Lenin’s critique of the politics of spontaneity in What is to be Done?

IMAGE: Agitprop poster, 1920s:
“Without revolutionary theory,
there can be no revolutionary movement.”


In preparing my presentation on Lenin’s What is to be Done? this week for the UChicago Platypus reading group, I found myself returning again and again to his description of the so-called “spontaneity” of the masses.  It was on this supposed spontaneity, of course, that the Economists pinned their hopes of social revolution (should there be one at all).  I noticed that in his critique of the notion of the working class’ spontaneity, Lenin employed a number of categories borrowed from classical German philosophy.  All of these categories pertain to consciousness, and constitute an epistemology of sorts.  I found, moreover, that this seemed to provide a theoretical link to Lukács’ later account of reification.  Though this began as little more than a meditation, I brought it up at the reading group and found that it was well received.  Afterward, Sunit encouraged me to elaborate on this notion and submit my thoughts online.

Toward the beginning of Section A (“The Beginning of the Spontaneous Upsurge”) of Part II (“The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats”), Lenin explains what he means by spontaneity in recounting the first revolts of the nascent working-class movement in 1896:

[T]he “spontaneous element” [in the workers’ movement], in essence, represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in an embryonic form.  Even the primitive revolts expressed the awakening of consciousness to a certain extent.  The workers were losing their age-long faith in the permanence of the system which oppressed them and began…I shall not say to understand [понимать], but to sense [чувствовать, which also denotes “to feel”] the necessity of collective resistance, definitely abandoning their slavish submission to the authorities.  (Lenin, Selected Works Volume 1.  Pgs. 121-122)

A number of significant categories appear in this passage.  First, there is of course the spontaneity belonging to the “spontaneous element” he mentions.  Second, there is Lenin’s opposition of “understanding” to “sensation” or “feeling.”  Though he makes these remarks only in passing, I should like to suggest that there are some important inferences to be drawn from them.  These have to do with consciousness in general, and bear upon Lenin’s conception of the role of the party as the “vanguard” of the workers’ movement in Russia.  (The Russian авангард admits of alternate translations, though both are military metaphors: either as the more political association of “vanguard,” or as the more aesthetic association of “avant-garde”).

The analytic distinction between “sensation” and “intellection” (or “understanding”) can be traced to number of Enlightenment epistemologies, most notably to Kant’s critical philosophy.  In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant carefully distinguishes the raw data of sensation from the intellectual categories that are then applied to them.  The former arrive as immediate via “the manifold of intuition,” while the latter represent their mediation via the pure concepts of the understanding.  Sensation [the standard translation of Kant’s term into Russian is чувственность] thus entails a passivity on the part of the subject, receiving information from without through no activity of its own (Critique of Pure Reason, Guyer-Wood translation.  Pgs. 155-156).  For theoretical reason, this “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the sensible world then appears as “nature” once subsumed under the categories of the understanding.

“Spontaneity” has two main meanings in Kant’s theoretical philosophy.  On the one hand, it describes the activity of thought in cognition.  On the other hand, it serves as the ground for transcendental freedom.  This dimension of spontaneity appears in his concluding remarks on a possible resolution to the antinomies involving dynamic categories — especially the Third Antinomy, concerning freedom and necessity (ibid., pg. 533).  Spontaneity in this sense, as the capacity for free action, is in no way able to be comprehended by the understanding.  Rather, it can only be thought, posited as a sort of cognitive surplus for theoretical philosophy and a regulative principle for practical philosophy.  It is something that exists for consciousness in theoretical reason only as an article of faith.

By contrast, freedom in Kant’s practical philosophy appears as “autonomy.”  Here freedom is not just some vague postulate existing outside the bounds of natural law, but is a force allowing reason to give the law to itself and determine the subject’s own activity.  Instead of natural law, this now provides the moral law.  In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant maintains that subjects are consciously able to abstract from pathological influences (i.e.,external sensations and natural interests) and autonomously direct their actions.  This is his great critique of Scottish sentimental philosophy.

Returning to Lenin’s account, we can see how these categories then inform his critique of what he calls the Economists’ “subservience to spontaneity” (Lenin, pg. 183 and throughout the text).  Lenin asserts that the consciousness of the working class is determined by its immediate interests.  Remaining on this level of immediacy, workers are only ever able to vaguely sense (or feel) the need for social change in a confused and unreflective way.  They do so without understanding their objective position within the social totality and the revolutionary potential that they alone possess.  This is true even when they organize themselves into unions.  Lacking a more conscious mediation of what immediately appears before them, lacking theoretical guidance, the workers blindly pursue their immediate interests, fighting for higher wages, more job security, etc.

