Writing about this text is risky today. It was written for a specific time and place, and so contemporary interpretations threaten to draw undue lessons from it. While we certainly have a lot to learn from Lenin, we must be careful to discern where what we are learning has direct applicability to our own situation due to commonality between the circumstances in Russia in the early 20th century and those in the US in the early 21st, and where the lessons bear only on the historical arc of the Russian Revolution. I’ll do my best to draw the distinction, although I’m primarily concerned with lessons of the former category at present.
[T]he building of a fighting organisation and the conduct of political agitation are essential under any “drab, peaceful” circumstances, in any period, no matter how marked by a “declining revolutionary spirit”; moreover, it is precisely in such periods and under such circumstances that work of this kind is particularly necessary, since it is too late to form the organisation in times of explosion and outbursts; the party must be in a state of readiness to launch activity at a moment’s notice.
Revolution is now more distant than ever. The labor movement, and a fortiori its radical socialist elements, have been utterly decimated. Thus, a principle task for the socialist movement is to work for the reconstruction of the labor movement that must constitute its base. Yet this should not be an excuse for delaying the formation of explicitly revolutionary organizations. If the principle task of socialists today is not to form socialist parties but to participate in reconstruction, this is certainly not to say forming parties is not a crucial secondary task. Indeed, if our participation in reconstructive activity is not to be wholly haphazard, disorganized, inconsistent with our principles, and beholden to the strategies and conceptions of those firmly under bourgeois influence, then we must organize amongst ourselves if only for the sake of avoiding these dangers.
Lenin goes on to claim that the founding of a Party newspaper is an essential first step in the building of such an organization:
Never has the need been felt so acutely as today for reinforcing dispersed agitation in the form of individual action, local leaflets, pamphlets, etc., by means of generalised and systematic agitation that can only be conducted with the aid of the periodical press.
This already presupposes a great deal of agitational activity that is simply disorganized. There is some degree of agitation being performed today that is broadly compatible with our aims (making the working class recognize the economic injustice they routinely endure), although at this point we can scarcely believe those undertaking it would be sympathetic to our position. Obviously, the means for producing and distributing propaganda have become far more diverse, interesting, and broadly available since Lenin’s time, although given the media landscape that has resulted, it has also become more ignorable. When it comes to considering agitational activities, we need to focus on making a lasting impact, and doing so with as little information as possible (compensating for generalized attention deficit).
While a more systematic approach to agitation is needed, we must distinguish first between political and economic agitation. The majority of the working class today is caught in the webs of political reasoning that is wholly penetrated by bourgeois ideology. For them, politics just is the petty squabbling between the twin parties of the rich. Genuinely socialist politics cannot but be dismissed as unrealistic, if not downright hostile to this firmly implanted worldview. For Lenin,
We have taken the first step, we have aroused in the working class a passion for “economic”, factory exposures; we must now take the next step, that of arousing in every section of the population that is at all politically conscious a passion for political exposure.
We have not taken this first step, and hence the move toward systematically integrated political agitation is unwarranted. We must instead engage in the kind of economic agitation represented in Lenin’s time by “factory exposure” pamphlets; effective propagandizing in this direction will eventually stoke the intellectual hunger of the workers to a point where they begin to demand more, and it is at this point that political propaganda becomes relevant.
The newspaper has another function:
A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour. With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally take shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence these events. The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the All-Russian work, and test their strength in the organisation of various revolutionary actions. This network of agents will form the skeleton of precisely the kind of organisation we need—one that is sufficiently large to embrace the whole country; sufficiently broad and many-sided to effect a strict and detailed division of labour; sufficiently well tempered to be able to conduct steadily its own work under any circumstances, at all “sudden turns”, and in face of all contingencies; sufficiently flexible to be able, on the one hand, to avoid an open battle against an overwhelming enemy, when the enemy has concentrated all his forces at one spot, and yet, on the other, to take advantage of his unwieldiness and to attack him when and where he least expects it. Today we are faced with the relatively easy task of supporting student demonstrations in the streets of big cities; tomorrow we may, perhaps, have the more difficult task of supporting, for example, the unemployed movement in some particular area, and the day after to be at our posts in order to play a revolutionary part in a peasant uprising. Today we must take advantage of the tense political situation arising out of the government’s campaign against the Zemstvo; tomorrow we may have to support popular indignation against some tsarist bashi-bazouk on the rampage and help, by means of boycott, indictment, demonstrations, etc., to make things so hot for him as to force him into open retreat. Such a degree of combat readiness can be developed only through the constant activity of regular troops. If we join forces to produce a common newspaper, this work will train and bring into the foreground, not only the most skillful propagandists, but the most capable organisers, the most talented political party leaders capable, at the right moment, of releasing the slogan for the decisive struggle and of taking the lead in that struggle.
