V. I.   Lenin

The Tasks of the Revolutionary Youth

First Letter[3]

Published: Published in September 1903 in Student, No. 2-3. Signed: N. Lenin. Published according to the text in Student.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, publisher??, 1964, Moscow, Volume 7, pages 43-56.
Translated: Fineberg Abraham
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
Copyleft: V. I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) © 2002 Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
Other Formats:   Text

The editorial statement of the newspaper Student,[4] which, if we are not mistaken, was first published in No. 4 (28) of Osvobozhdeniye,[5] and which was also received by Iskra, is indicative in our opinion of a considerable advance in the editors’ views since the appearance of the first issue of Student. Mr. Struve was not mistaken when he hastened to express his disagreement with the views set forth in the statement: those views do indeed differ radically from the trend of opportunism so consistently and zealously maintained by the bourgeois-liberal organ. By recognising that “revolutionary sentiment alone cannot bring about ideological unity among the students”, that “this requires a socialist ideal based upon one or another socialist world outlook” and, moreover, “a definite and integral” outlook, the editors of Student have broken in principle with ideological indifference and theoretical opportunism, and have put the question of the way to revolutionise the students on a proper footing.

True, from the current standpoint of vulgar “revolutionism”, the achievement of ideological unity among the students does not require an integral world outlook, but rather precludes it, involving a “tolerant” attitude towards the various kinds of revolutionary ideas and abstention from positive commitment to some one definite set of ideas; in short, in the opinion of these political wiseacres, ideological unity presupposes a certain lack of ideological principles (more or less skilfully disguised, of course, by hackneyed formulas about breadth of views, the importance of unity at all costs and immediately, and so on and so forth). A rather plausible and, at first glance, convincing argument always produced in support of this line of reasoning is to point to the generally known and incontrovertible fact that among the students there are, and are bound to be, groups differing greatly in their political and social views, and to declare that the demand for an integral and definite world outlook would therefore inevitably repel some of these groups and, consequently, hinder unity, produce dissension instead of concerted action, and hence weaken the power of the common political onslaught, and so on and so forth, without end.

Let us examine this plausible argument. Let us take, for example, the division of students into groups given in No. I of Student. In this first issue the editors did not yet advance the demand for a definite and integral world outlook, and it would therefore be difficult to suspect them of a leaning towards Social-Democratic “narrowness”. The editorial in the first issue of Student distinguishes four major groups among the present-day students: 1) the indifferent crowd—"persons completely indifferent to the student movement”; 2) the “academics"—those who favour student movements of an exclusively academic type; 3) “opponents of student movements in general—nationalists, anti-Semites, etc."; and 4) the d politically minded"—those who believe in fighting for the overthrow of tsarist despotism. “This group, in turn, consists of two antithetical elements—those belonging to the purely bourgeois political opposition with a revolutionary tendency, and those who belong to the newly emerged [only newly emerged?— N. Lenin] socialistically minded revolutionary intellectual proletariat." Seeing that the latter subgroup is divided in its turn, as we all know, into Socialist-Revolutionary students and Social-Democratic students, we find that there are among the present-day students six political groups: reactionaries, indifferents, academics, liberals, Socialist- Revolutionaries and Social-Democrats.

