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James P. Cannon

Organization of Propaganda Meetings

14 May 1928

Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

The following article by Cannon was published in the Daily Worker.

Communist tactics and methods of work, the placing of emphasis on this or that form of activity, are naturally regulated to a very large extent by the given situation and the stage of development. Communist propaganda and agitation through the medium of mass meetings are always in order, even after the seizure of political power, as we see in Russia where great attention and skill is devoted to this work. If the Russian party, which rules the country, has not found it advisable to dispense with such activities, it is fairly obvious that they have possibilities yet for us.

Propaganda Meetings Important

We in America are in that stage of development where the ideas of Communism have as yet penetrated only a very narrow fringe of the working class. The overwhelming masses have absolutely no conception of our aims beyond that false and distorted one furnished them by our enemies. The natural operation of the laws of capitalism will push the millions of American workers, now mental and spiritual captives of the ruling class, onto the path of class struggle and in the direction of their historic goal, regardless of their present understanding and will. It is our task as Communists, taking part in all the struggles of the workers, to accelerate this process by all means in our power and to impart to it the greatest possible degree of consciousness as it develops. For this an enormous amount of agitation and propaganda will be necessary. This work, of course, will take many and varied forms, but the spoken word, the public mass meeting, will play a great part. The day of the importance of propaganda meetings is by no means over; indeed, for our party the period just ahead of us must and will see a much greater emphasis placed upon them. And in connection with this our party comrades will begin, for the first time, to devote serious attention to the technique of organizing propaganda meetings.

If we except the larger cities where we have staffs of professional party workers (and not all of them!) we must acknowledge that our party on the whole has not properly estimated the importance of this elementary revolutionary work, and consequently has not derived the maximum benefits which skillful organization would bring. For the most part, our comrades, who have become experts in a number of activities, remain hopeless amateurs in this field, although there is nothing involved except the assimilation and application of a few organizational rules and principles derived from the experience of the past.

The Socialist Party of pre-war days was far ahead of us on this score and knew how to organize propaganda meetings in such a way as to make them mighty instruments of agitation and inspiration. The speakers did not do all of this by any means. Organizational technique played the principal role in this work of the old Socialist Party. Would it be treason to Communism if we should borrow and learn from this experience? I think not. On the contrary, I would not be above ``lifting’’ a few tricks of the art of propaganda anywhere they can be found and made serviceable for our revolutionary work. Aside from that, we are the rightful heirs of all that was sound and proletarian in the old Socialist Party and its accomplishments belong to us. We ought to study the old movement more attentively.

Rules for Organizing Meetings

I have had some experience as a speaker and even more as local organizer of meetings for other speakers. Like all who have had this experience, I have learned a number of rules and principles for the successful organization of meetings which I am going to enumerate here. These organizational rules and principles are bound up with a certain conception of the function and purpose of agitation and propaganda meetings which I think is a correct one.

They must be a recruiting ground for the organization. They must provide inspiration together with instruction. They must strengthen the morale of the comrades and leave them with a feeling of success and accomplishment, and they must provide revenue for the organization and not deficits. These things cannot be accomplished by the speaker alone. The organization of the meeting and the atmosphere in which it is held have an equal importance. A mediocre speech will often serve the purpose with the proper organization and atmosphere of the meeting, while a good speech will often be a heartbreaking failure without them. As a rule the measure of success is determined by the attention and skill devoted to the preparation and organization of the meeting along the following lines:

1. Put a committee in charge of the arrangements of the meeting with responsibility for different phases of the work definitely assigned to individual members.

2. Advertise the meeting widely. People won’t come unless they know about it. A penny-pinching policy on advertising is absolutely fatal to success.

Mailing Lists

3. Build up and use a mailing list. This is one of the most important instruments of every local organization. It should contain the name of every member, sympathizer and prospective sympathizer, properly classified. Every name on it should receive notice of the meeting, and as many handbills or pluggers advertising the meeting as a two-cent stamp will carry. A local organizer who doesn’t keep an up-to-date mailing list and use it constantly is working with one arm in a sling.

