Leon Trotsky

Our Political Tasks

The content of our activity in the proletariat

Beyond any doubt, interesting years of struggle await us and unprecedented events are preparing. But at the present time it is at all costs indispensable to get ourselves out of the impasse in which our Party has now been struggling for a year. The work of the committees is being carried out in lamentable conditions. There are is almost no political “contact” with the masses and the organisational links with them are weak. This is why to speak of the proletariat as the vanguard of the general struggle makes our ears burn at this point in time. For every Social Democrat capable of thinking politically, it must be clear that our work suffers from a profound disorder, be it passed on from “Economism” or “caught” during the Iskra period, and that this “disorder” prevents us rising to our full height. It would be naïve to think that internal frictions are the cause of the atrophy. They are only the symptoms of it.

If we set aside the internal differences, organisational conflicts, mutual “boycotts” etc, and only consider the content of our party work, we shall be surprised by its quantitative and qualitative poverty. Every field of our activity is covered by sheets of white paper of varying dimensions, on which are printed generalities about the need to overthrow the autocracy “in the name of socialism.” These sheets of paper are called “proclamations” and the sum of these proclamations, for unknown reasons, is called the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Is this not the case?

The pivot of the work of the “Economists” was the strike. In the following period, the demonstration played more or less the same role. Without such “pivots,” our work in the masses would be absolutely impossible. In the West, apart from the fact that in recent times the pace of the movement there is incomparably more “measured,” the “critical moments” in the revolutionary “production process” are the periodical election campaigns. Strikes and demonstrations represent a whole series of complex practices of mass resistance, strengthen the feeling of solidarity, and develop a fighting outlook – and do so on a scale that neither agitation nor written propaganda could achieve. It would be totally utopian to believe – as the first Lavrists did – that it is possible to develop political class strength in the proletariat while remaining content to explain to it about the struggles of workers in other countries, or showing the need to struggle without at the same time showing what forms of struggle are possible at the given time, and calling on it to apply them. The strike and the demonstration, the two high points of struggle during the two preceding periods, not only gave practical reality to the feelings of protest which had emerged in the proletariat due to written and oral agitation, but also abruptly and rapidly widened the field of this agitation and qualitatively raised the receptivity of the masses to ideas of new forms of struggle, of greater importance and complexity.

According to the place occupied in the general context of our revolutionary struggle by a particular form developed by our practice in the independent action and activity of the masses, the organisation oscillated between two types: it was either conceived of as a technical apparatus for massive diffusion of published literature, be it within the country or abroad; or as a revolutionary “lever” to involve the masses in an intended movement, that is, to develop in them pre-existing capacities for autonomous activity. The “craft” organisation of the “Economists” was particularly close to the second type. Good or bad, this type of organisation was adapted to given forms of “practical resistance to capitalists by the workers.” Good or bad, it directly contributed to uniting and disciplining the workers in the “economic struggle,” that is, essentially, strike movements.

To find the virtually pure incarnation of the first type of organisation, we must turn to the Polish Socialist Party (PSP). Endeavouring to reduce to a minimum the sphere of reciprocal contact with the masses, the PSP went so far in its conference resolutions as to forbid, for conspirative reasons, all circle propaganda, and ended by entrusting the whole task of mobilising the masses to written activity alone: in part to its newpapers, but above all its proclamations.

“Conscious of the negative aspects of such a mode of work (the organisation of the Party in small propaganda circles), the Second Congress of the PSP in 1894, “the Party has directed all its efforts towards agitation by means of the press and has limited the work of the circles to the training of agitators. Publishing and mass distribution of socialist literature are the main (only? – T.) methods the PSP will use to fight for the mobilisation of the working masses in struggle against the government and the capitalists.”

“Such a conception of the Party”s tasks,” according to the author of the Brief History of the Socialist Movement in Russian Poland (p.129), “determined the whole activity of the PSP and gave it a specific character, far removed from the ideal of a genuinely proletarian party.” The same writer says further that the strikes, which broke out spontaneously, generally subsided without results. The PSP having no contact with the masses because of the considerable distance separating the organisation from them, was not only unable to lead and methodically orientate struggles, but did not even know how to make sensible use of them for political agitation (p. 190). The apparatus, extremely well adapted to the distribution of revolutionary literature, proved completely unusable in the role of regulator of the living revolutionary energy of the masses.

Far be it from us to want to take the Party back to the craft organisation of the “Economists.” But the organisation of the PSP – and here we are entirely in agreement with the author of this interesting Brief History – is also infinitely “far removed from the ideal of a genuinely proletarian party.” This seems indisputable to me. In fact (and I try to explain this below) even if we Social Democrats distributed our literature to perfection, we would not thereby constitute a Social Democratic Party. The organisational ideal which we have forged in the course of the struggle against “Economist” craft organisation, which was and still is imposed on us by a whole series of objective conditions, great and small, takes us closer and closer to the PSP, that is, to a party which as we have just seen considers “the massive diffusion of socialist literature” as the basic or, more accurately, the only means for “preparing the working masses for the fight against the government and the capitalists.” (!)

In reality, our organisation long since ceased to subject itself to the requirements and needs of the “trade union” struggle, in particular of the form the fight most frequently takes on: the strike. In the course of our struggle against “Economism,” to which we have opposed the practice of “political denunciations” on every occasion, not only have we completely unlearned the art of leading strikes, but we have even begun to suspect all “trade” struggles in general, considering that they are not “politically sound.”

At the beginning of the new century, announced in Russia by such noisy events, the demonstration had already replaced the strike as a central means of struggle of local work. In a whole series of towns the activity of the committees began to be limited to preparing a street demonstration, in the course of which very often all – or nearly all – the forces of the committees began to be limited to preparing a street demonstration, in the course of which very often all – or nearly all – the forces of the committees were involved in organising an action which in fact was not always all that flamboyant. But the demonstration without a precise objective, the demonstration against the existing regime “in general,” the demonstration for its own sake lost all its power of attraction once it ceased to be a novelty. The surplus of effervescence gained by the demonstration no longer compensated for the expense in terms of material and human forces. In the towns where demonstrations had already taken place, the masses were not so keep on facing the bayonets, bullets and nagaika (the cossack lash) just to sing revolutionary songs and wave the red flag. Demonstrations will only rise up again (I am saying this now to avoid all misunderstandings) if they come out of the application of richer and more complex methods for integrating the masses into the sphere of matters of living political interest.

Loosening or even directly breaking their solely “trade-union” relations with the masses, with the intention of making their organisation more “conspiratorial” and flexible and adapting it more definitely to the revolutionary direction of mass demonstrations, our committees cut the ground from under them; they were moreover obliged to convince themselves that the demonstrations were more and more rarely successful. Then the committees began to follow the line of least resistance and took the “mass demonstration” beyond its proper limits; this is why there were increasing attempts to adapt the local organisation to the tasks of street-fighting. In what committee can you still hear the speeches which were so common two years ago, about “armed resistance,” “military detachments” and “combat groups”? In none. What does this mean? The committee has no links with the masses; it does not lead strikes; it no longer calls demonstrations, or takes the lead in them.

The work of the committees, deprived of immediate revolutionary stimulus, is increasingly reduced to printing and distributing leaflets. The organisation is increasingly turned into an apparatus adapted to this technical function alone. Even the distribution of leaflets follows the line of least resistance, and because the organisation is far away from the masses, even neglects the workers (cf. the interesting letter from an Odessa worker in no.64 of Iskra).

