formed. In Germany the Lassallean sect had been absorbed fairly quickly, in 1875. Sects still continued to operate in many countries, like the Social Democratic Federation in Britain, which claimed to represent “revolutionary” socialism.
In 1902 when Lenin wrote WITBD, there was a big difference between Germany and Russia (which indeed WITBD discussed): in Germany the revolutionary wing (or what Lenin and others considered such) was in control of the party, whereas in Russia the right wing had the dominant influence. Lenin’s response to this situation was not to organize the revolutionary wing as a left-wing sect outside the general movement. In fact, if we consider the whole period before 1914, Lenin never organized, or sought to organize, a “Leninist” sect. (The theory of “revolutionary” sectification arose out of the degeneration of the Comintern to become a “principle of Leninism”; before 1917 it had been kept alive on the fringes of the Second International and in the anarchist movement.)
The course which the young Lenin took was then the normal one in the International: he sought to organize the revolutionary current as a political center of some sort inside the mass party (or what was going to be the mass party if the Second Congress was successful). Most political centers in the socialist movement, leaving aside sects, were currents established around periodical organs; this was the case in the German party, for example. When Lenin went into exile from Russia, he did not establish a “Leninist” sect; he went to the Iskra editorial board, which was not a membership group. Even after the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, and for the next several years (at least until shortly before World War I), the term “Bolsheviks” and “Mensheviks” meant a political center inside the mass party, the RSDLP, not a membership sect.
(2) Split and Unity
This involved the second distinctive feature of Lenin’s party concept. One can distinguish three approaches to this question, as follows.
- There were those who believed in split at any cost, that is, the revolutionary wing in a reformist party must split away at the most opportune moment, and organize its own sect. This is the characteristic theory of sectism.
- There were those, and they were legion, who believed in unity at any cost. The unity of the mass social-democratic party must never be breached; a break was the ultimate disaster. This was the mirror image of the first approach: the fetishism of unity.
This approach was the dominant one in the International, including the German party. What it meant in practice was: accommodation with the right wing, even by a majority left wing. If the right wing must be persuaded from splitting at any cost, then the majority left had to make concessions to it, sufficient to keep it in the party.
One of the most enlightening examples of this pattern took place in the Russian party soon after the 1903 congress, at which Lenin’s wing won majority control with the support of Plekhanov. The Menshevik minority then split. Thereupon Plekhanov, under pressure, swung around and demanded that the majority of the Iskra editorial board be handed back to the Mensheviks, for the sake of “unity.” In short: if the Mensheviks had won the majority, there is no doubt that Lenin would have stayed in as a minority; but if the left wins, the right wing picks up its marbles and quits; then for the sake of “unity” the left has to hand control back to the right …
- Lenin’s distinctive approach was this: he simply insisted that where the left won majority control of a party, it had the right and the duty to go ahead with its own policy just as the right wing was doing everywhere. The Bolshevik-Menshevik hostilities hardened when Lenin rejected Plekhanov’s demand to reverse the outcome of the congress. This distinctive approach was: unity, yes, but not at the cost of foiling the victory of the majority. Unity, yes, but on the same democratic basis as ever: the right wing could work to win out at the next congress if it could, but it would not do to demand political concessions as a reward for not splitting.
One of the chapters in Lenin’s life most industriously glossed over by the Leninologists is the period that followed the Second Congress and Plekhanov’s about-face. One must read Volumes 6 and 7 of Lenin’s Collected Works to see how heartsick he was in face of the break, and what continued efforts he put into healing the split with the Mensheviks on the basis of full democratic rights for all. In test after test, it was the Mensheviks who rejected unity on this basis, or on any basis that failed to give them party control in defiance of the Second Congress outcome. In fact, the first test of course had come at the congress itself, since it was the Mensheviks that split away because Lenin had gained a majority in the voting (after extreme right-wing elements had walked out for their own right-wing political reasons). The common claim that it was the Bolsheviks who split is one of the myths of Leninology.
