In his well-known work from 1902, What is to Be Done?, Lenin writes:
It is precisely our campaign of exposure that will help us separate the tares from the wheat. What the tares are, we have already indicated. By the wheat we mean attracting the attention of ever larger numbers, including the most backward sections, of the workers to social and political questions, and freeing ourselves, the revolutionaries, from functions that are essentially legal (the distribution of legal books, mutual aid, etc.), the development of which will inevitably provide us with an increasing quantity of material for agitation … In a word, our task is to fight the tares. It is not our business to grow wheat in flower-pots. By pulling up the tares, we clear the soil for the wheat. And while the Afanasy Ivanoviches and Pulkheria Ivanovnas are tending their flower-pot crops, we must prepare the reapers, not only to cut down the tares of today, but to reap the wheat of tomorrow (Lenin 1902 -b: 455-6).
The telling feature of this interpretation (of Matthew 13: 24-30) is not that it is a passing allusion, but that it becomes a key mode for organising Lenin’s struggles with various opponents in the socialist movement. His interpretation is both close in spirit to the biblical parable and yet has its own twists. The similarities first: the crucial issue is discernment, separating the tares from the wheat, the former appearing in a negative register as one’s opponents and the latter belonging to one’s own side. Further, the tares must be pulled up or cut down, so that it becomes clear who is part of the wheat. And the task falls to the ‘reapers’, who come to scythe away the weeds for the sake of the wheat.
Now the creative engagement with the parable begins. Lenin’s concern is not the minutiae of biblical commentary, attempting to locate the slippery and ultimately untraceable original ‘meaning’ or ‘intention’ of the parable (a task that has wasted the immense energies of generations of biblical scholars). No, Lenin is interested in direct application. We may call this Lenin’s homiletical concern, which assumes that the parable speaks to our concerns today, that it has immediate relevance.
In this light, the crucial issue in the context of his interpretation of the parable is the relation between legal and illegal political activity. Should the worker movements and trade unions be strictly legal and public, working within the existing frameworks to achieve small gains? Or should the communist movement also have an illegal core, a secret network that seeks to dismantle those very frameworks themselves. Contrary to the standard interpretations of Lenin, he argued for both legal and illegal forms, indeed for a dialectical relation between them (Lih 2008 : 449; 2011: 100-10; Zinoviev 1973 : 153-4). He was not one who eschewed the legal work of trade unions and worker organisations in favour of a small cadre of revolutionary intellectuals; instead, the illegal organisation would work closely with the legal forms, spreading the socialist message, organising strikes (both economic and political), training radical and ‘purposive workers’, ensuring that the legal organisations have a good number of underground members involved. The legal organisations thereby became the means for a widespread movement, for the opportunity to agitate at a level well beyond that of the illegal movement. This is the classic ‘merger’ hypothesis first put forward by Kautsky in his The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program), a text to which Lenin and other communists were committed (Kautsky 1910 ; see further Lih 2008 ; Lih 2011; Harding 2009, vol. 1: 161-89). In this light, the socialist movement involved a merger between socialists and workers, as well as between illegal and legal forms of organisation. These are the wheat.
But who are the tares? In this text, they are the ones who argue for legal organisations alone. Here we find Zubatov and the legal unions under ‘police socialism’, as well as their supporters among the priests and university professors. The Zubatov unions would soon pass as the workers saw through the attempt to divert revolutionary energy. Yet in What is to be Done? a few other tares also appear. The prime one is ‘economism’, the position that workers should restrict themselves to purely economic gains (better pay, shorter hours, improved conditions) and leave political agitation to the bourgeoisie, that there is no need for the merger or fusion between workers and the revolutionary tradition since worker organisations (strike committees and legal organisations) were enough.
Beyond the struggles of 1902, we may also identify the Narodniks (who argued that the unique Russian village commune – mir or obshchina – provided the basis for a step straight into communism without passing through capitalism); katheder-socialists (German professors – hence ‘katheder’ – who argued that the bourgeois state would peacefully introduce socialism); ‘legal’ Marxism (which fostered katheder-socialism in Russia); ‘Bernsteinianism’ (from Eduard Bernstein, who argued that socialism would be achieved peacefully as workers gradually won more rights and the bourgeoisie would see the benefits of socialism); liquidators (who argued for the cessation of illegal party work and the restriction to legal work alone), otzovists (who took the other path, pushing for only illegal work), God-builders (those to left of Lenin who sought to make socialism a new religion); conciliators (attempting to bring all the factions together); Socialist-Revolutionaries (from the Narodnik tradition, espousing individual terrorism and abolition of private ownership of land), and the Mensheviks (self-consciously designating themselves the ‘minority’, as a sign of their advanced position, but whose moderate position destroyed their credibility by the time of October 1917).