For their part, the Economists’ blind faith in the spontaneity of the masses also stems from this series of categories.  Having set themselves the task of theoretically “refining” Marxism, to better understanding the “natural” laws of capitalism, the Economists’ conception of the free activity of the working class becomes directly analogous to what activities free from the constraints of natural law was for Kant’s theoretical reason.  It is simply posited as a “spontaneity” that will manifest itself of its own accord.  The agency of the working class is wholly unconscious, its spontaneity little more than an involuntary reflex to economically determined conditions.  Here it is obvious that the Economists have succumbed to what Lukács would call the reification of existing society.  For the “natural” economic laws they describe as determining all social development (past and present) are really nothing but the laws of the “second nature” engendered by capitalist society and the fetishism of commodity/social relationships.  As again with Kant’s theoretical reason, the Economists assume an entirely passive relationship to the workings of this nature.

In practice, this results in the “tailism” of Russian Social-Democracy.  Deferring to this mysterious spontaneity of the workers’ activity — which it believed would eventually deliver them from the evils of capitalism — the party would simply ratify whatever demand the working class was making at the present moment.  The party would affirm its every whim, its every passing fancy.  As Lenin points out, it is unclear why the party would still even be necessary in this scenario.  Politics as such would have become superfluous (ibid., pg. 140).

Against this conception of the party, Lenin envisions the party as a mediating force between the direct experiences of the workers and its ultimate goals as determined by an understanding of the objective situation.  Understanding the totality of social and material relations, the party can consciously determine the real interests of the working class and direct its actions.  The activism of the party would here behave in a manner more akin to Kant’s practical reason.  The party would serve as the consciousness of the working class, autonomously giving the law of its activity to itself.  As opposed to the freedom of the working class as conceived by the Economists, which appears as the inchoate spontaneity of theoretical reason, under the guidance of Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party it appears as the self-directed autonomy of practical reason.

Certainly, the Kantian categories undergo some modification in their adoption by Lenin.  It is important to remember, of course, that for Kant these categories were present for consciousness in a more or less ahistorical sense (ignoring for a moment his historical essays, in which they are applied as speculative or regulative principles of reflection).  Autonomous actions are played out for Kant almost in a void, abstracted from all determinate situations and historical peculiarities.  The categorical imperative respects no outstanding circumstances.  It is both universal and necessary, and must hold for all times and all places.  This leads to a problem, however, since certain actions are only possible under given historical conditions.  For Marxist thought, any autonomous action on the part of a subject would require first a recognition of the objective conditions as allowing for the possibility of its fulfillment.

This last point is important.  For now it is clear that while Lenin’s conception of the role of the party in relation to the working class is close to that of Kant’s practical reason, it must also be accompanied by an adequate theoretical understanding of society.  Only then could a “vanguard” party give an accurate appraisal of the given historical moment; only then could it prescribe a course of action.  This historical dimension, missing from Kant’s critical philosophy, necessitates an adequate theoretical framework within which opportunities can be recognized and practical objectives can be achieved.  Lenin did not simply stress the practical aspect of party activity — as Lukács convincingly argued in his Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1922), he was an eminently sophisticated theorist as well.

Incidentally, the connection between Kant’s notion of the spontaneity belonging to the subject and the spontaneity possessed by the proletariat as subject in Marxism has also been pointed out by Adorno in his lectures on History and Freedom.  There he notes:

It is interesting to note that this concept of spontaneity is of central importance not just in Kant, but also in the Marxian theory of socialism.  Moreover, both in Marx and more generally in socialist theory, it has the same dialectical quality, the same dual quality, [as] in Kant.  For the spontaneous action that Marx ascribes to the proletariat is supposed, on the one hand, to be an autonomous, free, rational form of action, action on the basis of a known and comprehensible theory.  At the same time, however, it contains an irreducible element, the element of immediate action that does not entirely fit into the factors that theoretically determine it…[S]pontaneity has made itself independent in a strange way, [however,] as a protest against a mechanical determinism of cause and effect, and this protest applied to the presence of that determinism in socialist thought too.  In this way it came close to anarchism even though anarchism had been subjected to astringent criticism by socialist theory. The greatest example of this protest is Rosa Luxemburg. (Adorno, History and Freedom, pgs. 216-217).