All this was tested again in the period after the upheaval of the 1905 revolution, which opened up Russian political life for a while. Legal organization became possible temporarily, open elections, etc. In this situation, the question of unity of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was again raised. But we will come back to this in Section 5.
4. Lenin After WITBD
In the first two sections we discussed what is in WITBD and what isn’t; but, as mentioned, this is very far from exhausting the question of Lenin’s attitude toward WITBD. Part of the Leninological myth is the claim that the “concept of the party” found in WITBD (whatever this is) was Lenin’s permanent and abiding view, which he “consistently applied” from then on. We must therefore turn to find out what Lenin thought about WITBD in the ensuing years.
For one thing we will find this: that, from the time WITBD was published until at least the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin insisted that this 1902 work of his was not a canonical exposition of a model form of party organization, but simply an organizational plan for the given time and place. It was devised for (a) an underground movement functioning in secrecy under conditions of autocracy, and (b) a movement which had not yet succeeded even in forming a national organizing center in its own country, as had most social-democratic parties in Europe. This 1902 plan was therefore not automatically applicable to other situations – to other places in Europe, or to other periods in Russia, where there was more elbow room for political liberty. This plan was time-bound and place-specific.
In his Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks, September 1902, that is, a few months after the publication of WITBD, Lenin explained more than once that the forms of organization needed were determined by the interests of secrecy and circumscribed by the existence of the autocracy.  But then, at this time his later opponents, like Martov and Plekhanov, were at one with him in viewing the ideas of WITBD as unexceptionable conclusions from the struggle of a serious revolutionary underground movement. It was only after a falling-out on other grounds that these opponents, and their successors, began to read into WITBD everything they thought was sinister in Lenin’s course, including his inexplicable refusal to yield up the congress majority power to the people who had been the congress minority.
Already at the Second Congress itself, before the final split, Lenin had pleaded with critics not to take WITBD passages “wrenched from the context.” In doing so, the first point he had made was the one mentioned above, viz., that WITBD was not intended to present “principles” of party organization. The discussion on WITBD, he said optimistically, had clarified all the questions: “It is obvious that here an episode in the struggle against ‘Economism’ has been confused with a discussion of the principles of a major theoretical question (the formation of an ideology). Moreover, this episode has been presented in an absolutely false light.” 
He directly confronted the claim about subordinating the working-class movement to bourgeois intellectuals:
It is claimed that Lenin says nothing about any conflicting trends, but categorically affirms that the working-class movement invariably “tends” to succumb to bourgeois ideology. Is that so? Have I not said that the working-class movement is drawn towards the bourgeois outlook with the benevolent assistance of the Schulze-Delitzsches and others like them? And who is meant here by “others like them”? None other than the “Economists” …
This was a further step in adding qualifications to the bare Kautsky theory, without breaking with Kautsky. He added an even more serious qualification:
Lenin [it is claimed, says Lenin] takes no account whatever of the fact that the workers, too, have a share in the formation of an ideology. Is that so? Have I not said time and again that the shortage of fully class-conscious workers, worker-leaders, and worker-revolutionaries is, in fact, the greatest deficiency in our movement? Have I not said there that the training of such worker-revolutionaries must be our immediate task? Is there no mention there of the importance of developing a trade-union movement and creating a special trade-union literature? … 
And to end this same speech, Lenin made the point which is among the most important to keep in mind about WITBD:
This is the main key to what Lenin was doing in WITBD. Throughout his life his constant pattern was to “bend the bow” in an opposite direction in order to push back against some immediate dangerous pressure. His metaphor on these occasions was often to “turn the helm the other way” in order to compensate for the dangerous pressure. Now it happens that personally I do not sympathize with this propensity, though I admit it is natural enough. I think that a bow which is bent in various directions is apt to be bent out of shape. But it is a common enough resort by people of all political complexions, and only asks for understanding. In Lenin’s case it is a fact that demands understanding, especially when he specifically explained the pattern in so many words, as he did often enough. And any Leninologist who refuses to understand it is bound to write a great deal of nonsense.