But let us return to the legal-illegal issue. Is Lenin’s position of a dialectic between legal and illegal organisations entirely foreign to the biblical parable? If we look at the context of the parable in Matthew 13, we find a constant refrain: parables are for the inner circle of disciples, who are given the deeper meaning of the parables, while those outside do not see, hear or understand (see Matthew 13: 10-17). And then Jesus quotes Psalm 78:2 (attributing it to ‘the prophet’): ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 13: 35). The catch with the parables of course is that their meaning remained open-ended and a little unclear even to the disciples. Even the inner group struggled to understand, thereby becoming one with the outer, public (and thereby legal) group. Here too we find a dialectic between inner and outer, between legal and illegal (in Lenin’s terms). Lenin seems to have captured this sense of the parable as well – or rather, the context in which he appropriated the parable made it relevant to his situation.
In light of this legal-illegal struggle, another dimension of Lenin’s interpretation of the parable of the tares becomes important. Note especially the following sentence: ‘It is not our business to grow wheat in flower-pots’. No longer do we have the field in which the seed is sown, but now a flower-pot. The pot becomes the constraints of the existing political and economic order. One must water the plants, may constrain their growth by the size of the pot, move the pot to another location, and the harvest will of course be quite small. This is all a solely legal organisation may achieve. By contrast, an illegal organisation wishes to smash the pot and open up the possibility of sowing wheat in the whole field. Here one will still find tares, but once they are cleared, the wheat harvest will be far, far greater. Again and again, Lenin uses the image of thirty, sixty and hundred-fold harvests, drawn now from the parable of the sower (Lenin 1902 -b: 472, 485; 1902 -a: 248; 1903 : 311-12).
Two final items from Lenin’s interpretation go beyond the Gospel parable: first, the timing of the weeding out of the tares may take place at various moments. No need to wait for the final harvest, for one may either pull up the tares first in order to ‘clear the soil for the wheat’, tearing ‘the evil up by the roots’, or one may ‘cut down the tares of today’ in order to ‘reap the wheat of tomorrow’. A further option is that the tares may actually assist the growth of the wheat. In the middle of Lenin’s text, he urges the legal unions to continue their work. Why? In the spirit of the need for a merger between legal and illegal organisations, Lenin argues that the growth of the tares may actually assist the growth of the wheat, with the hint that some tares may turn out to be or indeed become wheat. Here we are back with the spirit of the biblical parable, for one now waits for the final harvest in order to discern clearly which are the tares and which the wheat.
All of which leads me to suggest that the parable of the tares and the wheat may be one fruitful way – taking Lenin’s lead – of characterising the myriad splits and groups within the Russian socialist movement well beyond the immediate context of What is to be Done?. The political issues may have changed over time, from tsarist repression through the period of the Dumas (1905-1917) to the October Revolution and afterwards, but the free-wheeling and open struggles would continue. Indeed, the importance of the parable of the tares in expressing a key element of Lenin’s argument in What is to be Done? may be illustrated by the fact that Lenin cites precisely this passage in later works to state the core of his argument concerning party organisation. For example, in the wake of the 1905 revolution he writes:
It was the Ninth of January  that proved again and again the importance of the task formulated in that pamphlet: “… we must prepare reapers, both to cut down the tares of today and to reap the wheat of tomorrow” (Lenin 1905 -b: 155-6; see also Lenin 1905 -a: 214-15).
Roland Boer, on the California Zephyr (train), somewhere between San Francicso and Chicago
Harding, Neil. 2009. Lenin’s Political Thought. Chicago: Haymarket.
Kautsky, Karl. 1910 . The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program). Translated by W. E. Bohn. Chicago: Charles Kerr.
Lenin, V.I. 1902 -a. A Letter to a Comrade on Our Organisational Tasks. In Collected Works, Vol. 6. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 229-50.
———. 1902 -b. What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. In Collected Works, Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 347-529.
———. 1903 . Some Reflections on the Letter from ‘7 Ts. 6 F.’. In Collected Works, Vol. 6. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 310-16.
———. 1905 -a. New Tasks and New Forces. In Collected Works, Vol. 8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 211-20.
———. 1905 -b. Two Tactics. In Collected Works, Vol. 8. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 148-57.
Lih, Lars T. 2008 . Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? in Context, Historical Materialism Book Series. Chicago: Haymarket.
———. 2011. Lenin. London: Reaktion Books.
Zinoviev, Grigorii. 1973 . History of the Bolshevik Party – A Popular Outline. Translated by R. Chappell. London: New Park.
 A married couple from Gogol’s short story, ‘Old-World Landowners’, in which Pulkheria Ivanovna tends her flowerpots to the exclusion of any concern with what is happening elsewhere on the estate, let alone the world beyond.