The organisation is still, unlike the PSP – and this is a huge difference – distributing Social Democratic literature. But it would be a great mistake to believe that, in limiting the work to the distribution of Social Democratic literature, we are still building a Social Democratic Party. Of course – who denies it?–we necessarily need a working conspiratorial oraganisation. It is doubly, trebly necessary – but to do what? Exclusively, or mainly, successfully to distribute Social Democratic literature to a given section of the masses? The task, taken by itself, should not determine the structure of our organisation and the forms of its apparatus. No, a thousand times no! It is not enough to distribute literature bearing the emblem of such and such a Party institution. It must also be read by the working masses and that requires that the political attention of the masses be constantly kept on the alert. But this goal cannot be limited to the distribution of leaflets. And the more difficult this technical function becomes, the more we will dedicate ourselves to it. Literature will not penetrate all the depths and will only touch the masses superficially if the organisation is not adapted to its basic task: the working out or selection of tactical forms which arise spontaneously and thanks to which the workers can react collectively to all the events of social life which our party literature has the task of clarifying. It is precisely the task to which we must devote the main effort of the creative thinking of the leading politicians of our Party. It is precisely to this objective that the form of the Party’s organisation will be subordinated. Otherwise what will happen is that the Central Organ will write about everything, the Central Committee – in the ideal case – will see to it that the upper layers of the proletariat will read a little, from time to time.

If the Party is the consciousness of the organised class and the will of the organised class (and it is right to define it in this way), then the systematic perfecting of these two categories logically constitutes the conditioning of its development. To act fairly regularly on the consciousnessof the proletariat, by a “massive” distribution of Social Democratic literature, does still not mean building a proletarian Party. In fact, the Party is not only the consciousnessof the organised class, but also its organised will. The Party begins to exist where, on the basis of a given level of consciousness, we organise the political will of the class by using tactical methods corresponding to the general goal. The Party is only able to grow and progress continually by means of the interdependence of “will” and “consciousness” if every tactical step, carried out in the form of some manifestation of the political “will” of the most conscious elements of the class, inevitably raises the political sensitivity of these elements which yesterday were not involved, and thus prepares the material and ideological basis for new tactical steps, which will be more resolute, and of greater political weight and a more decided class character.

We are using general psychological terms here, because we do not now want to complicate the exposé by translating these basic ideas into the language of concrete examples and illustrations as long as we only raise the problems without putting forward the means of resolving them. But if the reader tries to get a clear picture of the role played by the strike in the practice of the “Economists,” and by the demonstration in the practice the period which followed, and if he is struck by the fact that the present practice lacks all these elements which gave life to the work at that time, making a careful examination of the ground we have covered and looking politically at all this “raw material” – then these arguments will not seem abstract to him, and he, along with us, will ask himself the following question: where are the tactical forms in which the conscious elements of the proletariat would appear not only as objects of policy, but also as its subjects: not only as a political audience, but also as the “collective actor”; not just readers of Iskra, but also as active participants in the political events?

Whoever even askshimself this question will surely see that the Party is more than just a political field under the direct influence of the paper; that the Party is not just composed of assiduous readers of Iskra, but of active elements of the proletariat who are engaged in their collective practice each day. Let us repeat, it is to arouse this collective activity, take it forward, co-ordinate it and give it shape (and just for that) that we need a supple, flexible organisation capable of initiatives, an “organisation of professional revolutionaries,” not of peddlers of literature, but of party political leaders.

Neglect of the tasks of autonomous activity of the proletariat:
the heritage of the Iskra period

Many, far too many comrades remain deaf and blind to the questions we have just raised. This deafness and blindness are not individual, chance faults, but characteristics arising as tendencies during the period of ideological liquidation, of “Economism” and “craft dilletantism.” Many Iskra-ists must become clearly conscious of these faults and “eliminate” them, and the sooner the better.

We, the Iskra-ists, have always been inclined to view the Party as the technical agency of the paper, and to identify the content of all the political works of our Party, with the content of our press alone.

Without taking stock of the “minority”s” energetic attempts to put an end to this narrow outlook, Comrade Lenin, in his latest pamphlet, attempts once more to reduce the problem of the content of our Party’s work to that of the content of its programme, or even of a few issues of Iskra (see One Step Forward). In this Comrade Lenin remains formally loyal to the traditions of What Is To Be Done? And in part to the traditions of the old Iskra. But Vernunft wird Unsinn (Reason becomes Unreason). This identification of the Party with its paper – which made some sense organisationally in relation to the given tasks of the preceding period) today turns into an extremely reactionary residue.

The problematic of he new period is defined by the contradiction between, on the one hand, the theoretical foundations of the Party, worked out in its writings in the course of the past period and formulated in its programme, and on the other hand the political content of the impact of the Party on the proletariat, and the influence of the proletariat on all the political groupings of society. To overcome this contradiction is the task placed on the agenda in Axelrod’s “notes,” and this is what gives meaning to the struggle of the “minority” against the narrow-mindedness, limitations and political formalism of the “majority.” To say as Lenin does that we are in the Social Democratic Party because we have a social democratic programme is to take a purely bureaucratic way out of a problem which may become fatal for our Party. Our programme, in theory, has not progressed one step in relation to that of the “Emancipation of Labour” Group worked out twenty years ago; but the forms of action in which our Party operates within society have become both richer and more complex.

Vernunft wird Unsinn! The extremely primitive organisational “plans” put forward by the author of What Is To Be Done? which occupied an insignificant place in the whole realm of ideas, but which, as propagated by Iskra and Zarya were nonetheless an undeniable factor for progress, reappear three years later in the work of their “epigone,” the author of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, as a furious attempt to prevent Social Democracy from being fully itself.

The old Iskra, as we said above, fought directly for influence over the revolutionary intelligentsia, so as to subjugate it to the political programme of the proletariat, which it had drawn up in a very vigorous way. Such a struggle has its own methods. Its only arm is literary polemics; for literary life is the specific milieu in which the Russian intelligentsia not only learnsbut also lives. It is in and through literature that the professionally “intelligent” intelligentsia adheres to the political principles of a given class. The plan of Iskra was to create a theoretical and political organ and group around it the revolutionary elements to be won to the cause of the proletariat. Iskra was a political platform and at the same time a weapon – essentially for struggle against the political “prejudices” of the intelligentsia. The content of the Party’s work was effectively identified with the content of Iskra – if you abstract from (and indeed everything was made in abstract) the immediate work in the proletariat, work which anyway was moving further and further away from the basic tasks and duties of the Party. Lenin’s “organisational plan” was not of course a revelation but – if one tries not to see his Letter to a Petersburg Comrade, his article Where to Begin? or even his book What is to be Done?as exercises of a bureaucratic pen – a good answer to the following question: where to begin, what is to be done is to assemble the scattered members of the future organisation of the Party and thus make it possible to establish broader political tasks? The way in which this organisation, once built, would acquit itself of its basic tasks, was of course evaded. I repeat, the so-called “organisational plan” concerned not so much the edifice of the Party itself, as the “scaffolding” necessary to build it (cf. What is to be Done, p.221).