We are still at the Second Congress. On August 15 Lenin’s first speech in the Rules discussion was summarized in the minutes in nine lines. Most of it was devoted to saying this:
It should not be imagined that Party organizations must consist solely of professional revolutionaries. We need the most diverse organizations of all types, ranks and shades, beginning with extremely limited and secret [ones] and ending with very broad, free, lose Organisationen [loose organizations]. 
He could not have been more explicit in correcting any false impression that might have been conveyed by his “bow-bending” in WITBD.
Lenin repeated this clarification in his second speech that day:
Comrade Trotsky completely misunderstood the main idea of my book What Is To Be Done? when he spoke about the party not being a conspiratorial organization (many others too raised this objection). He forgot that in my book I propose a number of various types of organizations, from the most secret and most exclusive to comparatively broad and “loose” organizations. 
If it is charged that this was not clear in WITBD, well – that is the function of discussion: to clarify and modify. Lenin clarified and modified, not merely later but right in the congress discussion.
It may be said that if WITBD was misunderstood by so many, there must have been a reason. This is quite true. There was more than one reason, and the first has been mentioned: Lenin’s bow-bending. In addition there was a will to “misunderstand,” as there is still today. An objective scholar writing today with the advantage of a longer perspective and fuller documentation should be expected, however, to set forth and weigh Lenin’s repeated attempts to clarify and modify (qualify and recast) his views. What is typical about contemporary Leninology is that it ignores Lenin’s clarifications in favor of a purely demonological exegesis.
Lenin, we said, was not thinking in terms of a general “concept of party organization.” When in a 1904 article in the Neue Zeit Rosa Luxemburg attacked his ideas, as set forth in his brochure One Step Forward, Two Steps Back dealing with the Second Congress, Lenin wrote a reply which rather mildly protested – what? Not that he was right, but that he did not hold the opinions Luxemburg ascribed to him. [1*] This is what Lenin wrote:
Comrade Luxemburg says, for example, that my book is a clear and detailed expression of the point of view of “intransigent centralism.” Comrade Luxemburg thus supposes that I defend one system of organization against another. But actually that is not so. From the first to the last page of my book, I defend the elementary principles of any conceivable system of party organization. 
That is, Lenin believed that he was only working out the forms of any party that could conceivably exist under the given conditions in Russia.
Rosa Luxemburg further says that “according to his [Lenin’s] conception, the Central Committee has the right to organize all the local Party committees.” Actually that is not so … Comrade Luxemburg says that in my view “the Central Committee is the only active nucleus of the Party.” Actually that is not so. I have never advocated any such view … Comrade Rosa Luxemburg says … that the whole controversy is over the degree of centralization. Actually that is not so. … our controversy has principally been over whether the Central Committee and Central Organ should represent the trend of the majority of the Party Congress, or whether they should not. About this “ultra-centralist” and “purely Blanquist” demand the worthy comrade says not a word, she prefers to declaim against mechanical subordination of the part to the whole, against slavish submission, blind obedience, and other such bogeys. … Comrade Luxemburg fathers on me the idea that all the conditions already exist in Russia for forming a large and extremely centralized workers’ party. Again an error of fact … 
And so on. By the way, anyone who thinks that Rosa Luxemburg was a sainted angel in internal party brawls is naive. In this case, either she was retailing vicious slanders, of the sort she was familiar enough with in the Polish movement, or else someone should demonstrate that Lenin was advocating the views with which she charged him. The latter has not been done.
5. Toward Party Democratization
Let us put demonology aside. It must be noted that, in the period inaugurated by the 1905 upheaval, as the situation in Russia changed and the pressure of the autocracy lightened, Lenin’s “concept of the party” changed drastically, in accord with the new circumstances – just as we would expect if his protestations were taken seriously.