The question arises: is this perhaps an accidental grouping, a temporary alignment of views? That question has only to be raised for anyone at all acquainted with the matter to answer it in the negative. And, indeed, there could not be any other grouping among our students, because   they are the most responsive section of the intelligentsia, and the intelligentsia are so called just because they most consciously, most resolutely and most accurately reflect and express the development of class interests and political groupings in society as a whole. The students would not be what they are if their political grouping did not correspond to the political grouping of society as a whole— “correspond” not in the sense of the student groups and the social groups being absolutely proportionate in strength and numbers, but in the sense of the necessary and inevitable existence among the students of the same groups as in sccie y. And Russian society as a whole, with its (relatively) embryonic development of class antagonisms, its political virginity, and the crushed and downtrodden condition of the vast, overwhelming majority of the population under the rule of police despotism, is characterised by precisely these six groups, namely: reactionaries, indifferents, uplifters, liberals, Socialist-Revolutionaries and Social- Democrats. For “academics” I have here substituted “up lifters”, i.e., believers in law-abiding progress without a political struggle, progress under the autocracy. Such uplifters are to be found in all sections of Russian society, and everywhere, like the student “academics”, they confine themselves to the narrow range of professional interests, the improvement of their particular branches of the national economy or of state and local administration; everywhere they fearfully shun “politics”, making no distinction (as the academics make none) between the “politically minded” of different trends, and implying by the term politics everything that concerns ... the form of government. The uplifters have always constituted, and still constitute, the broad foundation of our liberalism: in “peaceful” times (i.e., translated into “Russian”, in times of political reaction) the concepts uplifter and liberal become practically synonymous; and even in times of war, times of rising public feeling, times of mounting onslaught on the autocracy, the distinction between them often remains vague. The Russian liberal, even when he comes out in a free foreign publication with a direct and open protest against the autocracy, never ceases to feel that he is an uplifter first and foremost, and every now and again he will start talking like a slave, or,   if you prefer, like a law-abiding, loyal and dutiful subject— vide Osvobozhdeniye.

The absence of a definite and clearly discernible border line between uplifters and liberals is a general characteristic of the whole political grouping in Russian society. We might be told that the, above division into six groups is incorrect because it does not correspond to the class division of Russian society. But such an objection would be unfounded. The class division is, of course, the ultimate basis of the political grouping; in the final analysis, of course, it always determines that grouping. But this ultimate basis becomes revealed only in the process of historical development and as the consciousness of the participants in and makers of that process grows. This “final analysis” is arrived at only by political struggle, sometimes a long, stubborn struggle lasting years and decades, at times breaking out stormily in the form of political crises, at others dying down and, as it were, coming temporarily to a standstill. Not for nothing is it that in Germany, for example, where the political struggle assumes particularly acute forms and where the progressive class—the proletariat—is particularly class- conscious, there still exist such parties (and powerful par ties at that) as the Centre, whose denominational banner serves to conceal its heterogeneous (but on the whole decidedly anti-proletarian) class nature. The less reason is there to be surprised that the class origin of the present-day political groups in Russia is strongly overshadowed by the politically disfranchised condition of the people as a whole, by the domination over them of a remarkably well organised, ideologically united and traditionally exclusive bureaucracy. What is surprising, rather, is that Russia’s development along European capitalist lines should already, despite her Asiatic political system, have made so strong a mark on the political grouping of society.

In our country too, the industrial proletariat, the progressive class of every capitalist country, has already entered on the path of a mass, organised movement led by Social-Democracy, under the banner of a programme which has long since become the programme of the class-conscious proletariat of the whole world. The category of people who are indifferent to politics is of course incomparably   larger in Russia than in any European country, but even in Russia one can no longer speak of the primitive and primeval virginity of this category: the indifference of the non- class-conscious workers—and partly of the peasants too—is giving place more and more often to outbursts of political unrest and active protest, which clearly demonstrate that this indifference has nothing in common with the indifference of the well-fed bourgeois and petty bourgeois. This latter class, which is particularly numerous in Russia owing to her still relatively small degree of capitalist development, is already unquestionably beginning, on the one hand, to produce some conscious and consistent reactionaries; but on the other hand, and immeasurably more often, it is still little to be distinguished from the mass of ignorant and downtrodden “toiling folk” and draws its ideologues from among the large group of raznochintsy[6] intellectuals, with their absolutely unsettled world outlook and unconscious jumble of democratic and primitive-socialist ideas. It is just this ideology that is characteristic of the old Russian intelligentsia, both of the Right wing of its liberal-Narodnik section and of the most Leftward wing: the “Socialist Revolutionaries”.

I said the “old” Russian intelligentsia. For a new intelligentsia, whose liberalism has almost entirely sloughed off primitive Narodism and vague socialism (not without the help of Russian Marxism, of course), is already making its appearance in our country. The formation of a real bourgeois-liberal intelligentsia is proceeding in Russia with giant strides, especially owing to the participation in this process of people so nimble and responsive to every opportunist vogue as Messrs. Struve, Berdyaev, Bulgakov & Go. As regards, lastly, those liberal and reactionary elements of Russian society who do not belong to the intelligentsia, their connection with the class interests of one or another group of our bourgeoisie or landowners is clear enough to anyone at all acquainted, say, with the activities of our Zemstvos,[7] Dumas, stock-exchange committees, fair committees, etc.

