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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State > Nations & Nationalism > The Strength of an Idea > Where to Begin? - V.I.Lenin
Where to Begin?
V.I.Lenin, May 1901
Lenin Collected Works, Foreign
Languages Publishing House,
In recent years the question of "what is to be done" has confronted Russian Social-Democrats with particular insistence. It is not a question of what path we must choose (as was the case in the late eighties and early nineties), but of what practical steps we must take upon the known path and how they shall be taken. It is a question of a system and plan of practical work. And it must be admitted that we have not yet solved this question of the character and the methods of struggle, fundamental for a party of practical activity, that it still gives rise to serious differences of opinion which reveal a deplorable ideological instability and vacillation.
On the one hand, the "Economist" trend, far from being dead, is endeavouring to clip and narrow the work of political organisation and agitation. On the other, unprincipled eclecticism is again rearing its head, aping every new "trend", and is incapable of distinguishing immediate demands from the main tasks and permanent needs of the movement as a whole. This trend, as we know, has ensconced itself in Rabocheye Dyelo.
This journal's latest statement of
"programme", a bombastic article under the bombastic
title "A Historic Turn" ("Listok" Rabochevo Dyela, No.
6), bears out with special emphasis the
characterisation we have given. Only yesterday there was
a flirtation with "Economism", a fury over the resolute
condemnation of Rabochaya Mysl, and Plekhanov's
presentation of the question of the struggle against
autocracy was being toned down. But today Liebknecht's
words are being quoted: "If the circumstances change
within twenty-four hours, then tactics must be changed
within twenty-four hours." There is talk of a "strong
fighting organisation for direct attack, for storming,
the autocracy; of "broad revolutionary political
agitation among the masses" (how energetic we are
now-both revolutionary and political!); of "ceaseless
calls for street protests"; of "street demonstrations of
a pronounced [sic!] political character"; and so on, and
It is ridiculous to plead different circumstances and a change of periods: the 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. "Change the tactics within twenty-four hours"!
But in order to change tactics it is
first necessary to have tactics; without a strong
organisation skilled in waging political struggle under
all circumstances and at all times, there can be no
question of that systematic plan of action, illumined by
firm principles and steadfastly carried out, which alone
is worthy of the name of tactics. Let us, indeed,
consider the matter; we are now being told that the
"historic moment" has presented our Party with a
"completely new" question-the question of terror.
Yesterday the "completely new" question was political
organisation and agitation; today it is terror. Is it not
strange to hear people who have so grossly forgotten
their principles holding forth on a radical change in
Without a central body and with the weakness of local revolutionary organisations, this, in fact, is all that terror can be. We, therefore, declare emphatically that under the present conditions such a means of struggle is inopportune and unsuitable; that it diverts the most active fighters from their real task, the task which is most important from the standpoint of the interests of the movement as a whole; and that it disorganises the forces, not of the government, but of the revolution.
We need but recall the recent events. With our own eyes we saw that the mass of workers and "common people" of the towns pressed forward in struggle, while the revolutionaries lacked a staff of leaders and organisers. Under such conditions, is there not the danger that, as the most energetic revolutionaries go over to terror, the fighting contingents, in whom alone it is possible to place serious reliance, will be weakened? Is there not the danger of rupturing the contact between the revolutionary organisations and the disunited masses of the discontented, the protesting, and the disposed to struggle, who are weak precisely because they are disunited? Yet it is this contact that is the sole guarantee of our success.
Far be it from us to deny the significance of heroic individual blows, but it is our duty to sound a vigorous warning against becoming infatuated with terror, against taking it to be the chief and basic means of struggle, as so many people strongly incline to do at present. Terror can never be a regular military operation; at best it can only serve as one of the methods employed in a decisive assault. But can we issue the call for such a decisive assault at the present moment? Rabocheye Dyelo apparently thinks we can. At any rate, it exclaims: "Form assault columns!" But this, again, is more zeal than reason.
The main body of our military forces consists of volunteers and insurgents. We possess only a few small units of regular troops, and these are not even mobilised; they are not connected with one another, nor have they been trained to form columns of any sort, let alone assault columns. In view of all this, it must be clear to anyone who is capable of appreciating the general conditions of our struggle and who is mindful of them at every "turn" in the historical course of events that at the present moment our slogan cannot be "To the assault", but has to be, "Lay siege to the enemy fortress".
In other words, the immediate task of our
Party is not to summon all available forces for the
attack right now, but to call for the formation of a
revolutionary organisation capable of uniting all forces
and guiding the movement in actual practice and not in
name alone, that is, an organisation ready at any time to
support every protest and every outbreak and use it to
build up and consolidate the fighting forces suitable for
the decisive struggle.
A newspaper is what we most of all need; without it we cannot conduct that systematic, all-round propaganda and agitation, consistent in principle, which is the chief and permanent task of Social-Democracy in general and, in particular, the pressing task of the moment, when interest in politics and in questions of socialism has been aroused among the broadest strata of the population. 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. It may be said without exaggeration that the frequency and regularity with which a newspaper is printed (and distributed) can serve as a precise criterion of how well this cardinal and most essential sector of our militant activities is built up.
Furthermore, our newspaper must be All-Russian. If we fail, and as long as we fail, to combine our efforts to influence the people and the government by means of the printed word, it will be utopian to think of combining other means, more complex, more difficult, but also more decisive, for exerting influence. Our movement suffers in the first place, ideologically, as well as in practical and organisational respects, from its state of fragmentation, from the almost complete immersion of the overwhelming majority of Social-Democrats in local work, which narrows their outlook, the scope of their activities, and their skill in the maintenance of secrecy and their preparedness. It is precisely in this state of fragmentation that one must look for the deepest roots of the instability and the waverings noted above.
The first step towards eliminating this short-coming, towards transforming divers local movements into a single, All-Russian movement, must be the founding of an All-Russian newspaper. Lastly, what we need is definitely a political newspaper. Without a political organ, a political movement deserving that name is inconceivable in the Europe of today. Without such a newspaper we cannot possibly fulfill our task-that of concentrating all the elements of political discontent and protest, of vitalising thereby the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.
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 must not be discouraged by the fact that the voice of political exposure is today so feeble, timid, and infrequent. This is not because of a wholesale submission to police despotism, but because those who are able and ready to make exposures have no tribune from which to speak, no eager and encouraging audience, they do not see anywhere among the people that force to which it would be worth while directing their complaint against the "omnipotent" Russian Government. But today all this is rapidly changing.
There is such a force-it is the
revolutionary proletariat, which has demonstrated its
readiness, not only to listen to and support the summons
to political struggle, but boldly to engage in battle. We
are now in a position to provide a tribune for the
nationwide exposure of the tsarist government, and it is
our duty to do this. That tribune must be a
Social-Democratic newspaper. The Russian working class,
as distinct from the other classes and strata of Russian
society, displays a constant interest in political
knowledge and manifests a constant and extensive demand
(not only in periods of intensive unrest) for illegal
literature. When such a mass demand is evident, when the
training of experienced revolutionary leaders has already
begun, and when the concentration of the working class
makes it virtual master in the working-class districts of
the big cities and in the factory settlements and
communities, it is quite feasible for the proletariat to
found a political newspaper. Through the proletariat the
newspaper will reach the urban petty bourgeoisie, the
rural handicraftsmen, and the peasants, thereby becoming
a real people's political newspaper.
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.
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".