What is to be Done? Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today - Werner Bonefeld & Sergio Tischler

What is to be Done cover

This title was first published in 2002. On the eve of the first centenary of Lenin’s, What is to be Done?, this book provides a critical assessment of the theory and practice of revolution at the start of the new millennium. The volume shows the pertinence of revolution in our post-socialist world and provides a focus for critical social inquiry, revealing the significance of the theory of revolution and its practical meaning. By identifying the weaknesses of orthodox accounts into social and political change, it offers a timely reassessment of the left-communist critique of Leninism and shows its contemporary relevance. Against the background of the globalization of capital, anti-capitalism has to dream revolution. The book shows the practical and theoretical meaning of this dream: the society of the free and equal.

Introduction is below with the full PDF at the bottom.

Submitted by libcom on July 31, 2005

Chapter 1
What is to be Done? Leninism, anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution today
Werner Bonefeld and Sergio Tischler
Page 1

Part I
What is to be Done? in Historical and Critical Perspective

Chapter 2
Kronstadt: Proletarian Spin-Off of the Russian Revolution
Cajo Brendel
Page 13

Chapter 3
Perspectives on Left Politics:
On the Development of anti-Leninist Conceptions of Socialist Politics
Diethard Behrens
Page 25

Chapter 4
Was Lenin a Marxist? The Populist Roots of Marxism-Leninism
Simon Clarke
Page 49

Chapter 5
The Dialectic of Labour and Human Emancipation
Mike Rooke
Page 76

Part II
What is to be Learned? Contemporary Capitalism and the Politics of Negation

Chapter 6
The Command of Money-Capital and the Latin American Crises
Alberto R. Bonnet
Page 100

Chapter 7
State, Revolution, and Self-Determination
Werner Bonefeld
Page 128

Chapter 8
Lenin on the Production of Revolution
George Caffentzis
Page 150

Chapter 9
The Crisis of the Leninist Subject and the Zapatista Circumstance
Sergio Tischler
Page 168

Part III
What about Revolution? Ends and Means

Chapter 10
Emancipation: Paths and Goals
Johannes Agnoli

page 187

Chapter 11
Revolt and Revolution
Get out of the Way, Capital!
John Holloway
Page 196


Of one thing we can be certain. The ideologies of the twentieth century will disappear completely. This has been a lousy century. It has been filled with dogmas, dogmas that one after another have cost us time, suffering, and much injustice (Garcia Marquez, 1990).

Amid the resurgence of anti-capitalist movements across the globe, the centenary of Lenin’s What is to be Done? in 2002 has largely gone unnoticed. Leninism has fallen on hard times – and rightly so. It leaves a bitter taste of a revolution whose heroic struggle turned into a nightmare. The indifference to Leninism is understandable. What, however, is disturbing is the contemporary disinterest in the revolutionary project. What does anti-capitalism in its contemporary form of anti-globalization mean if it is not a practical critique of capitalism and what does it wish to achieve if its anti-capitalism fails to espouse the revolutionary project of human emancipation?

Anti-capitalist indifference to revolution is a contradiction in terms. Rather then freeing the theory and practice of revolution from Leninism, its conception of revolutionary organization in the form of the party, and its idea of the state whose power is to be seized, as an instrument of revolution, remain uncontested. Revolution seems to mean Leninism, now appearing in moderated form as Trotskyism. Orthodox Marxism invests great energy in its attempt to incorporate the class struggle into preconceived conceptions of organization, seeking to render them manageable under the direction of the party. The management of class struggle belongs traditionally to the bourgeoisie who ‘concentrated in the form of the state’ (see Marx, 1973, p.108), depend on its containment and management in the form of abstract equality. The denial of humanity that is entailed in the subordination of the inequality in property to relations of abstract equality in the form of exchange relations, is mirrored in the Leninist conception of the workers state, where everybody is treated equally as an economic resource.