Although Luxemburg’s emphasis on the spontaneity of the mass strike was intended to combat reformist tendencies within the Social Democratic parties, a cause Lenin wholeheartedly shared with her, here she came down on the opposite side.  She stressed the purely spontaneous element of Kantian freedom, undetermined by outside forces or the flow of history.  Lenin, conversely, stressed the self-determining aspect of freedom as autonomy, and located the seat of proletarian consciousness as being firmly rooted in the consciousness of a vanguard party.  Context, however, is important.  The spontaneity of the mass strike in Luxemburg, though framed around the experience of the 1905 revolution in Russia, seemed a more viable option for the German Social-Democratic party, with its highly-developed urban proletariat.  For Russia to serve as a potential “spark” (искра) for the European revolution, the class struggle would have to be sharpened and pushed by a vanguard party.

Though Luxemburg came to revise her appraisal of the October Revolution (despite the repeated efforts ever since Paul Levi to hold her up as an heroic “alternative” to Lenin), it is true that her earlier stance toward the Bolshevik takeover expresses her resolute faith in the spontaneous action of the working class against political vanguardism.  As Lukács would later comment, her attitude was here determined by an “overestimation of the spontaneous, elemental forces of the Revolution, above all in the class summoned by history to lead it” (“Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Critique of the Russian Revolution’,” from History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, pg. 279). He reiterates that “[Luxemburg] finds exaggerated the central role assigned by the Bolsheviks to questions of organisation as the guarantees of the spirit of revolution in the workers’ movement. She maintains the opposite view that real revolutionary spirit is to be sought and found exclusively in the elemental spontaneity of the masses” (ibid., pg. 284). In his study on the methodology of revolutionary party organization, Lukács thus concludes that “[t]he spontaneity of a movement…is only the subjective, mass-psychological expression of its determination by pure economic laws…[S]uch outbreaks come to a halt no less spontaneously, they peter out when their immediate goals are achieved or seem unattainable” (“Toward a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation,” from History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, pg. 307).  Therefore, “what is essential…is the interaction of spontaneity and conscious control…What was novel in the formation of the Communist Parties was the new relation between spontaneous action and conscious, theoretical foresight, it was the permanent assault upon and the gradual disappearance of the purely post festum structure of the merely ‘contemplative,’ reified consciousness of the bourgeoisie” (ibid., pg. 317). This is where Lenin’s concept of the role of a revolutionary party organization as leading the way and providing direction for mass movements became historically valuable.

Before closing, I might point out a further parallel between Lenin’s argument and one of Hegel’s major objections to the philosophies of immediacy that existed in his time.  In §7 of the Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel writes that for the philosophers of immediacy, “[p]hilosophy is to meet [the] need [of modernity], not by opening up the fast-locked nature of substance, and raising this to self-consciousness, not by bringing consciousness out of its chaos back to an order based on thought, nor to the simplicity of the Notion, but rather by running together what thought has put asunder, by suppressing the differentiations of the Notion [Kant’s ‘concept,’ Begriff] and restoring the feeling [translated into Russian as чувственное сознание, or more literally ‘sense-perception’] of essential being: in short, by providing edification rather than insight” (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.  Miller translation, pgs. 4-5).  Against this tendency, Hegel advocated for a philosophy based on the mediation of the concept in thought.  A theory that champions an immediate consciousness is easily given to capriciousness and vulgarity.  Lenin, in criticizing the central assumptions of the Economist tendency, stood with Hegel in emphasizing the importance of achieving an active understanding for the working class and its most advanced sections over the superficiality of a merely passive feeling.

Today, in the absence of a viable international working class movement and the nearly universal degeneration of Leftist thought (perhaps especially amongst the purportedly ‘orthodox’ Marxists), it is difficult to say how much of Lenin’s insight into this dialectic of spontaneity and conscious organization is applicable to the present moment. The so-called Left, even when it actually does adopt an anti-capitalist stance and does not limit itself to trade unionist complacency or liberal pleas for multicultural tolerance and sexual inclusion, is still prone to all sorts of immediacy, which is then manifested in romantic ideological tendencies and thoughtless actionism (think the largely salutary and often theatrical displays of protest at the G20 conference in Pittsburgh). Those living fossils who comprise the remaining sectarian Marxist groups cling to outdated party platforms and slogans so inadequate to the present situation that they have lost all real relevance. Generally speaking, the state of the immediate social consciousness of the Left might have regressed so far that it stands in need of substantial correction even before the question of spontaneity and organization taken up by Lenin can again be meaningfully posed.  The highly controversial notion of a “vanguard” party should almost seem irrelevant in the present moment.  What is there that one could even be a vanguard of?