The Second Congress, during which the “minority” could only put forward certain tactical questions very hastily (and in any case they attracted little serious attention, because the “main” thing had been done: Iskra was consolidated and the Central Committee subordinated to it), the Second Congress, with its plan of “orthodox theocracy” was a reactionary attempt to extend to the whole of the Party – in saecula saeculorum – the methods of work and forms of realtionship which has shown their utility in the limited field of struggle against “Economism” and “craft dilettantism,” in order to create a centralised organisation of professional Social Democratic revolutionaries. But congresses, however sovereign they may be, are no better able to halt the unfolding of history than absolute monarchs.

Against its will the Second Congress has become the instrument of new pretensions. It wished only to consolidate the gains of the period of “liquidation,” in fact, it has opened a new period, and has made us discover a whole universe of new tasks. And demonstrating the internal logic of the succession of these periods, the new tasks only flow specifically from our old basic problematic, which only now, thanks above all to the work of the old Iskra, is presented to us in a genuine, immediate form: the development of the consciousness and autonomous activity of the class of the proletariat.

This is however something more than we have done up to now. To resolve this problematic immediately, it is not enough to oppose in theory the principles of the proletarian class to the principles of the bourgeoisie. It is indispensable politically to oppose the proletariat to the bourgeoisie.

Social Democratic politics or the politics of the Credo?

How, and by what means? Before finding a reply to this question, I shall quote some passages from the unpublished memoir of a comrade from Odessa, so as to show how the “Economists” organised the “trade union” will (otherwise referred to as the “unwillingness”) of the proletariat. It concerns the strike of the cigarette workers at the beginning of 1896:

The strike had been in preparation for a long time. A fund had been set up for an imminent conflict with the bosses (thought in fact strike payments were made only in cases of extreme need). For the factories to stop, it was enough for the workers in shops producing superior and medium quality cigarettes to come out. The strike was in spite of everything very difficult to organise. It concerned almost exclusively families of quite old workers who because of their situation were more “reticent” to come out on strike. We held several preparatory meetings, where the question of the demands were analysed, and above all the question of when the reserves of cigarettes in the hands of manufacturers would have run so low that a one-week strike would have a chance of success. The month of January 1896 was found to be the most likely. The strike therefore began on wage demands. To economise on the fund, and above all to rally undecided workers, we organised collective meals. The workers spread out in such a way that convinced strikers were mixed with undecided ones at every group as they ate. It was due to this action of the “resolute” in relation to the “weak,” and in general due to the permanent contract among us that the strike was able to last so long. It was interrupted by the sudden arrest of many of the strikers in February 1896.

This gives us a picture of collective work worked out in great detail. A fund is set up. The demands are decided on jointly. The tobacco stocks are counted. Collective meals are organised for the strikers because of complex psychological considerations. If it is taken into account that the strike spread to most of the factories in Odessa, it becomes clear that an action on this scale required of the participants a feeling for organisation, perseverance, discipline, and knowledge of the circumstances – required all these qualities and at the same time shaped them.

Are we at present carrying out anything similar? In forms adapted to the broader tasks our organisations are now setting themselves? Who dares answer yes?

It is well known that the bosses have often made immediate concessions to the workers, without waiting for the strike, as soon as some leaflet appears denouncing some injustice or other. But the concessions have always been granted under the threat of an eventual strike. It is easily understood how the committee of “Economists” never arrived at the idea or at the practice of carrying out the struggle at work by means of leaflets for the workers, without needing to resort to such a serious weapons as the strike. The committees could not resolve on such a serious weapon as the strike. The committees could not resolve on such a simple policy, because the consequences would have been immediate: the manufacturers would have stopped making concessions, and the denunciatory leaflets of the Committee, which would no longer have been unable to draw on the “trade union” will of the workers, would have lost all effect.

But if this kind of simplification is already unthinkable in the work struggle, where every action is so to speak judged on immediate results, we can see that in the political field, where the relation between methods of struggle and results are infinitely more complex and much more difficult to evaluate – the surreptitious substitution of the “professional revolutionary” will of a committee (by means of resolutions) for the organised political will of he conscious elements of the proletariat, finds its widest application. It is not even necessary to show this – we can point straight to it.

A Petersburg propagandist tells me in a letter of a minor but significant episode: “Once I had recounted what had happened at the Congress with Pronin and Stepanov, a worker stood up and asked, very moved: But what are we going to do now? and the others said they were sorry that all this happened without them, that they had seen nothing and taken no part in it ...”

I must confess that when I read this, I too rose up like that worker and, seized by emotion, I asked myself: What are we going to do now? ... because this is fatal: an extremely important political event takes place, and moves the whole town and the whole country. The workers learn about it in passing, in the report of a propagandist, and are moved to ask: “What are we going to do now?” The propagandist does not know how to answer them. Nor does the committee. And what is worse still, the committee does not even pose the question, “What is to be done?”

At the same time we ask another question which follows directly from the first: Is there a very big difference between the “Economists” and us? Is there a basic difference in the content of the work? Alas, alas! The proletariat, in the period of “Economism,” was in a political ghetto, and it is still not out of it.

The radical democratic movement confronts the reaction, but the revolutionary proletariat stands on the sidelines and asks in bewilderment: “What is to be done now?” This episode in Petersburg, at first sight of slight importance, is symbolic: it sums up the typical features of all our party work. The revolutionary proletariat takes no part in the “action” in political events. There is not even an attempt to involve it. Of course, they are informed afterwards, by proclamation, of what has taken place, leaving them no option but to start and ask, bewildered: “What is to be done?” without getting a reply. This is the kind of practice which dominates the Party at the present time. Only pharisees will deny it. Any honest Social Democrat will recognise it, and will make the question of the Petersburg worker the business of his own political conscience.

I repeat, what difference is there between the practice of “Economism” and this “economism,” which we have so pitilessly condemned? And what’s more, has our political work not brought us much closer than the “Economists” themselves to the programme of this Credo which we had vowed to anathema?

The more closely you look at the four following figures: The “programist” Stepanov, the legal democrat, the Marxist propagandist from the committee and the “economist,” the more you distinguish their individual features, the more you see that each and every one of them “represents” his own political group and personifies the respective role of each of these groups in the political life of the country. And the more you feel obliged to answer in the affirmative the question posed above: yes, we have taken 0a long detour… carry out the programme of the Credo.

“For the Russian Marxist,” this programme said, “there is only one way: to participate, that is, to support the economic struggle of the proletariat and to collaborate in the activity of the liberal opposition.” In other words: on the one hand to lead the primitive manifestations of the class struggle of the proletariat and limit it to its embryonic forms; and on the other, to intervene actively in the ranks of the radical and liberal bourgeoisie.

If we consider the content of our work – and not only the content of our heads, our programme, or our Central Organ – we have the spectacle of a “Party” placed above the proletariat (at least as Comrade Lenin and his supporters understand the term Party), and more precisely we see three quarters of an organisation, if not nine-tenths, built of Marxist intellectuals, leading the primitive manifestations of the class struggle of the proletariat (both economic and political) and then leaving from time to time to campaign “among all classes of the population,” that is, taking part in the political struggles of the radical bourgeoisie. It will be retorted that this is a joke, or at least, a literary exaggeration.