Already in February 1905, in a draft resolution for the Third Party Congress, Lenin wrote: “Under conditions of political freedom, our Party can and will be built entirely on the elective principle. Under the autocracy this is impracticable for the collective thousands that make up the party.”  Writing in September 1905, he hailed the German party as “first in respect of organization, integrality and coherence” and pointed to its organizational decisions as “highly instructive to us Russians.”
Not so long ago organizational questions occupied a disproportionate place among current problems of Party life, and to some extent this holds true of the present as well. Since the Third Congress two organizational tendencies in the Party have become fully defined. One is toward consistent centralism and consistent extension of the democratic principle in Party organizations, not for the sake of demagogy or because it sounds good but in order to put this into effect as Social-Democracy’s free field of activity extends in Russia. The other tendency is toward diffusiveness of organization, “vagueness of organization” … 
In November 1905 he stressed in an article that the socialist worker “knows there is no other road to socialism save the road through democracy, through political liberty. He therefore strives to achieve democratism completely and consistently in order to attain the ultimate goal – socialism.”  The same month he published an important essay, titled The Reorganization of the Party. In it he called for a new party congress in order to put the whole organization “on a new basis.”
This article went to the main point directly: “The conditions in which our Party is functioning are changing radically. Freedom of assembly, of association and the press has been captured.”  What followed? Lenin answered: “organize in a new way” … “new methods” … “a new line.”
We, the representatives of revolutionary Social-Democracy, the supporters of the “Majority” [Bolsheviks], have repeatedly said that complete democratization of the Party was impossible in conditions of secret work, and that in such conditions the “elective principle” was a mere phrase. And experience has confirmed our words. … But we Bolsheviks have always recognized that in new conditions, when political liberties were acquired, it would be essential to adopt the elective principle. 
It must be kept in mind that the impracticality of open election of local leading committees under conspiratorial conditions was not a Bolshevik peculiarity; the secret police had made it as difficult for Mensheviks or S-Rs.
Our party [wrote Lenin] has stagnated while working underground … The “underground” is breaking up. Forward, then, … extend your bases, rally all the worker Social-Democrats round yourselves, incorporate them in the ranks of the Party organizations by hundreds and thousands. 
These were “new methods” only in Russia, of course; this was what bourgeois democratic regimes had possible in Western Europe before this. Lenin had always viewed the German Social-Democracy as a model of organization; now the Russian Social-Democrats could emulate it.
All comrades, he enjoined, must “devise new forms of organization” to take in an influx of workers, new forms that were “definitely much broader” than the old, “less rigid. more ‘free,’ more ‘loose.’” “With complete freedom of association and civil liberties for the people, we should, of course, have to found Social-Democratic unions …”  “Each union, organization or group will immediately elect its bureau, or board, or directing committee …”  Furthermore, he recommended, it was now possible to bring about party unity, Bolsheviks with Mensheviks, on the basis of a broad democratic vote of the rank and file, since this could not be organized under the new conditions. 
All of this sea-change had to be explained to Russian workers who had never faced such conditions before. We must not be afraid, Lenin argued, of “a sudden influx of large numbers of non-Social-Democrats into the Party.” 
Note this remark made almost in passing: “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.”  It looks as if Lenin had forgotten even the existence of the Kautsky theory he had copied out and quoted in 1902!
He seized on the new conditions especially to advocate that mass recruitment of workers (possible for the first time) should swamp over the influence of intellectuals in the party work:
At the Third Congress of the Party I suggested that there be about eight workers to every two intellectuals in the Party committees. How obsolete that suggestion seems now! Now we must wish for the new Party organizations to have one Social-Democratic intellectual to several hundred Social-Democratic workers. 
The article concluded this way, with a typical Lenin reaction:
“We have ‘theorized’ for so long (sometimes – why not admit it? – to no use) in the unhealthy atmosphere of political exile, that it will really not be amiss if we now ‘bend the bow’ slightly, a little, just a little, ‘the other way’ and put practice a little more in the forefront.” 