Russian sources

Hegel: “Sense-certainty”: чувственное сознание

Kant: §1 Каким бы образом и при помощи каких бы средств ни относилось познание к предметам, во всяком случае созерцание есть именно тот способ, каким познание непосредственно относится к ним и к которому как к средству стремится всякое мышление. Созерцание имеет место, только если нам дается предмет; а это в свою очередь возможно, по крайней мере для нас, людей, лишь благодаря тому, что предмет некоторым образом воздействует на нашу душу (das Gemüt afficiere). Эта способность (восприимчивость) получать представления тем способом, каким предметы воздействуют на нас, называется чувственностью [sensibility]. Следовательно, посредством чувственности предметы нам даются, и только она доставляет нам созерцания; мыслятся же предметы рассудком, и из рассудка возникают понятия. Всякое мышление, однако, должно в конце концов прямо (directe) или косвенно (indirecte) через те или иные признаки иметь отношение к созерцаниям, стало быть, у нас – к чувственности, потому что ни один предмет не может быть нам дан иным способом.

Lenin: Мы отметили в предыдущей главе повальное увлечение теорией марксизма русской образованной молодежи в половине 90-х годов. Такой же повальный характер приняли около того же времени рабочие стачки после знаменитой петербургской промышленной войны 1896 года. Их распространение по всей России явно свидетельствовало о глубине вновь поднимающегося народного движения, и если уже говорить о “стихийном элементе”, то, конечно, именно это стачечное движение придется признать прежде всего стихийным. Но ведь и стихийность стихийности – рознь. Стачки бывали в России и в 70-х и в 60-х годах (и даже в первой половине XIX века), сопровождаясь “стихийным” разрушением машин и т. п. По сравнению с этими “бунтами” стачки 90-х годов можно даже назвать “сознательными” – до такой степени значителен тот шаг вперед, который сделало за это время рабочее движение. Это показывает нам, что “стихийный элемент” представляет из себя, в сущности, не что иное, как зачаточную форму сознательности. И примитивные бунты выражали уже собой некоторое пробуждение сознательности: рабочие теряли исконную веру в незыблемость давящих их порядков, начинали… не скажу понимать, а чувствовать необходимость коллективного отпора, и решительно порывали с рабской покорностью перед начальством. Но это было все же гораздо более проявлением отчаяния и мести, чем борьбой. Стачки 90-х годов показывают нам гораздо больше проблесков сознательности: выставляются определенные требования, рассчитывается наперед, какой момент удобнее, обсуждаются известные случаи и примеры в других местах и т. д. Если бунты были восстанием просто угнетенных людей, то систематические стачки выражали уже собой зачатки классовой борьбы, но именно только зачатки. Взятые сами по себе. эти стачки были борьбой тред-юнионистской, но еще не социал-демократической, они знаменовали пробуждение антагонизма рабочих и хозяев, но у рабочих не было, да и быть не могло сознания непримиримой противоположности их интересов всему современному политическому и общественному строю, то есть сознания социал-демократического. В этом смысле стачки 90-х годов, несмотря на громадный прогресс по сравнению с “бунтами”, оставались движением чисто стихийным.

One thought on “Lenin’s critique of the politics of spontaneity in What is to be Done?

  1. Hey Ross, I’ve been reading your blog for about a week now ever since I read your notes on the Occupy Wall St sustained demonstration. I found that my own personal critique or rather reservations or OWS, matched up for the most part with your own, all though admittedly your thoughts were much better organized than mine, as I am no philosopher. I know you have said that there is a lack of an organized working class movement but I wonder, would you consider this OWS as a working class protest? And another question, where to you think the student movements fit into Marx’s social class theory? or do they at all?

    In closing, I think this piece on Lenin is very important for Marxism and the Left in general, and your pieces have led me to reconsider some ideas I have previously held about Marxism, and especially Lenin’s works. Keep writing and rabble-rousing!


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