V. I.   Lenin

Where to Begin?[2]

Written: Written in May 1901
Published: Published in Iskra, No. 4, May 1901. Published according to the Iskra text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961, Moscow, Volume 5, pages 13-24.
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2001). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
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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.[3] This journal’s latest statement of “programme”, a bombastic article under the bombastic title “A Historic Turn” (“ListokRabochevo Dyela, No. 6[4]), 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,[5] 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 so forth.

We might perhaps declare ourselves happy at Rabocheye Dyelo’s quick grasp of the programme we put forward in the first issue of Iskra,[6] calling for the formation of a strong well-organised party, whose aim is not only to win isolated concessions but to storm the fortress of the autocracy itself; but the lack of any set point of view in these individuals can only dampen our happiness.

Rabocheye Dyelo, of course, mentions Liebknecht’s name in vain. The tactics of agitation in relation to some special question, or the tactics with regard to some detail of party organisation may be changed in twenty-four hours; but only people devoid of all principle are capable of changing, in twenty-four hours, or, for that matter, in twenty-four months, their view on the necessity—in general, constantly, and absolutely—of an organisation of struggle and of political agitation among the masses. 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 tactics?

Fortunately, Rabocheye Dyelo is in error. The question of terror is not a new question at all; it will suffice to recall briefly the established views of Russian Social-Democracy on the subject.

In principle we have never rejected, and cannot reject, terror. Terror is one of the forms of military action that may be perfectly suitable and even essential at a definite juncture in the battle, given a definite state of the troops and the existence of definite conditions. But the important point is that terror, at the present time, is by no means suggested as an operation for the army in the field, an operation closely connected with and integrated into the entire system of struggle, but as an independent form of occasional attack unrelated to any army. 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.

The lesson of the February and March events[7] has been so impressive that no disagreement in principle with this conclusion is now likely to be encountered. What we need at the present moment, however, is not a solution of the problem in principle but a practical solution. We should not only be clear on the nature of the organisation that is needed and its precise purpose, but we must elaborate a definite plan for an organisation, so that its formation may be undertaken from all aspects. In view of the pressing importance of the question, we, on our part, take the liberty of submitting to the comrades a skeleton plan to be developed in greater detail in a pamphlet now in preparation for print.[8]

In our opinion, the starting-point of our activities, the first step towards creating the desired organisation, or, let us say, the main thread which, if followed, would enable us steadily to develop, deepen, and extend that organisation, should be the founding of an All-Russian political newspaper. 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.

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. 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 lake 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[1] 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.

In conclusion, a few words to avoid possible misunderstanding. 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”.


[1] It will be understood, of course, that these agents could work successfully only in the closest contact with the local committees (groups, study circles) of our Party. In general, the entire plan we project can, of course, be implemented only with the most active support of the committees which have on repeated occasions attempted to unite the Party and which, we are sure, will achieve this unification—if not today, then tomorrow, if not in one way, then in another. —Lenin

[2] “Where To Begin” was published in Iskra and reissued by local Social-Democratic organisations as a separate pamphlet. The Siberian Social-Democratic League printed 5,000 copies of the pamphlet and distributed it throughout Siberia. The pamphlet was also distributed in Samara, Tambov, Nizhni-Novgorod, and other Russian cities.

[3] Rabocheye Dyelo (The Workers’ Cause)—a journal with “Economist” views, organ of the Union of Russian Social-Democrats Abroad. It appeared irregularly and was published in Geneva from April 1899 to February 1902 under the editorship of B. N. Krichevsky, A. S. Martynov, and V. P. Ivanshin. Altogether 12 numbers appeared in nine issues.

Lenin criticised the views of the Rabocheye Dyelo group in his What Is To Be Done? (see present volume, pp. 347-529).

[4] ListokRabochevo Dyela (Rabocheye Dyelo Supplement)—of which eight numbers were issued in Geneva, at irregular intervals, between June 1900 and July 1901.

[5] Rabochaya Mysl (Workers’ Thought)—an “Economist” newspaper, organ of the Union of Russian Social-Democrats Abroad, published from October 1897 to December 1902. Altogether 16 issues appeared: numbers 3 to 11 and number 16 were published in Berlin, the remaining numbers in St. Petersburg. It was edited by K. M. Takhtarev and others.

Lenin characterised the paper’s views as a Russian variety of international opportunism arid criticised them in a number of his articles published in Iskra and in other works including What Is To Be Done?

[6] The reference is to the article “The Urgent Tasks of Our Movement”, which was published as the leading article in Iskra, No. 1, December 1900 (see present edition, Vol. 4, pp. 366-71).

Iskra (The Spark)—the first All-Russian illegal Marxist news paper, founded by Lenin in 1900. The foundation of a militant organ of revolutionary Marxism was the main task confronting Russian Social-Democrats at the time.

