What is to be done? (study guide)

Jun 28, 2019

Published in 1902, What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement, is Lenin’s argument for a distinct kind of revolutionary organization, and is thus often viewed as the founding text of the Leninist form of the party. Written in response to the particularities of the Marxist movement in Russia at the time, and as an intervention in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, it still speaks volumes to the present day.

While the arguments in the book are crucial to Marxism, they’ve also been widely misunderstood and caricatured. We hope this study and discussion guide will help comrades and friends make their way through the text, reading the arguments on their own terms and with an eye toward their nuances. For those who are interested in learning more about present-day applications, check out this article on the Leninist party today, and this article on social media and Leninism.


  1. As you read this text, keep a running list of everything Lenin says the vanguard party is or should be, and everything he says it isn’t or shouldn’t be.

I. Dogmatism and “freedom of criticism”

  1. What two tendencies does Lenin identify in international social-democracy (which, at this time, was the name of the socialist movement)?
  2. What fundamental components of Marxism does Bernstein reject?
  3. What does this opening section tell us about the word “critical”?
  4. Why is this important for us today?
  5. What, in the end, is the problem with the demand for freedom of criticism?
  6. Why did the theory of Marxism become confused during the period of “legal Marxism” in Russia?
  7. What is required for entering into alliances with forces who are unreliable?
  8. What about for Marxists who enter into alliances with non-Marxists?
  9. What is Lenin’s definition of spontaneity?
  10. What is required before entering into a united front?
  11. What does freedom of criticism imply for Marxist organizations?
  12. Lenin writes that, “without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” What does he mean by this?
  13. What does this statement have to do with spontaneity?
  14. What role does theory play in the vanguard party?
  15. What three forms—or sides—of struggle does Engels mention?

II. The spontaneity of the masses and the consciousness of the social-democrats

  1. Why is the relationship between consciousness and spontaneity so important?
  2. What does Lenin mean when he writes that, “There is a difference between spontaneity and spontaneity”? What is the difference?
  3. What is the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness?
  4. What kind of consciousness can the working class develop on its own?
  5. What are the limitations to this kind of consciousness?
  6. To what does Lenin attribute the fortitude of the workers’ movement?
  7. Although theory doesn’t arise spontaneously from within the workers’ movement, does this mean that workers don’t play a part in theory?
  8. Why does the spontaneous movement tend toward bourgeois ideology?
  9. What two ways can we interpret the phrase: the labor movement will determine the tasks?
  10. What is at stake in each definition?
  11. What does Lenin mean when he says that the party has to be a “spirit”?

III. Trade-unionist politics and social-democratic politics

  1. What is “exposure literature?” What effect did its introduction have on workers?
  2. What is the role of this literature in advancing the class struggle?
  3. Should we limit ourselves to the economic struggle? Why or why not?
  4. What are all the areas of life we should be concerned with? Write a list, and add to the spheres Lenin mentions.
  5. Is the economic arena the best way to draw people into political struggle? Why or why not?
  6. What is required for class consciousness to be genuinely political?
  7. Think of a contemporary example of non-economic struggles activating political consciousness.
  8. Instead of begging for increased activity, what should intellectuals do for the socialist struggle?
  9. What is the common foundation of the economism and terrorism?
  10. Why is it important to link together different struggles? What is the role of education in this?
  11. How do the economists underestimate mass activity?
  12. Lenin writes that “political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without… the economic struggle.” Does he mean that workers need intellectuals to achieve political consciousness? If not, what does he mean?
  13. Is the vanguard party only concerned with industrial workers?
  14. Can the vanguard call itself a vanguard? If not, what else is required?
  15. What reason does Lenin give for the failure of the revolutionary social-democrats in February and March?

IV. The primitiveness of the economists and the organization of the revolutionaries

  1. How does Lenin characterize the student involvement in Marxism? How did it start and how did it grow?
  2. How can this relate to today’s student movement? What potential is there? How about obstacles?
  3. Why did the workers abandon the intelligentsia?
  4. What is wrong with limiting the struggle to immediate and concrete tasks?
  5. Do you hear demands for such limits in today’s struggles? Where do they come from? How might you agitate against them?
  6. What are the components of the professional revolutionary?
  7. Should we maintain a distinction between workers and intellectuals in the Party? Why or why not?
  8. What are the practical advantages of broad organizations like unions? What are they practical disadvantages?
  9. What is the argument against pushing the working-class movement “from the outside?”
  10. Where do you find similar arguments today?
  11. What is Lenin’s response to this argument?
  12. How might you respond to it today?
  13. What is the relationship between the revolutionary crowds and the mass movement, on the one hand, and the organization of professional revolutionaries, on the other?
  14. Should the party be specialized? Why or why not?
  15. What does Lenin say about talking down to workers?
  16. How does the professional revolutionary develop?
  17. What are the two conditions of democratic principles?
  18. What is the real meaning of phrases such as “broad democracy”? What is their real impact on the struggle?
  19. Why are broad democratic principles limiting?
  20. What should the relationship between local and national work be?
  21. Lenin gives a concrete example of how the Party unites local and national work. What is it, and what does it reveal about the relationship between the Party and the mass struggle?

V. The “plan” for an all-Russia political newspaper

  1. What criticisms appeared in Rabocheye Dyelo?
  2. What arguments that you’ve previously encountered in this pamphlet show up in Lenin’s response to these criticisms?
  3. Why is “plan” in quotation marks in this chapter’s title?
  4. Why is an all-Russia newspaper crucial for training local political organizations?
  5. What is the relationship between political action and the newspaper? How could we extrapolate this to understand the relationship between theory and practice?
  6. What’s the point of the bricklayer analogy?
  7. Lenin says that everyone calls for unity, but no one gives “a definite idea of where to begin and how to bring about this unity.” How does Lenin respond to this? What does the newspaper have to do with unity?
  8. What significance does this section have for the present day?
  9. Why does Nadezhdin criticize Iskra for “bookishness”? How does Lenin respond?
  10. How do calls for terrorist activity keep the masses isolated from struggle?
  11. How would an organization centered around a newspaper provide the flexibility needed for political activity?
  12. How does organizational unity keep the struggle moving forward even when organizers are arrested?