So now the bow bent the other way – “slightly.”
The situation would now be quite clear even if Lenin never mentioned WITBD again. But in fact we can now turn to remarks by Lenin in which he reconsidered WITBD specifically, in the light of the new conditions and of these new concepts of party organization (new for Russia).
In November 1907 Lenin published a collection of old articles, called Twelve Years. Its aim was to review the thought and action of the movement over that period of time, a historical purpose. His preface to this collection was plainly addressed to the new audience generated by the revolutionary upheaval going on since 1905, an audience to whom the old disputes were now past history. Here he explained why WITBD had been included in the collection. Note in the first place that it required an explanation.
WITBD had been included (explains Lenin) because it “is frequently mentioned by the Mensheviks” and bourgeois-liberal writers; therefore he wanted to “draw the attention of the modern reader” to what was its “essential content.” His explanation began with a statement that might just as well be addressed to contemporary Leninologists:
The basic mistake made by those who now criticize WITBD is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party.
This applied, he said, to those “who, many years after the pamphlet appeared, wrote about its incorrect or exaggerated ideas on the subject of an organization of professional revolution-aries.” Such criticisms were wrong “to dismiss gains which, in their time, had to be fought for, but which have long ago been consolidated and have served their purpose.” 
It is obvious that the reference to “exaggerated ideas” is an admission of a degree of incorrectness, even if the confession simultaneously maintains that the incorrectness was pardonable. But that had already been the sense of the “bending the bow” remarks; it was not really even new.
WITBD had done its 1902 job, and should not be treated any more as if it were a current proposal; it had been by-passed. Lenin did not apologize for it or repudiate it; this was something different. He was pigeonholing it as of historical interest only. Socialists would not repudiate the First International either, but no one would dream of bringing it back to life.
It was a far cry from a permanent “concept of the party.”
6. Last Words on WITBD
Typically Lenin argued that the “exaggeration” in WITBD had been necessary at the time in order to make progress in the direction desired, even if the exaggerations themselves were not tenable.
To maintain today that Iskra exaggerated (in 1901 and 1902!) the idea of an organization of professional revolutionaries is like reproaching the Japanese, after the Russo-Japanese War, for having exaggerated the strength of Russia’s armed forces, for having prior to the war exaggerated the need to prepare for fighting these forces. [2*] To win victory the Japanese had to marshal all their forces against the probable maximum of Russian forces … [T]oday the idea of an organization of professional revolutionaries has already scored a complete victory. That victory would have been impossible if this idea had not been pushed to the forefront at the time, if we had not “exaggerated” so as to drive it home to people who were trying to prevent it from being realized. 
The claim made here that the professional-revolutionary idea had “already scored a complete victory” showed once more how little the usual Leninological version of this idea jibed with Lenin’s. This “victory” included opening the party to an influx of “raw” workers who, hopefully, would swamp not only the party intellectuals but also the old experienced cadre of trained activists (professional revolutionaries). The idea that had shown its power (“scored a complete victory”) was the need for a core of trained activists in the organization. It had nothing to do with the chimera of a party composed only or mainly of full-time functionaries. This chimera was especially grotesque in the light of Lenin’s appeal for mass recruitment.
WITBD, continued Lenin, was merely a summary of the organizational policy of the Iskra group of 1901-1902, “no more and no less.”  That is, it was the joint policy of those (the Iskra group) who later divided into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks on other grounds. In other words, Lenin was again insisting, in still another way, that at the time he did not regard the ideas of WITBD as unique to himself or his tendency. [3*]
Now, under the new conditions of legality, Lenin boasted as follows:
Despite the split, the Social-Democratic Party earlier than any of the other parties was able to take advantage of the temporary spell of freedom to build a legal organization with an ideal democratic structure, an electoral system, and representation at congresses according to the number of organized members. You will not find this, even today, either in the Socialist-Revolutionary or the Cadet parties … 
Here he was talking about the party (the RSDLP) as a whole, not just the Bolshevik wing; there had been a unity congress in May. Who built the party to its present effectiveness as a democratic structure? “It was accomplished by the organization of the professional revolutionaries … glance at the delegate list of any of the groups at, say, the London congress, in order to be convinced of this …”  Note that he referred to the “delegate list,” or, as he put it in the same sentence, “the central core that had worked hardest of all to build up the Party and make it what it is.” It scarcely makes sense to believe that in Lenin’s view the party membership (far wider than the “delegate list” or the core) was to consist of professional revolutionaries only – even if we stick with Lenin’s reasonable definition.