Unfortunately, the practice of the committees corresponds perfectly with this “exaggeration.” The committees, although as we have said they are unlearning the art, lead the primitive forms of economic struggle (strikes) or political struggle (semi-spontaneous demonstrations of the proletariat, with vague revolutionary slogans), and they also “go among all classes of society” in one form or another (most often in the form of proclamations). And that’s all!

Some comrades have proudly pointed out that the expulsion of Pronin and Stepanov from the “Congress on questions of technical and professional training” had been prepared by the Petersburg Committee of the Party. I freely admit this. But this alone stresses the validity of the analysis put forward here. The Petersburg Committee, without the conscious proletariat participating or even being informed, found itself in agreement with the radical intelligentsia, which with its help united under a given slogan, showed its strength and took a step forward in its political development. Supporting the democratic intelligentsia with its initiative and with practical help, the Petersburg Committee thereby rendered assistance to the cause of the democratic fight against absolutism. But it should not be forgotten that the proletariat, the actual proletariat of Petersburg, remained completely outside these events, and was only afterwards able to ask the Party’s envoy: “What are we going to do now?” The group of “professional revolutionaries” was not marching at the head of the conscious proletariat, it was acting (in so far as it acted) in the place of the proletariat.

This practice of politically substituting for the class is evidently far removed from a local democratic practice. It is much closer to the programme of the Credo than the practice of economism itself. Economism deliberately limited itself to raising the primary (trade union) demands of the workers movement when it was in the lead of it. The theoreticians of the Credo, who considered the lack of autonomous politics of the proletariat an inevitable fact, taking social and political conditions in Russia into account, were logically consistent in demanding that the Social Democratic intelligentsia carry out their civic duties, that is, take an active part in political life. But in the absence of independent proletarian politics that could mean only one thing: to take part in the opposition politics of the liberal elements of society. Here the reluctance of Marxists to liquidate themselves into the bourgeois opposition was only doctrinaire obstinacy and thus “essentially harmed all those who are obliged to fight for legal forms, without the collaboration of the working class which has not yet resolved its political tasks” (the Credo). The “Economists” were therefore inconsistent and for the most part they proved to be in this sense “obstinate.”

But what did the “political” elements do when their turn came? They went back to the practice of “Economism.” They completed the practice of “Economism” – making it worse in one sense and better in another – by fulfilling the second task set by the Credo which is basically a bourgeois task.

And however astonishing it seems, a people who cannot listen to a word of the Credo are able to say: “They have come not to destroy but to do.”

So what is to be done?

The Petersburg Committee would have acted in a qualitatively different way if, every hour and every minute, it had felt it was not a substitute for the proletariat, but its political leader. There is an enormous difference, and it would have been reflected in the whole conduct of the Committee.

If the “Congress on technical and professional training” had political meaning, it was certainly to be made use of. We agree on that. But how? By remaining in the proletariat and not by leaving it. I think that if the Petersburg Social Democrats had not been afflicted by the malady which drives “professional revolutionaries” to emancipate themselves from the proletariat, they would not have reacted by turning their gaze towards the Congress, and their backs on the Petersburg workers. It would have been quite different. The Committee would have had to bring together all its propagandists and instruct them (not in passing, but by presenting things to them thoughtfully and in detail, relating this task to the sections of the programme concerning support for opposition and revolutionary movements, and to the relevant resolutions of the Second Party Congress) – instruct them to acquaint the advanced workers with the political features of the forthcoming Congress and the relationship of Social Democracy to it. The Congress would naturally have become the theme of discussion in special meetings. Perhaps too new discussions would have been necessary in the propaganda circles.

The campaign would have developed; interest in the Congress – at least in the most advanced layers – would have been aroused. After this the Committee would have had to draw up a resolution presenting the demands of the workers of Petersburg to the Congress. The resolution would have been debated in detail by one of the members of the Committee with the propagandists and agitators. They, in turn, would have circulated it throughout the cells of the organisation and collected signatures. Once there were 100 or 200, the resolution would have been printed and circulated for signatures. It would, of course, by signed with crosses. Workers attending the propaganda circles – above all the professional agitators – would have put everything into collecting the greatest possible number of signatures, attracting workers” interest in the Committee’s campaign by every possible means. In dozens of cases it would have been possible, without great effort, to replace the laborious collection of signatures by reading the resolution aloud and counting the vote by show of hands. The lists with crosses and numbers of hands voting, would have all been handed over to the Committee. And in so far as the campaign developed in breadth and depth, turning the “decision” of the official group of representatives of the Marxist intelligentsia of Petersburg into a formulation of the will of the conscious proletariat of Petersburg, the Committee would have gently begun to emerge from its state of “professional revolutionary” hibernation, and tried to feel like the leader of the revolutionary proletariat; it is an extremely strong feeling, but one we unfortunately have too little.

The Congress would have begun. The Petersburg Committee would have put forward its resolution, presenting the demands of 500, 1,000, 5,000 Petersburg workers. The resolution would have proposed, among other things, the expulsion of Pronin and Stepanov, as being indispensable. Each worker who had signed would have known that it was his own resolution being presented to the Congress, and that the Congress had to answer to him. If it had agreed to expel Pronin and Stepanov, the revolutionary worker would not have been asking “Miss,” the propagandist, voicing his emotion and bitter feeling of discontent and impotence: “What must we do know?” He would already have done what had to be done

Presentation of the resolution to the Congress would have offered two possibilities: the Congress would have acquiesced to the demands of the Petersburg workers, expelled the reactionary gangsters from its midst, and put forward in its own name the demands for the eight-hour day, freedom of assembly and of expression, etc. It was quite possible, because the radical-democratic intelligentsia has every interest in guarding its prestige in the eyes of the revolutionary proletariat. If the Congress had agreed, the proletariat would then have intervened actively as the vanguard of the democratic struggle in general, drawing in, by its political initiative and influence, the non-proletarian sectors of the democratic movement, to act more boldly and put forward more resolute demands. But if, on the other hand, the Congress had been more concerned to preserve its legal, moderate character than its democratic reputation, and had in some way shown its disdain for the demands of the Petersburg workers, they would have had a concrete, unforgettable lesson in the tendency to compromise and the lack of decisiveness which are typical of the bourgeois opposition. In a word, whatever the reaction of the Congress to the voice of the conscious proletariat, the efforts of the Committee would not have been in vain. The workers affected by the “pressure campaign” on the radical-democratic movement would thus have detached themselves from it. They would be concerned with developing their own role and would have acquired the habit – if it can be put like this – of being politically aware of their own (class) selves.

Of course, this Congress was not the centre of everything. It is only an example. However wretched out social life, it does provide a number of occasions on which the Party of the proletariat can intervene politically in an active way.

Did the Petersburg Committee make use of the recent elections to the duma which, because of the lowering of electoral qualifications, took place in such a lively atmosphere?

Last year, on the initiative of the Minister of the Interior, the zemstvos debated the question of electoral qualifications for election to these institutions. The zemstvo members testified to their modest inclination to “admit” some participation by the people in the political life of the future free Russia. The liberal press raged, proposed with the greatest radicalism compatible with its nature to lower the financial qualification and introduce the franchise based on “education” and residence. But did the proletariat raise its voice to protest against these two latter forms of franchise? No. Did the leading organisations even once try to attract the proletariat’s attention to this question? In no way! All the Party did in this respect was publish an editorial in Iskra No.55 (“With the people or against the people?”) The Central Organ was, so to speak, commissioned by the Congress to sign in the place of the politically immature proletariat. In such a case do we have even the slightest reason to hope that this proletariat which has kept so silent will be able to intervene actively to defend the interests of the people when the liberals assembled in the Zemsky Sobor (zemstvo assembly) begin to politically usurp the people? Or is it to be hoped that Iskra, mandated by a special congress, will at the decisive moment take the initiative and push the liberals to demond universal suffrage?