Since the publication of a revolutionary newspaper in Russia was impossible, owing to police persecution, Lenin, while still in exile in Siberia, worked out all the details of a plan to publish   the paper abroad. When his term of exile ended in January 1900, be immediately began to put his plan into effect. In February, he conducted negotiations with Vera Zasulich, who had come illegally to St. Petersburg from abroad, on the participation of the Emancipation of Labour group in the publication of an All-Russian Marxist newspaper. The so-called Pskov Conference was held in April, with V. I. Lenin, L. Martov (Y. 0. Tsederbaum), A. N. Potresov, S. I. Radchenko, and the “legal Marxists” (P. B. Struve and M. I. Tugan-Baranovsky) participating. The conference heard and discussed Lenin’s draft editorial declaration on the programme and the aims of the All-Russian newspaper (Iskra) and the scientific and political magazine (Zarya). Lenin visited a number of Russian cities—St. Petersburg, Riga, Pskov, Nizhni Novgorod, Ufa, and Samara—establishing contact with Social- Democratic groups and individual Social-Democrats and obtaining their support for Iskra. In August, when Lenin arrived in Switzerland, he and Potresov held a conference with the Emancipation of Labour group on the programme and the aims of the newspaper and the magazine, on possible contributors, on the composition of Editorial Board, and on the problem of residence. For an account of the founding of Iskra see the article “How the ’Spark’ was Nearly Extinguished” (see present edition, Vol. 4, pp. 333-49).

The first issue of Lenin’s Iskra was published in Leipzig in December 1900; the ensuing issues were published in Munich; from July 1902 it was published in London; and from the spring of 1903 in Geneva.

The Editorial Board consisted of V. I. Lenin, G. V. Plekhanov, L. Martov, P. B. Axelrod, A. N. Potresov, and V. I. Zasulich. The first secretary of the Editorial Board was I. G. Smidovich-Leman. From the spring of 1901 the post was taken over by N. K. Krupskaya, who was also in charge of all correspondence between Iskra and Russian Social-Democratic organisations. Lenin was actually Editor-in-Chief and the leading figure in Iskra. He published his articles on all important questions of Party organisation and the class struggle of the proletariat in Russia and dealt with the most important events in world affairs.

Iskra became, as Lenin had planned, a rallying centre for the Party forces, a centre for the training of leading Party workers. In a number of Russian cities (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Samara, and others) groups and committees of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (P1.S.D.L.P.) were organised along Lenin’s Iskra line. Iskra organisations sprang up and worked under the direct leadership of Lenin’s disciples and comrades-in-arms: = N. E. Bauman, I. V. Babusbkin, S. I. Gusev, M. I. Kalinin, G. M. Krzhizhanovsky, and others. The newspaper played a decisive role in the struggle for the Marxist Party, in the defeat of the “Economists”, and in the unification of the dispersed Social-Democratic study circles.

On the initiative and with the direct participation of Lenin, the Editorial Board drew up a draft programme of the Party   (published in Iskra, No. 21) and prepared the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P., which was held in July and August 1903. By the time the Congress was convened the majority of the local Social-Democratic organisations in Russia had joined forces with Iskra, approved its programme, organisational plan, and tactical line, and accepted it as their leading organ. By a special resolution, which rioted the exceptional role played by Iskra in the struggle to build the Party, the Congress adopted the news paper as the central organ of the R.S.D.L.P. and approved an editorial board consisting of Lenin, Plekhanov, and Martov. Despite the decision of the Congress, Martov refused to participate, and Nos. 46 to 51 were edited by Lenin and Plekhanov. Later Plekhanov went over to the Menshevik position and demanded that, all the old Menshevik editors, notwithstanding their rejection by the Congress, be placed on the Editorial Board. Lenin could not agree to this, and on October 19 (November 1, new style), 1903, he left the Iskra Editorial Board to strengthen his position in the Central Committee and from there to conduct a struggle against the Menshevik opportunists. Issue No. 52 of Iskra was edited by Plekhanov alone. On November 13 (26), 1903, Plekhanov, on his own initiative and in violation of the will of the Congress, co-opted all the old Menshevik editors on to the Editorial Board. Beginning with issue No. 52, the Mensheviks turned Iskra into their own, opportunist, organ.

[7] This passage refers to the mass revolutionary actions of students and workers— political demonstrations, meetings, strikes—that took place in February and March 1901, in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov, Kazan, Yaroslavl, Warsaw, Belostok, Tomsk, Odessa, and other cities in Russia.

The student movement of 1900-01, which began with academic demands, acquired the character of revolutionary action against the reactionary policy of the autocracy; it was supported by the advanced workers and it met with a response among all strata of Russian society. The direct cause of the demonstrations and strikes in February and March 1901, was the drafting of 183 Kiev University students into the army as a punitive act for their participation in a students’ meeting (see present edition, Vol. 4, pp. 414-19). The government launched a furious attack on participants in the revolutionary actions; the police and the Cossacks dispersed demonstrations and assaulted the participants; hundreds of students were arrested and expelled from colleges and universities. On March 4 (17), 1901, the demonstration in the square in front of the Kazan Cathedral, in St. Petersburg, was dispersed with particular brutality. The February-March events were evidence of the revolutionary upsurge in Russia; the participation of workers in the movement under political slogans was of tremendous importance.

[8] The reference is to Lenin’s work What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (see present volume, pp. 347-529). p. 20

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