It would be naive to expect a newspaper, even in a digital form, could fulfill this same organizational role today. That is not to say that, at a certain stage, a journalistic organ might not be necessary, and that when it does take shape, it would not be capable of serving many of these functions. Yet because our principle task is not political propagandizing but working to reconstruct organized struggle on the part of the working class. Such a task is delicate, as it requires carefully balancing the specific conscious interests of specific groups of workers with the broader class interests of which they are not yet fully conscious. There is no single approach to such work; there may be as many approaches as there are unique unorganized workers.
There is another problem with importing Lenin’s model of the newspaper as collective organizer. While in Lenin’s time, the socialist movement was relatively robust, if by no means united behind a single consistent theoretical and strategic orientation, today it is as much in ruins as the labor movement itself. There does not seem to be a reliable base of dedicated and theoretically-consistent socialists who would constitute even the ‘skeleton’ of such an organization. Thus, the task of reconstruction is twofold: rebuild the labor movement, and rebuild the socialist base. Our secondary task of forming a party must not be delayed by the former reconstructive activity, but it of necessity will lag behind the latter.
Socialist reconstruction must grapple with several factors. First, it must cope with the generally splintered, sectarian character of the remaining socialist base. Second, it must combat the now almost ubiquitous reformism of these elements, even those who are supposedly heirs to historically revolutionary tendencies. Third, it must effectively recruit new members, likely from sympathetic elements of the educated youth, and perhaps to an extent those already working for reconstruction of organized labor. Fourth, it must combat the rampant slandering of socialism not only from the right, but from the predominantly anarchist or anarchoid radical left.
Socialist reconstruction will require in large measure great theoretical work, which is already being undertaken by the membership of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Such work can address all four factors mentioned above, especially if it continues to engage the socialist remnants in public discussions/debates as to the legacy they claim to uphold. Platypus is a very important organization in this regard. Furthermore, the more genuine socialists that emerge from this theoretical work, recognizing as they should that their principle task lies in participating in the reconstruction of the labor movement, the more possible will be the formation of an organization of socialists for the sake of a systematic participation in this reconstructive effort. Such an organization of practical work emerging from that theoretical work would constitute the skeleton of a future party in a similar manner to the newspaper for Lenin.
A final note. In Lenin’s context, the political task pursued by the Social Democrats (on the basis of an already robust labor movement) was very different from the political task we face. In early 20th century Russia, it was not simply – simply! – a matter of instituting a dictatorship of the proletariat to undertake the abolition of capitalism and construction of socialism. Rather, it was first and foremost a matter of dispensing with the pre-capitalist autocracy of the Tsar, and winning political liberties that accompany typical bourgeois-liberal revolutions. It was likely far easier to rally workers to such a cause, given the victorious liberal revolutions throughout the Western world. We do not have the benefit of being able to point to the victorious socialist revolutions which our own will join. Quite the contrary, we can point only to tragic and abominable failures. Nonetheless, their is a great and growing sentiment that the crises of capitalism are intensifying, and that sooner or later, the system will become unsustainable. However, unless we can develop a correct consciousness of the situation out of this rudimentary sentiment, the worsening crises will signify nothing but growing immiseration for the working class. If we are to make these crises into opportunities for the transformation of society, rather than allowing them to continue leaking barbarism into our world, we must be prepared. Lenin makes a comment about autocracy that could easily apply to our situation vis a vis capitalism:
We have spoken continuously of systematic, planned preparation, yet it is by no means our intention to imply that the autocracy can be overthrown only by a regular siege or by organised assault. Such a view would be absurd and doctrinaire. On the contrary, it is quite possible, and historically much more probable, that the autocracy will collapse under the impact of one of the spontaneous outbursts or unforeseen political complications which constantly threaten it from all sides. But no political party that wishes to avoid adventurous gambles can base its activities on the anticipation of such outbursts and complications. We must go our own way, and we must steadfastly carry on our regular work, and the less our reliance on the unexpected, the less the chance of our being caught unawares by any “historic turns”.