When Vladimir Lenin posed this question in 1901, socialism was riven. Most early Marxists believed that the core prediction of Marx’s theory — an inevitable proletarian revolution — was just around the corner. But by the turn of the 20th century, the revolution appeared farther away than ever. If anything, the contradictions among the classes were cooling in advanced capitalist states, not boiling over.
So why the two-bit summary of a turn-of-the-20th century dispute among socialists? Simply this: Lenin’s pamphlet paved the path for revolutionaries around the world. As I was noodling on The Meaning of #Stoos, I re-read it and picked out a few things that change agents can learn from Lenin:
- Show that you know “What Is To Be Done?” The title itself is a clear call to change, which Lenin knew would intrigue and inspire his audience. It also hints that he had the answer.
- Show that you know the problem Lenin realized that Marxist theory was a powerful “call to take the field against the enemy.” But its guidance was so focused on the economics of workers vs. capital that most volunteers went into “battle with astonishingly primitive equipment and training.” Success would take a group of professional revolutionaries using “all the rules of the art” of organizing. Furthermore, his arguments hit hardest at the premises of his adversaries; in other words, he not only didn’t argue on their terms, he argued that their terms were part of the problem.
- Professionalization can make change dangerous. Lenin’s point won the day. Now just about all revolutionaries prefer professional, vanguard-led organizations. Even corporate change is driven this way; nearly every transformational project engages professional change experts. But if small, apparently imperceptible changes can make things worse — Steve Denning has a great product anecdote here — what can happen when professionals turn things upside down…on purpose?
I’ll get back to this topic later…