Hiding behind dogma, contemporary endorsements of the revolutionary party as the organizational form of revolution, focus the ‘distortion’ of socialism on Stalin, cleansing Leninism and maintaining its myth.1 Was the tragedy of the Russian revolution really just contingent on the question of leadership, a tragedy caused by a bad leader who took over from a good leader, and should Trotsky had succeeded Lenin, would his leadership have been ‘good’, rescuing the revolution from the dungeons of despair – the Gulag? Whatever difference Trotsky might have made, is revolution really just a question of personalities and their leadership qualities? Orthodox accounts do not raise the most basic question of the critical Enlightenment – cui bono (who benefits) – and, instead, show great trust in the belief that revolution has to be made on behalf of the dependent masses, so that all goes according to plan, including the planning of the economic resource labour through the workers state. Marx’s insight that communism is a classless society and that ‘to be a productive labourer is...not a piece of luck, but a misfortune’ (Marx, 1983, p.477), is endorsed in perverted form: the party’s directorship over the proletariat is a fortune for the misfortunate. Those who take the project of human emancipation seriously, will find little comfort in the idea that the party knows best. Contemporary anti-capitalism does well to keep well clear of the Leninist conception of revolution. However, its indifference to revolution belies its anti-capitalist stance. This, then, means that the ratio emancipationis has to be rediscovered.

Contemporaneous critics of Lenin’s conception of revolution strongly rejected its authoritarian character, criticized its means, and berated its denial of the purpose of revolution, i.e. human emancipation. Anton Pannekoek concluded that ‘the alleged Marxism of Lenin and the Bolshevik party is nothing but a legend’ (1948, p.71). Karl Korsch (1970) who, like Pannekoek, argued from a council communist perspective, concurred, arguing that Lenin was the philosopher of an essentially bourgeois revolution. Rosa Luxemburg, aghast at the Leninist conception of revolution, charged that revolution means not the suppression of workers’ self-organization but the movement of labour. In her view, missteps that a truly revolutionary workers’ movement makes are immeasurably fruitful historically and more valuable than the infallibility of even the best ‘central committee’ (Luxemburg, 1970, p.88). The theory and practice of revolution has to be emancipated from its Leninist legacy and the question ‘what is to be done?’ has to mean ‘what is to be learned?’, ‘what is to be avoided?’, and ‘what has to be done differently?’.


The working class has ‘no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant’ (Marx, 1948, p.58).

Adam Smith was certain in his own mind that capitalism creates the wealth of nations. Hegel concurred but added that the accumulation of wealth renders those who depend on the sale of their labour power for their social reproduction, insecure in deteriorating conditions. He concluded that despite the accumulation of wealth, bourgeois society will find it most difficult to keep the dependent masses pacified, and he saw the form of the state as the means of reconciling the social antagonism, containing the dependent masses. Ricardo formulated the necessity of capitalist social relations to produce ‘redundant population’. Marx developed this insight and showed that the idea of ‘equal rights’ is in principle a bourgeois right. In its content, it is a right of inequality (see Marx, 1968). Against the bourgeois form of formal equality, he argued that communism rests on the equality of the individual, that is, the equality of individual human needs.

During the last decade we have seen the deep recession of the early 1990s, the European currency crises in 1992 and 1993, the plunge of the Mexican peso in December 1994 which rocked financial markets around the world, the Asian crisis of 1997, the Brazilian crisis of 1999, the Argentinean crisis of 2001. Japan teeters on the edge of depression and then there is the speculative bubble in the New York Stock Exchange and the dramatic global slowdown. As Itoh (2000, p.133) comments, ‘the nightmare of a full-scale world economic crisis cannot easily be excluded’; indeed, there is hardly a day without warnings about the immanent burst of the bubble and a world wide depression. And then there is war. How many wars have been fought since the end of the cold war and how many will follow in the years to come? And then there is terrorism. September 11 demonstrated with brutal force the impotence of sense, significance, and thus reason and ultimately truth. The denial of human quality and difference was absolute – not even their corpses survived. And the responds? It confirmed that state terrorism and terrorism are two sides of the same coin. Between them, nothing is allowed to survive.