And so, we have arrived at the indubitable conclusion that the political grouping of our students is not accidental, but is bound to be such as we have depicted above, in concurrence with the first issue of Student. Having established that fact, we can easily cope with the controversial question of what, actually, should be understood by “achieving ideological unity among the students”, “revolutionising” the students, and so on. It even seems very strange at first glance that so simple a question should have proved controversial. If the political grouping of the students corresponds to the political grouping of society, does it not follow of itself that “achieving ideological unity” among the students can mean only one of two things: either winning over the largest possible number of students to a quite definite set of social and political ideas, or establishing the closest possible bond between the students of a definite political group and the members of that group outside the student body. Is it not self-evident that one can speak of revolutionising the students only having in mind a perfectly definite content and character of this revolutionising process? To the Social-Democrat, for example, it means, firstly, spreading Social-Democratic ideas among the students and combating ideas which, though called “Socialist-Revolutionary”, have nothing in common with revolutionary socialism; and, secondly, endeavouring to broaden every democratic student movement, the academic kind included, and make it more conscious and determined.

How so clear and simple a question was confused and rendered controversial is a very interesting and very characteristic story. A controversy arose between Revolutsionnaya Rossiya (Nos. 13 and 17) and Iskra (Nos. 31 and 35) over the “Open Letter” of the Kiev Joint Council of United Fraternities and Student Organisations (printed in Revolutsionnaya Rossiya, No. 13, and in Student, No. 1). The Kiev Joint Council characterised as “narrow” the decision of the Second All-Russian Student Congress of 1902 that student organisations should maintain relations with the committees of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party; and the quite obvious fact that a certain section of the students in certain localities sympathise with the “Socialist Revolutionary Party” was nicely covered up by the very   "impartial” and very unsound argument that “the students as such cannot associate themselves in their entirety with either the Socialist-Revolutionary Party or the Social- Democratic Party”. Iskra pointed to the unsoundness of this argument, but Revolutsionnaya Rossiya, of course, flew to arms in its defence, calling the Iskra-ists “fanatics for divisions and splits” and accusing them of “tactlessness” and lack of political maturity.

After what has been said above, the absurdity of such an argument is only too apparent. The question at issue is the particular political role the students should play. And, don’t you see, you must first shut your eyes to the fact that the students are not cut off from the rest of society and therefore always and inevitably reflect the political grouping of society as a whole, and then, with eyes thus shut, proceed to chatter about the students as such, or the students in general. The conclusion arrived at is ... the harmfulness of divisions and splits resulting from association with a particular political party. It is clear as daylight that in order to carry this curious argument to its conclusion, the arguer had to leap from the political plane to the occupational or educational plane. And it is just such a flying leap that Revolutsionnaya Rossiya makes in the article “The Students and Revolution” (No. 17), talking, firstly, about general student interests and the general student struggle and, secondly, about the educational aims of the students, the task of training themselves for future social activity and developing into conscious political fighters. Both these points are very just—but they have nothing to do with the case and only confuse the issue. The question under discussion is political activity, which by its very nature is connected inseparably with the struggle of parties and inevitably involves the choice of one definite party. How, then, can one evade this choice on the grounds that all political activity requires very serious scientific training, the “development” of firm convictions, or that no political work can be confined to circles of politically minded people of a particular trend, but must be directed to ever broader sections of the population, must link up with the occupational interests of every section, must unite the occupational movement with the political movement and raise the former to the level of the   latter?? Why, the very fact that people have to resort to such devices in order to defend their position shows how sadly they themselves are wanting both in definite scientific convictions and in a firm political line! From whatever side you approach the matter, you find fresh confirmation of the old truth which the Social-Democrats have long propounded in condemning the efforts of the Socialist- Revolutionaries to balance themselves—as regards both scientific theory and practical politics—between Marxism, West-European “critical” opportunism and Russian petty- bourgeois Narodism.[1]