Substitutionism, always substitutionism!

This half-year of war has done nothing for the political education of the proletariat. But the war does give our Party irreplaceable material for all-Russia political campaigns, precisely because it affects the consciousness of the lowest layers in society. For example, the Party has set itself the task of devoting two or three months to concentrating the revolutionary forces around the slogan: Not a penny for the war! All agitation, carried out under the direction of a politically vigilant centre, develops along the same line. In all the circles and groups, in closed “discussions” and broader gatherings, and in published proclamations, the same theme always comes up. The servile or ambiguous behaviour of the liberal press, be it in Moscow or Stuttgart, the perfidy of the dumas and zemstvos, wasting the inexhaustible material for developing intensive oral and written committees – under the direction of a politically vigilant centre – organise an all-Russia protest against the scadalous behaviour of the bodies of self-administration (the duma, zemstvos, etc.) and against the press, redoubling the protest resolution and, where possible, organising mass demonstrations.

If our Party had even carried out one single campaign on the lines we are proposing, it would have been well on its way, and the (stupid) complaints against “internal enemies” would have stopped. The Party would have come out of it bigger!

A word about propaganda

With the political activity of our Party growing in depth and breadth, important changes are also to be made in the sphere of propaganda. The question of the place of propaganda in our work has always been a delicate point. We are carrying out an unprecedented historical experiment: we have to create the Party of the proletariat within the framework of absolutism (not only its police framework, but its socio-historic framework). This is why the whole history of our Party is, as has been said, the history of various attempts (following one on another by an inner logic) to simplify social democratic tasks, taking into account our political poverty. Propagandising the ideas of scientific socialism within small circles has always been a corrective to this spontaneous simplification. Still, propaganda has often been brought in “by stealth”; in reality, neither in the practice of “Economism” nor in Comrade Lenin’s so-called “plan” was circle propaganda basically considered to be a normal component of our activity. It was almost always considered to be a necessary tribute our Party had to pay to its Social Democratic nature. “Circle propaganda,” observes a Polish comrade in a polemic with the PSP, “is and will remain, in conditions where social democratic activity is illegal, the chief means for socialist organisation to produce the greatest possible quantity of intelligent, experienced agitators and leaders out of the workers’ movement.” (Sketch of a history of the socialist movement in Russian Poland, p.188.) If, during the period of organisational fetishism, we could not, like the PSP, through circle work overboard in favour of centralist, conspiratorial Party building, it is in large part to it that we owe the “little weaknesses” in the mechanism of our organisation, which has often left us without any publication and which has thus obliged us to resort to the “craft” methods of circle propaganda.

The task imposed on us by the new period in the Party is the following: to make our propaganda lose its abstract and often scholastic nature, and give it a living political content; to leave behind the “vestiges” of craft dilettantism, and make it an organic element of our broadening, deepening political work. Circle propaganda among us is usually organised – in so far as it is – on the lines of some programme drawn up by the committee, a very complex programme which is never really kept to. Slavery, feudalism, wage-workers. Or else: emancipation of the peasantry, populism, Noradnaya Volya, the development of industry, Social Democracy, etc. The propagandists, at least the sincere ones, complain that the workers are asleep. The attendance has already turned over by the time on reaches Social Democracy. And when it is reached, painfully, it is spoken of in dreadful abstractions, and there it ends. The propagandist does not understand that his business is politics, not pedagogy, and in politics more than anywhere else, “everything in its own good time.”

He does not feel, much less is he conscious, that his task consists of ideologically arming the workers of his circle, of transmitting to them the baggage of ideas and experience which will enable them to find their way immediately in all the events taking place in the town, the country, the whole world; that he must teach them not only to find their way on their own, but also to be able to use all events as live material for agitation. The propagandist, however, has only one thing on his mind: he has been asked to give the workers a “course.” And if the industrial crisis, the international socialist Congress, or the war with Japan surprise him during the lesson on the emancipation of the peasantry, he will sweep aside the question of the war and will continue, as before, to explain the history of the agrarian reform. As if the workers were pupils who have to prepare for an examination by following a course and not politically active people! Is it surprising, then, if the workers openly yawn? They would not do so if the propaganda were part and parcel of a political campaign which they can directly understand, or have to carry out.

But first, to show how propaganda is seen, let us quote a few passages from a pamphlet written by a number of “circle practitioners and leaders.” After first presenting their “programme,” which is neither better nor worse than dozens of other “programmes,” the authors of the pamphlet write:

These courses take a long time, extending over 20 evenings. So for every circle of 10 workers, the intellectual is taking five or six months. Now practice shows that the majority of the audience are not capable of completely assimilating the content of these courses. When the intellectual dwells on any question, the attention and receptiveness of the workers is lowered; it is clear that all the details of the lesson are without effect, that as little as possible should be said, in short, that the course should virtually be turned into an agitational speeches. We aren”t children any more and we have been steeped in propaganda quite long enough. There have even been cases of workers asking to have the first book of Capital discussed in the circle. (Letter to the Comrade Propagandist, 1902, p.6)

Here is the account of another propagandist, who also has his own personal “programme”:

The first two or three lessons were quite lively. They understood me, asked me questions, and visibly expected from me something new and powerful. But, after some time, interest began to wane. Absences became more numerous. Those who stayed became passive. I often se boredom on their faces, and in their eyes the silent question: “Why is he telling us all that?” I tried to change the tone of my talks and often, in relation to a particularly crying injustice on the part of the administration or the government, I tried to stress the crying failings of the whole system and the absolute necessity of struggle against it. I let myself go, spoke at length and passionately. I lifted my eyes to the audience and what did I see? They were there in front of me, quite indifferent and looking tired. And yet our working class is a profoundly revolutionary force. It demands action, and seeks it out. What a transformation in these same workers, when I happened to talk to them about the present struggles of their comrades, of the most notable strikes and demonstrations! How passionately those who had already taken part in such movements recounted their impressions! The accumulated revolutionary energy must be given a way forward. Our workers want action, real, live action: words only send them to sleep. They know, even without our sermons, that the capitalists and the government are their enemy, and must be fought; we have to show them the means of struggle and push them forward.

This is how the propagandists debate over the agitational and propaganda nature of their lessons, but without awakening the interest of their listeners. And they come quite close to recognising the root of evil: thought sleeps where the will is lacking. How is this to be overcome? How is our propaganda to be infused with life?