Against the background of the global crisis during the inter-war period, Paul Mattick suggested in 1934 that capitalism had entered an age of permanent crisis: The periodicity of crisis is in practice nothing other than the recurrent reorganisation of the process of accumulation on a new level of value and price which again secures the accumulation of capital.2 If that is not possible, then neither is it possible to confirm accumulation; the same crisis that up to now had presented itself chaotically and could be overcome becomes permanent crisis. In contrast to previous crises of capitalism, which had always led to a restructuring of capital and to a renewed period of accumulation, the crisis of the 1930s appeared to be so profound and prolonged as to be incapable of solution. Crisis, Mattick suggested, had ceased to be a periodically recurring phenomenon and had become an endemic feature of capitalism.

Mattick’s suggestion, pessimistic though it was, turned out to be far too optimistic. The crisis was resolved, in blood. Capital was restructured and the basis for a new period of accumulation created. Post-war capitalism figures now as a distant ‘golden age’, and the blood-letting through war and gas is a mere memory. Once again it would seem that we are in a situation of permanent crisis, a crisis that is not caused by globalization but, rather, of which globalization is an expression. It is possible that the crisis will be permanent, with a progressive deterioration of conditions. It is possible too that the crisis will not be permanent, that it will in fact be resolved: what the resolution of ‘permanent crisis’ can mean stands behind us as a warning of a possibly nightmarish future. ‘We know how rapidly an epoch of global prosperity, underpinning prospects of world peace and international harmony, can become an epoch of global confrontation, culminating in war. If such a prospect seems unlikely now, it seemed equally unlikely a century ago’ (Clarke, 2001, p.91).

The gloomy prospect that this comparative perspective summons, is not inevitable. The struggles in which capitalist development is ‘embedded and the outcomes to which those struggles give rise are not imposed by any economic logic’ (ibid.). Contemporary anti-capitalist movements, from Chiapas (Holloway and Peláez, 1998) to the Piqueteros of Argentina (Dinerstein, 1999), from Seattle to Genoa (de Angelis, 2001; Federici and Caffentzis, 2001) and beyond, gives ground for optimism (Leeds, 2001). Yet, there should be no complacency. What is meant by anti-globalization? ‘The renunciation of internationalism in the name of resurgent nationalism’ is the biggest danger (Clarke, 2001, p.91). The critique of globalization fails if it is not a critique of the capitalistically constituted form of social reproduction (see Dinerstein and Neary, 2002). ‘Anti-globalization’ gives in to the most reactionary forces if its critique of globalization is a critique for the national state. The history of protectionism, national self-sufficiency and ‘national money’ has always been a world market history (Bonefeld, 2000). Further, the critique of globalization fails if it is merely a critique of speculative capital and that is, a critique for productive accumulation. It was the crisis of productive accumulation that sustained the divorce of monetary accumulation from productive accumulation (Bonefeld and Holloway, 1996). The critique of speculation has to be a critique of the capitalist form of social reproduction. Without such a critique of capital, the critique of speculation is reactionary. It summons the idea of finance and banks and speculators as merchants of greed. In the past, such views underpinned modern anti-semitism and its idea of a community of blood and soil (Bonefeld, 1997). The fact that Nazism espoused ‘industry’ and rejected what it saw as vampire like finance, should be sufficient to highlight the rotten character of such a critique of globalization. Lastly, the idea of a Third Way has to be exposed to reveal its meaning and that is, that money must manage and organize the exploitation of labour. The historical comparison with the 1930s shows what this means in practice. The so-called golden age of Keynesianism emerged from a human disaster of incomprehensible dimensions.


Adorno’s statement that one cannot live honestly in the false totality of bourgeois society is only partially correct – an honest life begins already in the struggle against the falsehood of bourgeois society (Negt, 1984, p.90).

As Johannes Agnoli (2001, p.14) has argued in a different context, history shows that the interests of the ruling class have always entailed violence and destruction. For us that means that those who do not engage in the negation of the capitalist mode of production, should not speak about freedom and peace. Put differently, those who seriously want freedom and equality as social individuals but do not wish to destabilize capitalism, contradict themselves. Marx was adamant that the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved by the working class itself. Communism, for Marx, stands for a classless society. He argued that human history begins when Man3 has created social relations in which humanity is no longer an exploitable resource but a purpose. His critique of bourgeois society does not merely wish to expose its true character, that is the accumulation of human machines on the pyramids of accumulation for accumulation’s sake. He also, and importantly, showed that the constituted forms of bourgeois social relations are forms of human social practice. This is the material basis for his revolutionary demand that all relations which render Man a forsaken being have to be abolished in favour of the society of the free and equal, a society of human dignity where all is returned to Man who, no longer ruled by self-imposed abstraction, controls his own social affairs and is in possession of himself.