Indeed, imagine a state of things where political relations are at all developed and see how our “controversial question” looks in practice. Suppose there is a clerical party, a liberal party and a Social-Democratic party. In certain localities they function among certain sections of the students, let us say, and, perhaps, of the working class. They try to win over as many as possible of the influential representatives of both. Is it conceivable that they would object to these representatives choosing one definite party on the grounds that there are certain general educational and occupational interests common to all the students and to the entire working class? That would be like disputing the fact that parties must contend on the grounds that the art of printing is useful to all parties without distinction. There is no party in the civilised countries that does not realise the tremendous value of the widest and most firmly established educational and trade unions; but each seeks to have its own influence predominate in them. Who does not know that talk about this or that institution being non-partisan is generally nothing but the humbug of the ruling classes, who want to gloss over the fact that existing institutions are already imbued, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, with a very definite political spirit? Yet what our Socialist-Revolutionaries do is, in effect, to sing dithyrambs to “non-partisanship”. Take, for example, the following moving tirade in   Revolutsionnaya Rossiya (No. 17): “What short-sighted tactics it is when a revolutionary organisation is determined to regard every other independent, non-subordinate organisation as a competitor that must be destroyed and into whose ranks division, disunity, and disorganisation must at all costs be introduced!" This was said in reference to the 1896 appeal of the Moscow Social-Democratic organisation, which reproached the students for having in recent years with drawn into the narrow confines of their university interests, and which Revolutsionnaya Rossiya admonished, saying that the existence of student organisations never prevented those who had “crystallised as revolutionaries” from devoting their energies to the workers’ cause.

Just see how much confusion there is here. Competition is possible (and inevitable) only between a political organisation and another political organisation, a political tendency and another political tendency. There can be no competition between a mutual aid society and a revolutionary circle; and when Revolutsionnaya Rossiya ascribes to the latter the determination to destroy the former, it is talking sheer nonsense. But if in this same mutual aid society there develops a certain political tendency—not to aid revolutionaries, for instance, or to exclude illegal books from the library—then every honest “politically minded” person is in duty bound to compete with it and combat it outright. If there are people who confine the circles to narrow university interests (and there undoubtedly are such people, and in 1896 there were far more!), then a struggle between them and the advocates of broadening, not narrowing, the interests is similarly imperative and obligatory. And, mind you, in the open letter of the Kiev Council, which evoked the controversy between Revolutsionnaya Rossiya and Iskra, the question was of a choice not between student organisations and revolutionary organisations, but between revolutionary organisations of different trends. Consequently, it is people already “crystallised as revolutionaries” that have begun to choose, while our “Socialist-Revolutionaries   are dragging them back, on the pretext that competition between a revolutionary organisation and a purely student organisation is short-sighted.... That is really too senseless, gentlemen!

The revolutionary section of the students begin to choose between two revolutionary parties, and are treated to this lecture: “It was not by imposing a definite [indefiniteness is preferable, of course... I party label [a label to some, a banner to others I, it was not by violating the intellectual conscience of their fellow-students [the entire bourgeois press of all countries always attributes the growth of Social- Democracy to ringleaders and trouble-makers violating the conscience of their peaceable fellows...] that this influence was achieved”, i.e., the influence of the socialist section of the students over the rest. Assuredly, every honest-minded student will know what to think of this charge against the socialists of “imposing” labels and “violating consciences And these spineless, flabby and unprincipled utterances are made in Russia, where ideas of party organisation, of party consistency and honour, of the party banner are still so immeasurably weak!

Our “Socialist-Revolutionaries” hold up as an example to the revolutionary students the earlier student congresses, which proclaimed their “solidarity with the general political movement, leaving quite aside the factional dissensions in the revolutionary camp”. What is this “general political” movement? The socialist movement plus the liberal movement. Leaving that distinction aside means siding with the movement immediately nearest, that is, the liberal movement. And it is the “Socialist-Revolutionaries   who urge doing that! People who call themselves a separate party urge dissociation from party struggle! Does not this show that that party cannot convey its political wares under its own colours and is obliged to resort to contraband? Is it not clear that that party lacks any definite programmatic basis of its o vn? That we shall soon see.