We have spoken above of the Congress on technical and professional training. Let us take this example once more. The Committee organises the complex political campaign sketched above. After fixing the main outlines of the plan of the campaign, one of the members of the Committee explains the plan to the propagandist and recommends them to give a basic explanation in the propaganda circles. You can be sure that at the resulting circle meetings no worker will go to sleep. At a stroke the propagandist will no longer feel like a teacher, but a political agent: he will feel that he is actively and directly taking part in a complex political job. His course will be on the political fight for which he has in advance carefully brought together all his knowledge on this subject. He reports on the planned Congress, explaining its political meaning and possibilities. After this he outlines the plan: to unite all the conscious elements of the proletariat around presenting an address to this Congress; he explains the role of the democratic intelligentsia and our relations with the opposition and revolutionary tendencies. All these questions must be discussed from the standpoint of principle, and thus related to the relevant passages of our programme. If the campaign extends over several weeks, the workers will certainly come to the following meetings with a whole series of problems which arise directly out of their practice as agitators. The answers one would give to these questions would not go in one ear and out the other, but would be engraved on their minds because they would not simply be laid down in the “course,” but would, on the contrary, be present and directly indispensable in order to bring a good, fascinating undertaking to a satisfactory conclusion.

If propaganda is carried out in this way, the resolutions of the Second Congress on the liberals, and the paragraph of the programme relating to it, take on flesh and blood; the workers will notice that the programmes and resolutions are not a trap, but a means of leading political battles great and small. So from one campaign to the next, the whole of the Party’s programme would be “kept under review” in the propaganda circles. True, in this case the logical order would not be followed; but in any case, whatever the system of propaganda, it is impossible to keep to such an order: either the circles disappear, or there is a turnover in attendance, or else the propagandists are arrested, etc.

When the local organisation is very weak and has only a limited sphere of influence, that is, when the committee does not have e strength to plan complex political operations – or even in the case of bigger and more powerful committees in periods of political quiet – then propaganda can be organised following the logical sequence of a course. But a committee would have difficulty finding a better logical order for the courses than that followed by our Party programme. In so far as propaganda work must absolutely follow a model, our programme is the one to be chosen: courses can be adapted to the successive paragraphs of the programme. The aim of such a course is to make every person attending the circle a conscious member of the Party, that is, someone who must “recognise” and therefore, above all, understand the Party programme.

But, let us repeat, the best method of studying the programme of the Party is to take live examples, analyse the events one after the other, always with a “utilitarian” political aim. Only then will propaganda cease to appear to be a concession (to the class, socialist character of the Party) – as it was for the “Economists” and their heirs. Propaganda conceived in this way gives our organisation not only executives for technical functions, but active members, who are not at a loss anywhere.

From pedagogy to tactics

In the Letter to the Comrade Propagandists quoted above, written at the end of 1901, published in 1902, and without the slightest repercussions at the time, when the problem posed was not on the agenda, we find these interesting lines:

The workers at every moment show their discontent with this state of things; day after day, month after month, they do nothing but listen, without being able to show anything of their own revolutionary attitude; then they begin to get into fights with informers and argue with their foreman; it is necessary to provide some outlet for their strength and energy; so the Committee has to integrate them into the system of messages of solidarity and protest. For example, the government is keeping quiet about the famine problem. A number of leaflets can be published on this, denouncing the diabolical job it does in “metamorphising” famine into bad harvests; then after publishing a proclamation to inviting workers to protest in writing, the text of the protest is drawn up and read out to all in the circles, and passed from hand to hand among the workers to collect signatures (anonymously, of course) and, finally, it is to be published in the name of the Committee, indicating the number of workers protesting. This easy, simple work will restore the workers” morale a little and, if often repeated, will prepare them to carry out more serious tasks. In the same way, if a strike breaks out somewhere, solidarity messages can be written, distributed widely on the basis of news about the development of the strike, collections, even small ones, can be taken among the workers, etc. In short, protest on every occasion which may justify it, be the echo of everything which may arouse workers” solidarity. In fact, why not try to boycott a hated foreman, or organise a strike over some trifle on which the factory owner or manager will easily give way?

Solidarity, the feeling of comradeship, mutual aid and all the other good qualities of which the workers are tired of hearing and which can only be developed in practice, must be exercised as much as possible in order to unite the workers of the separate workshops and factories, into a single solidarised mass, answering the call of distress of the oppressed like an echo. This is why we propose the committees involve the wokers as often as possible in active protests, strikes and solidarity with their comrades; we are convinced that this corresponds to the present state of mind of the masses, and will be very fruitful, if they are made accustomed to reacting to all the events of the day. (Ibid., p.15)

In these instructive lines, tactical problems, in the real sense of the term, are not yet posed: the author recommends without distinction both protest against the government’s famine measures and the boycott of a hated foreman, or a strike over any “trifle.” But the basic task, standing out in filigree from his chance remarks, may in general be formulated as consisting of the development of the self-activity of the proletariat. We have already indicated that this idea had passed without notice at the time; self-activity of the workers, if not actually suspect on grounds of syndicalism, was at that time only a word to everyone, undoubtedly very important and precious for many people, but all the same only a word. Hauptmann says somewhere that “words take on life only at moments … and in daily life remain a dead letter.” It is the same with the political slogans and watchwords of the Party. It took the Second Congress, an infinitude of palace revolutions in the Party organisation, and a whole series of bitter frictions in all fields – before the cry (the howl almost) “Towards the masses! Into the masses!” burst out from the Party, and the watchword “ self-activity of the proletariat” became a living and, let us hope, life-giving slogan.

The questions of social democratic tactics based totally on politically conscious and active masses, are today placed on the agenda by the whole of the previous development of our Party, a development which, as we pointed out in the Introduction, has created all the necessary material and ideological conditions; and one can be assured that now, all publishing or practical work concerned to develop the political self-activity of the working class, will not be without issue and will not be crushed.

The author of the Letter to the Comrade Propagandist quoted above has aims which we have expressed in psychological terms: to trade the consciousness and will of the proletariat. I repeat – these are still not problems of tactics in the real sense of the word: boycotting a hated foreman, striking over trifles, protesting against the government’s diabolical conduct over the famine – all these “opportunities” must, according to the author, be used equally for the tasks facing social democratic organisations which, he says, are more pedagogic than political. He evaluates the rallying of the workers behind some slogan or other solely from the point of view of the subjective, psychological results, and not the objective political results. This is quite understandable.

In the phase of transition from circle (“craft”) life to the life of a political party, the basically new tactical methods which some revolutionaries are thinking about are still considered from the old, pedagogic, “craft” standpoint, not politically. This narrow standpoint only corresponds to the limited material and ideological resources of the Party organisations during this transitional period. But in the present case, what is important for us is that thinking which is not content with circle propaganda and the distribution of liteature looks in the masses for forms of action which contain within them the possibility of further developing them and transforming them from educative methods into tactical methods. In some of the pedagogical, “craft” proposals of the author of the Letter are hidden, like the grain in an ear of corn, some new methods of political tactics. Quantity here too is transformed into quality. And in fact the workers” protest against the government’s attitude at a time of famine will remain a purely “educational” measure if it only involves 100 or 200 workers in some town or another, but will acquire political meaning if it is carried out in growing waves throughout Russia, rallying thousands and tens of thousands of protesting voices in the proletariat. Calling on the students and all “decent citizens” to join the mass protest, will be the next step of the politically vigilant centre, which has rallied around it all the lively elements in the Party. The next step then will be silence of the liberal press, which even when the people are suffering greatly does not dare transgress the censor”s veto. Then, appeal can be made to all social institutions of the ruling class, both permanent and temporary, to take a stand one way or another on the government’s position, where these public institutions, above all the zemstvosand dumas, remain silent. This is also how the most conscious layers of the proletariat are led to confront politically the institutions of the ruling classes in the process of the general democratic struggle against Tsarism itself. This is precisely how we give our political struggle its class character.