4. As a rule admission should be charged for the meetings and tickets should be sold in advance. The most extensive experience shows that more people attend meetings for which tickets are sold in advance and the financial returns from the meeting are much greater. There are exceptional circumstances where it is advisable to hold a free mass meeting, but the comrades who never want to charge admission on the ground that the workers are too poor to pay are victims of a false theory and a harmful prejudice. All experience speaks against them. Sell tickets in advance and send a number on credit to every name on your mailing list, using discretion as to the amount in each case. Don’t be afraid someone will sell a few tickets and abscond with the money. This doesn’t happen very often, and even then the organization is the gainer for everyone who comes to the meeting on an unpaid ticket.

5. Always try for publicity for the meeting in the local capitalist papers as well as in the party and labor press. The best way to do this is to establish personal acquaintance with a reporter or staff member on each paper who handles labor news. There are few cities where small notices cannot be secured if real systematic efforts are made. Of course good-sized write-ups are secured only in rare cases and with the most prominent speakers, but it should be remembered that a small notice in a local capitalist paper reaches thousands of workers who do not read our own press.

6. Hire a hall with a seating capacity approximately the same as the size of the crowd you expect. This detail is of the utmost importance. Atmosphere is a great part of the meeting. A crowd of 200 lost in a hall with a seating capacity of 1,000 throws a chill over the meeting, takes the heart out of the speaker and leaves the crowd at the end with a feeling of failure and defeat. The same crowd of 200 with the same speaker comfortably filling or packing a smaller hall will produce a meeting with entirely opposite effects. Remember this rule: get a hall to fit the size of crowd you expect.

7. Select a chairman able to attend strictly to the business of supervising the meeting, making the necessary announcements and introducing the speaker. That’s all! Many a promising meeting has been spoiled by a loquacious chairman who undertook to make the speaker’s address for him in advance. This happens all too frequently, and local organizations which take their propaganda meetings seriously should put a stop to this harmful nonsense. It is better to offend the chairman by telling him bluntly that he talks too much, than to offend a whole audience by forcing them to hear a long speech they didn’t come to hear.

And what about the speaker himself? Has he no rights at all? An old campaigner once expressed the sentiments of all speakers when he said that if he could get only one wish granted he would ask for a tongue-tied chairman.

8. Ushers should be selected in advance by the committee and they should be on hand early to escort people to the front seats as they arrive. Then latecomers will take the rear seats without disturbing the meeting. Without ushers the early arrivals will invariably take the rear seats, leaving the front ones vacant.

Then it will happen just as invariably that others will straggle in all through the meeting and come gawking all over the front of the hall looking for a seat just at the time the speaker is working hardest to get the attention of the audience for what he considers a particularly impressive point. An efficient set of ushers is indispensable to a well-organized meeting.

9. In cool weather make certain beforehand that the hall is properly heated. This is necessary for the success of the meeting, the comfort of the audience and the health of the speaker. Such a detail would seem obvious, but I have never yet made a tour in wintertime without having at least one or two meetings in cold halls due to the negligence and thoughtlessness of the local committee, and I never yet saw a meeting held under such circumstances that could be called a success.

Sale of Literature

10. The selling of literature, taking collections and passing out application cards for new members are details which work themselves out best in actual practice without a uniform plan. The best results in selling literature from the platform are gained if one piece is concentrated on, leaving the rest for sale at the literature table near the door.

If the speaker is worth his salt, a meeting conducted along these lines will be a success and will strengthen the local organization morally, organizationally and financially, provided one final detail is not overlooked. That is: Quit on time and on the right note. Pace the meeting along and get it through quickly after the speech is over. Don’t let it drag along and fizzle out until the audience gets tired and begins to leave of its own accord.

Attention to these practical details until they become a matter of routine in the organization of public meetings will bring rich returns to the party in the field of propaganda work.