The errors in the Socialist-Revolutionaries’ arguments about the students and revolution cannot be attributed merely to. the lack of logic that we have tried to demonstrate above. In a certain sense it is the other way round: the illogicality of their arguments follows from their basic error. As a “party” they from the first adopted so inherently contradictory, so slippery a stand that people who   were quite honest and quite capable of political thinking could not maintain it without constantly wobbling and falling. It should always be remembered that the Social- Democrats do not ascribe the harm done by the “Socialist Revolutionaries” to the socialist cause to various mistakes on the part of individual writers or leaders. On the contrary, they regard all these mistakes as the inevitable consequence of a false programme and political position. In a matter like the student question this falsity is particularly apparent and the contradiction between a bourgeois-democratic view point and a tinselled covering of revolutionary socialism becomes manifest. Indeed, examine the train of thought in Revolutsionnaya Rossiya’s programmatic article “The Students and Revolution”. The author’s main emphasis is on the “unselfishness and purity of aims”, the “force of idealistic motives” of the “youth”. It is here that he seeks the explanation of their “innovatory” political strivings, and not in the actual conditions of social life in Russia, which, on the one hand, produce an irreconcilable antagonism between the autocracy and very broad and very heterogeneous sections of the population and, on the other, render (soon we shall have to be saying: rendered) extremely difficult any manifestation of political discontent except through the universities.

The author then turns his guns on the attempts of the Social-Democrats to react consciously to the existence of different political groups among the students, to bring about closer unity of like political groups and to separate the politically unlike. It is not that he criticises as incorrect any of these attempts in particular—it would be absurd to maintain that all of them were always wholly successful. No, he is a stranger to the very idea that differing class interests are bound to be reflected in the political grouping too, that the students cannot be an exception to society as a whole, however unselfish, pure, idealistic, etc., they may be, and that the task of the socialist is not to gloss over this difference but, on the contrary, to explain it as widely as possible and to embody it in a political organisation. The author views things from the idealist standpoint of a bourgeois democrat, not the materialist standpoint of a Social-Democrat.

He is therefore not ashamed to issue and reiterate the appeal to the revolutionary students to adhere to the “general political movement”. The main thing for him is precisely the general political, i.e., the general democratic, movement, which must be united. This unity must not be impaired by the “purely revolutionary circles”, which must align themselves “parallel to the general student organisation”. From the standpoint of the interests of this broad and united democratic movement, it would be criminal, of course, to “impose” party labels and to violate the intellectual conscience of your fellows. This was just the view of the bourgeois democrats in 1848, when attempts to point to the conflicting class interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat evoked “general” condemnation of the “fanatics for divisions and splits”. And this too is the view of the latest variety of bourgeois democrats—the opportunists and revisionists, who yearn for a great united democratic party proceeding peaceably by way of reforms, the way of class collaboration. They have always been, and must necessarily be, opponents of “factional” dissensions and supporters of the “general political” movement.

As you see, the arguments of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, which from the standpoint of a socialist are illogical and contradictory to the point of absurdity, become quite understandable and consistent when viewed from the standpoint of the bourgeois democrat. That is because the Socialist-Revolutionary Party is, actually, nothing but a subdivision of the bourgeois democrats, a subdivision which in its composition is primarily intellectual, in its stand point is primarily petty-bourgeois, and in its theoretical ideas eclectically combines latter-day opportunism with old-time Narodism.

The best refutation of the bourgeois democrat’s phrases about unity is the course of political development and of the political struggle itself. And in Russia the growth of the actual movement has already led to this kind of refutation. I am referring to the emergence of the “academics” as a separate group among the students. As long as there was no real struggle, the academics did not stand out from the “general student” mass, and the “unity” of the whole “thinking section” of the students appeared inviolable. But as   soon as it came to action, the divergence of unlike elements became inevitable.[2]

The progress of the political movement and of the direct onslaught on the autocracy was immediately marked by greater definiteness of political grouping—despite all the empty talk about uniting anybody and everybody. That the separation of the academics and the politically minded is a big step forward, hardly anyone, surely, will doubt. But does this separation mean that the Social-Democratic students will “break” with the academics? Revolutsionnaya Rossiya thinks that it does (see No. 17, p. 3).