Marx’s critique shows that the forms of capitalism obtain as a perverted forms of ‘community’, a community established by things. He charges that the individuals must emancipate themselves from this abstract community in order ever to be able to interact with one another ‘as individuals’ (Marx and Engels, 1962, p.70). This central idea is presented most emphatically in The German Ideology: ‘The reality [das Bestehende], that communism creates, is precisely the real [wirkliche] basis for rendering it impossible that any reality should exist independently of individuals, in so far as this reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of the individuals themselves’ (ibid., p.70). This, then, is the conception of communism as social autonomy where no-thing exists independently from the social individual. The society of the free and equal, then, can neither be decreed by the revolutionary party nor can it be realized through the good offices of the state. It goes forward through the practical critique of capital and its state. This critique makes itself practical in the self-organization of the dependent masses who anticipate in their struggle against bourgeois society the elements of the new society. The means of revolution have to be adequate to its ends, that is, human emancipation. Anti-globalization has, thus, to mean complete democratization: the democratic organization of socially necessary labour by the associated producers themselves.

The struggle for the society of the free and equal is a struggle over the principles of the social organization of labour. Instead of a social reality where the products of social labour appear to have mastery over, instead of being controlled by Man, social reproduction has to be ‘controlled by him’ (see Marx, 1983, p.85). Marx’s critique of political economy does therefore not rest in its macro-economic interpretation by the party leadership ostensibly endowed with scientific insights into economic laws and their application through the good offices of the state. Rather, it is realised in its negation (Marcuse, 1979, p.242). In sum, ‘all emancipation is the restoration of the human world and of human relationships to Man himself’ (Marx).

The theoretical and practical orientation on the utopia of the society of the free and equal is the only realistic departure from the inhumanity that the world market society of capital posits. What, then, is to be done? The idea of the revolutionary party as the organizational form of revolution has to be abandoned. The form of the party contradicts the content of revolution, and that is, human emancipation – the emancipation of the dependent masses can only be achieved by the dependent masses themselves. The notion of the form of the state as an instrument of revolution has to go. The idea of the seizure of power on behalf of the dependent masses has to be exposed for what it is: the denial of the society of the free and equal. Moaning about the ‘excesses’ of capital has to stop. A lamenting critique merely seeks to create a fairer capitalism, conferring on capital the capacity to adopt a benevolent developmental logic. Capital is with necessity ‘excessive’ in its exploitation of labour. To lament this is to misunderstand its social constitution. The attempt to define the revolutionary subject has to be abandoned. This subject can neither be derived analytically from the ‘logic’ of capital, nor can its existence be decreed by the party, as if it were a mere foot-soldier. The revolutionary subject develops through a constant conflict with capital and its state, and the social composition of this subject will depend on those who stand on the side of human emancipation. In theoretical terms, the revolutionary subject can only be determined as human dignity. The question of human emancipation is not a theoretical but a practical question. Against the contemporary indifference to the project of human emancipation, the principle of hope in the society of the free and equal has to be rediscovered. ‘The more improbable socialism appears, the more desperately one has to stand up for it’ (see Horkheimer, 1974, p.253). What, then, is to be done?


This book is in three parts. The contribution to Part One examine the theoretical roots of Leninism, the tradition of anti-Leninist Marxism and discusses the red thread of Marx’s conception of labour as the constitutive force of communism. Part One starts with a chapter by Cajo Brendel. His assessment of the elimination of the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 provides the theoretical and historical context of the volume as a whole. Simon Clarke shows that Leninism is rooted in the populist tradition which Marx opposed. Diethard Behrens contextualises Lenin’s theory against the background of the debates in the German Social-Democratic Party and reviews the argument of the anti-Leninist tradition, including Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek. Mike Rooke’s chapter shows that, in contrast to Lenin, Marx saw the society of the free and equal, not as a result of revolution, but as the constitutive force of the class struggle against capital.