The Kautsky theory of 1902 had long disappeared from Lenin’s ken by this time; there was no indication that he even remembered its existence. At this point he was busy pointing with pride: the organizational successes of the party were due to the inherent organizational capacities of the working class.
Without this condition an organization of professional revolutionaries would be nothing more than a plaything, an adventure, a mere signboard. WITBD repeatedly emphasizes this, pointing out that the organization it advocates has no meaning apart from its connection with the “genuine revolutionary class that is spontaneously rising to struggle.” … The professional revolutionary has played his part in the history of Russian proletarian socialism. No power on earth can now undo this work … 
Throughout these pages, more often than we can reasonably cite, Lenin repeated the theme that the day of WITBD was in the past. “In the historical conditions that prevailed in Russia in 1900-1905, no organization other than Iskra could have created the Social-Democratic Labor Party we now have.” This preceded the statement that “The professional revolutionary has played his part …” The bitter disputes within the émigré circles characterized “a young and immature workers’ movement”; “only the broadening of the Party by enlisting proletarian elements can help to eradicate the “circle spirit.” “And the transition to a democratically organized workers’ party, proclaimed by the Bolsheviks … in November 1905, i.e., as soon as the conditions appeared for legal activity – this “transition” was a break from the “old circle ways that had outlived their day.” 
“Yes, ‘that had outlived their day,’” Lenin repeated, “for it is not enough to condemn the old circle spirit; its significance in the special circumstances of the past period must be understood …” – and so on. “The differences among the circles were over the direction the work was to take … The circles played their part and are now, of course, obsolete.” 
Next Lenin commented on Plekhanov’s statement that “he differed from me in principle on the question of spontaneity and political consciousness.”  Once again Lenin insisted that there was no real difference involved at the time. “Plekhanov’s criticism,” he said, was “based on phrases torn out of context,” and, he added, “on particular expressions which I had not quite adroitly or precisely formulated.” The particular criticisms by Plekhanov to which Lenin was here referring were to the pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, but against them Lenin here appealed to “the general content and the whole spirit of my pamphlet WITBD.” All of us had agreed (he went on to say) upon the “formulation of the relation between spontaneity and political consciousness” in the draft Party program put forward by the Iskra group. And then Lenin made a statement which capped the whole problem:
Nor at the Second Congress did I have any intention of elevating my own formulations, as given in WITBD, to “programmatic” level, constituting special principles. On the contrary, the expression I used – and it has since been frequently quoted – was that the Economists had gone to one extreme. WITBD, I said, straightens out what had been twisted by the Economists … 
The meaning of these words is clear enough: WITBD is a controversial correction of Economist distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light.
It would be hard to imagine any more telling refutation of the WITBD myth, unless perhaps Lenin had staged a bonfire of all extant copies of WITBD.
Now which is “the Leninist concept of party organization” – Lenin’s approach of 1905-1907, just described, or the formulations of 1902 in WITBD? The answer that Lenin’s ghost would give, obviously, is: neither – no “concept of the party” taken as a “principle” divorced from time and place. Lenin’s ideas on party organization, like those of most others, varied depending on conditions, especially such an immense difference in conditions as that between the underground conditions in an autocracy and the conditions of relative political liberty and open organizational opportunity that characterized Russia in the 1905-1907 period.