But it thinks so only because of the confusion of ideas which we have brought out above. A complete demarcation of political trends in no wise signifies a “break-up” of the occupational and educational unions. A Social-Democrat who sets out to work among the students will unfailingly endeavour to penetrate, either himself or through his agents, into the largest possible number of the broadest possible “purely student” and educational circles;he will try to broaden the outlook of those who demand only academic freedom, and to propagate precisely the Social-Democratic programme among those who are still looking for a programme.

To sum up. A certain section of the students want to acquire a definite and integral socialist World outlook. The ultimate aim of this preparatory work can only be—for students who want to take practical part in the revolutionary movement—the conscious and irrevocable choice of one of the two trends that have now taken shape among the revolutionaries. Whoever protests against such a choice on the plea of effecting ideological unity among the students, of revolutionising them in general, and so forth, is obscuring socialist consciousness and is in actual fact preaching absence of ideological principles. ’[he political grouping of the students cannot but reflect the political grouping of society as a whole, and it is the duty of every socialist to strive for the most conscious and consistent demarcation of politically unlike groups. The Socialist- Revolutionary Party’s appeal to the students to “proclaim their solidarity with the general political movement and leave quite aside the factional dissensions in the revolutionary camp” is, essentially, an appeal to go back, from the socialist to the bourgeois-democratic standpoint. This is not surprising, for the “Socialist-Revolutionary Party” is only a subdivision of the bourgeois democrats in Russia. When the Social-Democratic student breaks with the revolutionaries and politically minded people of all other trends, this by no means implies the break-up of the general student and educational organisations. On the contrary, only on the basis of a perfectly definite programme can and should one work among the widest student circles to broaden their academic outlook and to propagate scientific socialism, i.e., Marxism.

P. S. In subsequent letters I should like to discuss with the readers of Student the importance of Marxism in moulding an integral world outlook, the differences between the principles and tactics of the Social-Democratic Party and the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, the problems of student organisation, and the relation of the students to the working class generally.


[1] It need hardly be said that the thesis that the programme and tactics of the Socialist-Revolutionaries are inconsistent and inherently contradictory requires special detailed elucidation. We hope to go into this in detail in a subsequent letter. —Lenin

[2] If certain reports are to be credited, a further divergence of the unlike elements among the students is becoming increasingly marked, namely, dissociation, of the socialists from political revolutionaries who refuse to hear of socialism. It is said that this latter trend is very pronounced among the students exiled to Siberia. We shall see if these reports are confirmed. —Lenin

[3] No subsequent letters appeared. The article was reprinted as a mimeographed pamphlet under the title “To the Students. The Tasks of the Revolutionary Youth (Social-Democracy and the In telligentsia)"; and Department of Police documents for 1904-05 show that copies of the pamphlet were discovered during arrests and house-searches in Ekaterinoslav, Nizhni-Novgorod, Kazan, Odessa, Arzamas, and the Smolensk and Minsk gubernias.

[4] Student—a revolutionary student newspaper. Three issues appeared: No. I in April and No. 2-3 in September 1903.

[5] Osvobozhdeniye (Emancipation)—a fortnightly journal of the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie, published abroad in 1902-05 under the editership of P. B. Struve. The followers of Osvobozhdeniye later made up the core of the Constitutional-Democratic (Cadet) Party, the principal bourgeois party in Russia.

[6] The rasnochinisy (i.e., “men of different estates") were the Rus sian commoner-intellectuals, drawn from the small townsfolk, the clergy, the merchant classes, the peasantry, as distinct from those drawn from the nobility.

[7] Zemstvos—the so-called local self-government bodies, dominated by the nobility, set up in the central gubernias of tsarist Russia in   1864. Their competence was confined to purely local economic and welfare matters (hospital and road building, statistics, insurance, etc.), and they functioned under the control of the provincial governors and the Ministry of the Interior, who could invalidate any decisions the government found undesirable.

Works Index   |   Volume 7 | Collected Works   |   L.I.A. Index
< backward   forward >