In trade union and professional struggles some groups of workers clash with individual captialists. In the political struggle the proletariat clashes with the autocracy. But broad layers of the bourgeoisie, which still does not appear in Russia as the ruling class, also oppose the autocracy. The government still does not represent the executive committee of the bourgeoisie as it does in parliamentary countries. This is why it is still not yet possible for us to carry out a generalised struggle against it at a political level. But it is precisely this struggle which gives the movement of the proletariat a class character. Only the free Russia of the future, in which we (and not, for example, Messrs. Socialist-Revolutionaries) will obviously be obliged to play the role of opposition party and not government, will enable the class struggle of the proletariat to develop to its full extent. But so that the struggle of the proletariat for this “free Russia,” under the leadership of Social Democracy, may prepare the struggle for the dictatorship of the class, we must even today, be an opposition to all institutions, permanent and temporary, for the class which tomorrow will take the helm of the state. To oppose solely at the level of theoretical principles, in our programme, or on the purely literary level in our press, is not enough; it is indispensable that the opposition be a living fact, part of political reality. This is the “novelty” we want to introduce into our Party’s life.

P.B. Axelod for some years has been carrying out propaganda by word of mouth for new tactics, thus preparing the indespensable psychological ground in the consciousness of comrades at the head of the movement. Comrade Axelrod has understood that to be able to take on these tasks directly, the Party should be organised, that is, should have created the necessary conditions for the concerted activity of all its components. During the whole period of Iskra, Comrade Axelrod never interrupted his propaganda in favour of non-craft methods of work, and in this sense he had great hopes of the Congress, but “sufficient to the day is the evil thereof,” and the comrades with whom Axelrod had discussed the problems of political tactics were either only formally in agreement with him, for they had not understood the real meaning of his proposals, or else made various objections to him, stressing that such a conception of things was “too new and too complicated,” and moreover incompatible with policing conditions in Russia; they stressed that the zemstvos and dumas (which Axelrod’s tactic aimed at) had “too insignificant” a political role, etc. All these considerations, whatever truth there was in them, are not viable objections to the tactical tasks worked out by Axelrod.

1. The conditions of conspiracy can no more present the organisation of complex political campaigns than of strikes and demonstrations. It is enough to recall that the first propagandists thought they could stop their agitation in the masses by appeal to policing conditions, and that the “Economists” always used this argument to oppose the “senseless idea” of political demonstrations.

2. The new methods of work do not either mean a “risk” of breaking with old, tired and trusted methods of struggle, but only a more complex combination of these old methods: propaganda, oral and written agitation, the direction of mass “actions.”

3. The zemstvos and dumas, especially the zemstvos, will play an increasingly important role during the revolutionary period. The liberal-franchise party will most likely see the zemstvos as “the rock on which the Church of the future will be built.” The struggle for universal suffrage – during and after the period of liquidation of the autocracy – can then easily be transformed into direct struggle against the application of the franchise in elections to the zemstvos and dumas. Our duty is to prepare for this struggle.

However insignificant the role of the zemstvos, dumas and congresses, the liberal press and all the other institutions of the bourgeois classes in the active struggle against Tsarism, it is all we have in terms of direct organisation of the will of the bourgeoisie. It would be a crime to neglect all that, within the existing regime, constitutes a real starting point for the self-determination of the proletariat. It would be refusing to do the least, because one cannot do the most.

In any case, it is quite sterile to want to establish in advance the results of the tactics we are constrained to resort to, both by the internal development of the Party and the general political situation in the country. When the revolutionary period comes at the point when all the political forces draw up their accounts, history itself will make the balance-sheet of our results. It will neither subtract nor add anything in advance. There is no doubt that it will take into account, in one way or another, the least pocket of class consciousness and self-activity of the proletariat which we introduce into the proletarian movement.




By giving a detailed exposition of different examples it has been my intention to draw attention to the difference in principle which separates two opposing methods of work. And this difference, in essence, is decisive, if we are to define the character of all work carried out by our Party. In the one case we have a party which thinks for the proletariat, which substitutes itself politically for it, and in the other we have a party which politically educates and mobilises the proletariat to exercise rational pressure on the will of all political groups and parties. These two systems give objectively quite different results.

When Social Democracy tries on its own initiative to “push forward” the liberal opposition, its very success is only based on the political mentality of this opposition, and determines in advance the slight value of its eventual “success.” Its initiative, whether in the form of a proclamation or a “conspiratorial” meeting in the wings of the political stage, will only be taken into consideration in so far as it corresponds to the state of mind and thinking of the liberal audience. In other words, the Social Democrat, in the eyes of the liberals, will just appear as a democrat with “Marxist” prejudices.

The picture is thoroughly modified if the liberal is obliged to see in the person of the Social Democrat the representative of a real force, even if he is only acting for a few thousand workers. When a political event no longer follows the path laid down by logic and the political mentality of liberalism, then it is turned in a new direction in which the trump card is in the hands of another force; the political logic and outlook of the conscious proletariat. When the Social Democrat takes such an initiative, he does not base himself on the mentality of his “collaborator” of the moment – he will only take this into account: he bases himself on the organised opinion of the proletariat. He will appear to the liberals not as a democrat with Marxist leanings, but as a representative of the democratic demands of the proletariat.

The tactic of our committees, which consists of from time to time sending out (behind the backs of the proletariat) appeals or proclamations to the students, the zemstvos, the dumas and the various congresses, is very similar to that of the liberals in the zemstvos “interceding” with the autocracy on behalf of the people. Substituting themselves for the proletariat, the leading Social Democratic groups do not understand that it is just as necessary to lead the proletariat to “show” its class will in relation to the liberal and radical democratic movement as to lead it to demonstrate its revolutionary-democratic will against the autocracy.

Substituting themselves for the proletariat, our committees, instead of organising the proletariat into becoming socially aware, intercede with the bourgeois-democratic movement with their proclamations to favour “their” proletariat. Should we then be surprised if these impotent petitions take the “severe” form of condescending rebukes, denouncing “half-measures” and “lack of resolution”? Rebukes which provoke no reaction bar an ironic shrug from Messrs. cultivated liberals.

The supposed pressure we bring to bear on the liberals will be still less like a petition (even if it is an intercession in the form of a bold request) if we learn to assemble the proletariat in a real activity (a petition, a resolution, a protest, a meeting or a demonstration), not only around the general democratic aims but also on their own slogans, clearly formulated form a class standpoint and director, at a given moment, not only against the police and the autocracy but also against the “irresolution” and “lack of conviction” of the liberals. Our real, not fictitious, influence on the policy of the liberals will be all the greater if we go less “into all classes of the population,” turning our back on the proletariat – which is what all our “political” committees end up doing.

However simple this at first appears, it is necessary to understand that the only way for us to have influence on political life is to act through the proletariat, and not in its name; that we must not ourselves “go among all classes of the population,” but that – to use a lapidary expression – the proletariat itself must go among all the classes of the population.

Comrade Axelrod stressed this idea in his 1897 articles. “To gain influence over these layers (the layers which suffer from the present disorganisation),” he says, “it is not at all necessary that the social democrats go in their midst, into the milieu of these layers. The task for the Russian Social Democrats of winning supporters and direct or indirect allies in the non-proletarian classes will be resolved mainly by the nature of the agitational and propaganda activity within the proletariat itself.” (Axelrod, On the question of the present tasks and tactics of the Russian Social Democrats, p.16, author”s emphasis.)