Part Two examines the question, what is to be done?, in the contemporary world. Alberto Bonnet offers a critique of Leninist theory of imperialism against the background of globalization and shows, with reference to Latin-America, that it is the insurbordination of labour that is key for the understanding of the fragility of global capital. Werner Bonefeld assesses the Leninist conception of revolution, and concludes with an appraisal of contemporary capitalist developments. George Caffentzis argues that contemporary movements can learn from Lenin’s conception of the circulation of struggle and assesses Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire, arguing that their conception of revolution fails to convince. Sergio Tischler conceptualizes the dialectics of class struggle and, against the background of the crisis of orthodox conceptions of revolution, assesses the practical and theoretical implications of the Zapatistas for revoluntionary renewal. The two contributions to Part Three conclude the volume. Johannes Agnoli offers a critique of institutional politics, shows how such politics either affirms or mirrors existing conditions and argues that social autonomy is the productive force of human emancipation. Agnoli’s concerns are carried forward by John Holloway who argues that revolution does not mean the seizure of power. Rather, as Holloway argues, it is a struggle against power, not for power, and that is, a struggle for social autonomy.


Agnoli, J. (2001), Politik und Geschichte, Ça ira, Freiburg.

Bonefeld, W. (1997), ‘Notes on Anti-Semitism’, Common Sense, no. 21, pp. 60–76.

Bonefeld, W. (2000), ‘The Spectre of Globalization’, in Bonefeld, W. and K. Psychopedis (eds), The Politics of Change, Palgrave, London.

Bonefeld, W. and J. Holloway (1996), ‘Conclusion: Money and Class Struggle’, in Bonefeld, W. and J. Holloway (eds), Global Capital, National State and the Politics of Money, Palgrave, London.

Clarke, S. (2001), ‘Class Struggle and the Global Overaccumulation of Capital’, in Albritton, R. etal. (eds), Phases of Capitalist Development, Palgrave, London.

de Angelis, M. (2001), ‘From Movement to Society’, The Commoner, August, pp. 1–14, http://www.commoner.org.uk/.

Dinerstein, A. (1999), ‘The Violence of Stability: Argentina in the 1990s’, in Neary, M. (ed), Global Humanization, Mansell, London. Dinerstein, A. and M. Neary (eds) (2002), The Labour Debate, Ashgate, Aldershot.

Federici, S. and G. Caffentzis (2001), ‘Genova and the Anti-globalization Movement’, The Commoner, August, pp. 1–12, http://www.commoner.org.uk/.

Garcia Marquez, G. (1990), Newspaper Interview, El Nuevo Diario, April 25, Managua.

Holloway, J. and E. Peláez (eds) (1998), Zapatista, Pluto, London.

Horkheimer, M. (1974), Notizen 1950 bis 1989 und Dämmerung. Notizen in Deutschland, Fischer, Frankfurt.

Itoh, M. (2000), The Japanese Economy Reconsidered, Palgrave, London.

Korsch, K. (1970), Marxism and Philosophy, New Left Books, London.

Leeds (2001), The Leeds May Day Group, ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’, The Commoner, December, pp. 1–9, http://www.commoner.org.uk/.

Luxemburg, R. (1970), Schriften zur Theorie der Spontaneität, Rowohlt, Hamburg.

Marcuse, H. (1979), Vernunft und Revolution, Luchterhand, Darmstadt.

Marx, K. (1948), The Civil War in France, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Marx, K. (1968), Kritik des Gothaer Programms, MEW 19, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K. (1973), Grundrisse, Penguin, London.

Marx, K. (1983), Capital, vol. I, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1962), The German Ideology, MEW 3, Dietz, Berlin.

Negt, O. (1984), Lebendige Arbeit, enteignete Zeit, Campus, Frankfurt.

Pannekoek, A. (1948), Lenin as Philosopher, New Essays, New York.

  • 1See, for example, the contributions to Historical Materialism, no. 3.
  • 2This part draws on Bonefeld and Holloway (1996).
  • 3‘Man’, with a capital ‘M’, is used here and throughout the text in the sense of Mensch.