At least one Leninologist was able to recognize this elementary idea, and as a result drew the wrathful fires of Leninological authority on his own head. Deviating from the consensus, John Plamenatz wrote this much:
There is nothing specifically undemocratic about the opinions so vigorously expressed in WITBD … He never, when he wrote WITBD, intended that the “party of the proletariat” should drive and bully the workers, or even that it should make their revolution for them, and then govern Russia in their name but without taking the trouble to consult them.
If it were not for what happened after the Bolshevik Revolution, says Plamenatz, “We should not venture to call them [the ideas of WITBD] undemocratic, but merely say of them that they were advice perhaps well enough adapted to the needs of a revolutionary party active in Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century.” 
Lenin’s 1902 proposals for the Russian movement of the day may have been good or bad proposals – this discussion is pre-empted by the Leninological myth. Recognition that WITBD was not antidemocratic in its views still leaves open the belief (which Plamenatz for one holds) that “Leninism” took an antidemocratic turn in “what happened after the Bolshevik Revolution.” The point about the Leninological myth is that it makes discussion of these developments impossible: political-historical analysis is replaced by demonology.
1*. Luxemburg’s article is commonly reprinted under the bogus title Leninism or Marxism? – a title which is not only a Leninological invention but distortive of Luxemburg’s view. Those who are sensitive to questions of inner-party democracy, so popular with Leninologists, should note that although Luxemburg’s article was a virulent attack on Lenin, the democratic editors of the Neue Zeit refused to print Lenin’s mild reply.
3*. Some previous statements should be mentioned too. In August 1903 Lenin had scribbled a few lines for himself, as a note on Martov’s Contradictions and Zigzags. The second of four points was that “He [Martov] always defended Iskra’s ideas of organization (What Is To Be Done?), but secured the incorporation of a Jaurésist [reformist] first clause in the Rules.”  In January 1904 Lenin published a pamphlet preface in which he challenged the Mensheviks to state their new concepts of organization: they have “announced … the existence of differences over questions of organization. Unfortunately, the editors are in no hurry to specify just what these differences are, confining themselves for the most part to hinting at things unknown.”  The man who wrote these words was plainly under the impression that up to this point the Mensheviks had no distinctive line on “concept of organization.” In March 1905, in a reply to Plekhanov, Lenin insisted that “Plekhanov’s assertion that our relations cooled on account of WITBD is absolutely untrue.”  These are only a few of the many indications of this fact: at least when he published WITBD, and until controversy developed subsequently, Lenin thought that the book’s views were the common property of the Iskra group.
4*. As far as I know, the only claim that Lenin ever came back to the subject appeared in an article which requires notice because it has occasionally been quoted. This article, published in 1938 by Max Shachtman in the theoretical organ of the American Trotskyist group, ascribed WITBD to the specific Russian conditions of the time and went on to say: That is why Lenin, in answer to a proposal to translate his brochure for the non-Russian parties, told Max Levien in 1921: “That is not desirable; the translation must at least be issued with good commentaries, which would have to be written by a Russian comrade very well acquainted with the history of the Communist Party of Russia, in order to avoid false application.” 
Unfortunately the article gave no source for this quotation; and while it gave a list of sources for the article as a whole, I have not been able to find this episode in any of the works listed.
5*. The rule that Leninologists do not mention Kautsky in this connection has exceptions that prove the rule. One of the few exceptions is one of the Lenin biographies published in 1963, namely, the one by Possony, who starts off his chapter on WITBD with this very quote from Kautsky. The reason is entirely clear and revealing: as a far-out political rightist, Possony is interested in extending the usual anti-Lenin attaint to the whole socialist movement, right wing included. The other two biographies published in the same year, by Louis Fischer and Robert Payne, do not mention Kautsky in this connection at all. Naturally it is all a question of objective scholarship …
1. For Utechin’s book, see the beginning of the Special Note.
[Retrieved from the Marxist Internet Archive]