The system of political substitutionism, exactly like the system of simplification of the “Economists,” proceeds – consciously or not – from a false and “sophistical” understanding of the relationship between the objective interests of the proletariat and its consciousness. Marxism teaches that the interests of the proletariat are determined by the objective conditions of its existence. These interests are so powerful and so inescapable that they finally oblige the proletariat to allow them into the realm of its consciousness, that is, to make the attainment of its objective interests and its subjective concern. Between these two factors – the objective fact of its class interest and its subjective consciousness – lies the realm inherent in life, that of clashes and blows, mistakes and disillusionment, vicissitudes and defeats. The tactical farsightedness of the Party of the proletariat is located entirely between these two factors and consists of shortening and easing the road from one to the other.

The class interests of the proletariat – independently of the present political conjuncture “in general” and, in particular, of the level of consciousness of the working masses at a given moment – can nonetheless only exert pressure on this conjuncture via the consciousness of the proletariat. In other words, in the political reckoning, the Party cannot count on the objective interest of the proletariat which are brought out by theory, but only on the conscious organised will of the proletariat.

Leaving aside the “prehistoric,” sectarian circle period which every Social Democratic Party goes through and in which its methods are much closer to educational utopian socialism than to political revolutionary socialism, in which it knows only socialist pedagogy, but not yet political tactics; if one considers a Party already past this infantile period, the essentials of its political work are expressed, in our opinion, in the following outline: the Party bases itself on the given level of consciousness of the proletariat; it will involve itself in every important political event by making an effort to orient the general direction towards the immediate interests of the proletariat, and, what is still more important, by making an effort to imbed itself in the proletariat by raising the level of consciousness, to base itself on this level and use it for this dual purpose. Decisive victory will come the day we overcome the distance separating the objective interests of the proletariat from its subjective consciousness, when, to be more concrete, such an important section of the proletariat will have gained an understanding of its objective of social revolution, that it will be powerful enough to remove from its path, by its own politically organised strength, every counter-revolutionary obstacle.

The greater the distance separating the objective and subjective factors, that is, the weaker the political culture of the proletariat, the more naturally there appear in the Party those “methods” which, in one form or another, only show a kind of passivity in the face of the colossal difficulties of the task incumbent upon us. The political abdication of the “Economists,” like the “political substitutionism” of their opposites, are nothing but an attempt by the young Social Democratic Party to “cheat” history.

Of course, the “Economists” and the “politicians” are much less consistent in reality than in our scheme – and this inconsistency has enabled all of them to play a very progressive role in the development of our Party. When we describe the “basic error” of “Economism” or of “political substitutionism” we must in large part speak of the possibility, which might have become reality, if it had not encountered opposition. Taking this limitation into account, we can now establish the following comparison.

The “Economists” started from the subjective interests of the proletariat, as they existed at each moment of its development, they based themselves on this and considered it their sole task to register them scrupulously. As for the duties, which constitute the content of our tactics, they left them to the natural course of things – from which for the moment they excluded themselves.

By contrast with the “Economists,” the “political” elements took at their starting point the objective class interests of the proletariat, established by the Marxist method. But they too, with the same apprehension as the “Economists,” drew back before the “gap” separating the objective from the subjective interests of the class which they are supposed to “represent.” And for them, questions of political tactics – in the true sense of the term – exist as little as for the “Economists.” Once one has at one’s disposal an histoico-philosophical analysis revealing the tendencies of social development, when the results of it are made “our” chief patrimony, and we think substitutionally, then there is nothing to do but to cash in at the bank of history, as one cashes a cheque, the conclusions we have reached. So, if the “Economists” do not lead the proletariat, because they are merely tail-ending it, the “political” elements do no better for the good reason that they themselves are carrying out duties in its place. If the “Economists” are disarmed in the face of the enormity of their task, contenting themselves with the humble role of marching at the tail-end of history, the “politicians” on the other hand, have resolved the problem by trying to transform history into their own tail.

The following reservation must however be made: the accusation of “substitutionism” applies much less to us as revolutionaries than as revolutionary social democrats.

In the first case, it is more difficult to “cheat”: history, having placed a definite task on the agenda, is observing us sharply. For good or ill (more for ill), we are leading the masses to revolution, awakening in them the most elementary political instincts. But in so far as we have to deal with a more complex task – transforming these “instincts” into conscious aspirations of a working class which is determining itself politically – we tend to resort to the short-cuts and over-simplifications of “thinking-for-others” and “substitutionism.”

In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee; on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”; in “external” politics these methods are manifested in attempts to bring pressure to bear on other social organisations, by using the abstract strength of the class interests of the proletariat, and not the real strength of the proletariat conscious of its class interests. These “methods,” as adopted by us and the content of our Party work. All in all, these “methods” lead to the complete disappearance of questions of political tactics in Social Democracy.

Comrade Lenin has expressly confirmed this in a certain thesis, which cannot be passed over in silence. Replying to Comrade Nadezhdin, who had complained of the lack of “deep roots,” Lenin wrote: “This is the high point of illogicity, for the writer confuses the philosophical, historical and social questions of the “deep roots” of the movement with the technical organisational problem of a more effective struggle against the police.” Comrade Lenin so cherishes this idea, that he takes it up again in his latest pamphlet: “To allege that we are the Party of the class,” Lenin says in reply to Axelrod, “in order to justify negligence on organisational questions, to justify the confusion of organisation and disorganisation, is to repeat the error of Nadezhdin, who confused “the philosophical, historical and social question of the deep roots of the movement,” with the problem of technical organisation.” (One Step Forward ...) So for Comrade Lenin, the question of “deep roots” is not a question of political tactics but a question of philosophical doctrine; if our doctrine, Marxism, supplies us with the “deep roots,” all that is left then is to carry out the technical-organisational task. Between the “philosophical” problem and the “technical-organisational” problem, there is one small link missing in the case of Comrade Lenin: the content of our Party work. Having dissolved the tactical aspect of the question into the “philosophical” aspect, Lenin has acquired the right to identify the content of the Party’s practice with the content of the programme. He deliberately ignores the fact that we imperatively need, not deep “philosophical” roots (how stupid! As thought the imam of any sect does not, from a “philosophical” point of view, have some deep root or another!), but real political roots, a living contact with the masses, enabling us at each decisive moment to mobilise this mass around a flag which is recognised as their flag.

This is why, in our view, organisational questions are totally subordinate to the methods of our political tactics, and, for us, the identification of the question of the organisation of the proletarian Party with the technical question of “improving the struggle against the police” is total bankruptcy. Total – for, if this identification “is based on the conspiratorial character of our present methods of work (as Parvus says in the few energetic lines he devotes to Lenin”s system), it is because the struggle against spies eclipses the struggle against absolutism and the other, much greater struggle, for the emancipation of the working class.”

Organisational tasks are for us totally subordinate to methods of political tactics.This is why this pamphlet too, arising from differences on “organisational questions” takes tactical questions as its starting point. To understand the difference on the organisational questions one must go beyond them, otherwise you asphyxiate in a surfeit of scholasticism and logic-chopping!

Part III

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Last updated on: 29.8.2006