Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Speech by Dan Burstein [Against Nicolaus]


First Published: Class Struggle, No. 7, Spring 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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A two-day conference was held in April, bringing together 400 revolutionary agitators and propagandists who have been working around The Call. Focusing on the question of developing the type of Marxist-Leninist press necessary for the new Party, the conference included numerous speeches and workshops.

Below, we reprint one of the major speeches from The Call Conference, given by Call Editor Daniel Burstein.

* * *

This conference is a great meeting of unity and of political advancement! From the initial publication of the weekly, to the successful struggle against Nicolaus’ revisionism, our work has marched progressively forward.

You can look at the eighteen months that have passed since the last Call Conference and see the tremendous gains that have been made. The 400 people who are gathered here today are a living reflection of the strength, vitality and unity of our work and our Marxist-Leninist trend which is on the verge of consolidation into the new communist party.

It is important to review the achievements of this last eighteen months, by examining what has been accomplished in this short period and the massive tasks we face ahead in building the party and its press.

First and foremost among our achievements is the publication of the weekly paper itself. At the last Call Conference, the concrete plan to publish a weekly Marxist-Leninist paper was first put forward. It was out of the enthusiasm, high political mobilization and hard practical work of the people who attended the last conference, and all their comrades at home, that we were able to implement the weekly publication of The Call last May Day.

We are on the verge of May Day 1977 and our weekly publication has advanced steadily. We have expanded the size of the paper to sixteen pages, strengthened our staff here in Chicago, and raised the professional level of our work quite a bit.

The Call as a weekly newspaper has succeeded in expanding the influence of Marxism-Leninism among the workers. Our distribution statistics are one indication of this. When the monthly reached its peak, we were distributing 28,000 newspapers a month. Now we are circulating 13,000 every week. In a month’s time, this means that more than twice the number of newspapers will be distributed than with the monthly.

More significant even than these quantitative gains in distribution are the aspects of the class base of our press and the use to which the newspaper is being put.

Our reports show that about 75% of the newspapers are sold to working class and minority people. Almost 50% of our total circulation is right inside the factories or at their gates.

The work of using the newspaper as a “collective organizer” has been pushed forward tenfold, now that it has become a weekly rallying point for political discussion, distribution, preparation of articles and correspondence. Factory networks, which were little more than a vague idea at the last Call Conference, have now come to life in many of the country’s biggest centers of production.


As a result, The Call is developing as a material force in the working class struggle. A good example is in its efforts to free Gary Tyler. In many ways, this struggle highlights the strengths of the weekly newspaper, because it was in our first weekly issues that we began systematically to popularize the case. It was through our press that hundreds of thousands of people came to know the name of Gary Tyler and his fight for freedom. Largely through the newspaper, communist leadership was given to the work of organizing the Tyler defense movement. As a result, a defense movement has been built which stretches from the auto plants, to the worst hellholes of solitary confinement in the prisons, to countries as far away as Norway and the People’s Republic of China.

Around Tyler, we have used agitation and propaganda to call not only for his freedom, but for an end to national oppression and the whole capitalist system. The Call has helped turn the slogan “Self-Determination for the Afro-American People!” into a living demand of the masses, both white and Black.

This question, the correct use of agitation and propaganda to carry out the revolutionary education of the masses, is one of the most important points this conference will address. I’d like to read you an excerpt from a response we received from a Call discussion circle to the “Reader’s Survey” that was printed in our New Year’s issue, which demonstrates the importance of this revolutionary education:

As to the articles that have been most helpful in our work, there are a great many we could list. Especially good were the trade union series, the articles’ about the anti-Klan struggle in Houston, the articles explaining Chairman Mao’s life and contributions, the articles on the elections and the splits in the ruling class, and the polemics. Also, articles like those on Davis Pleating, by appearing every week, have given day-to-day guidance. These articles have changed our practice and our lives. They have deeply influenced the people we work with, clearly demarcating Marxism from opportunism and showing the need to overthrow this capitalist state.

Such comments pay very high tribute to our work. We must struggle very hard to make up for our shortcomings and live up to the high standards which our comrades have set for us.

But these surveys show that, in practice, our agitation and propaganda have been combined well, each serving their respective purpose and striking a responsive chord among the masses.

The most advanced and active workers especially have been influenced by the weekly Call. One of the new fields that has really opened up with the weekly, is the whole area of worker correspondence. A good example of this can be seen around the trade union series that appeared last year. These articles were met with tremendous interest because for the first time, a scientific and comprehensive view was presented of the need to build class struggle trade unions. Study circles developed around these articles in many factories, and groups of workers began writing to expose the trade union misleaders. The idea of fighting “both the bosses and the bureaucrats” has taken root as a material force, from the meatcutters strike in Los Angeles to the struggle at American Biltrite in Boston.


Our recent International Women’s Day campaign was a similar case. By presenting a great deal of agitation and propaganda around the woman question in The Call, our worker correspondents were able to take the initiative. They began sending us many pieces of correspondence on the woman question.

We have also vastly increased the amount of correspondence we receive in Spanish. This is the result of our movement’s deepening ties to the Latino peoples, and especially due to the improvements in El Clarin. Before, we were only able to publish six pages a month in Spanish, and now we publish five every week, treating every question more comprehensively than before. This has made El Clarin into a much more powerful tool for carrying out revolutionary education among Spanish-speaking readers.

We should also review our Call Committee system. Together with various units and correspondents around the country, it has been responsible for producing almost 500 articles and reports for the newspaper just since the first of this year. Among these articles have been material on every question imaginable. The vast majority of these have had a good class stand and deal with issues of great importance to our movement. We are not able to come close to printing them all, but they all serve to deepen our understanding of the class struggle nationwide.

We have many tasks ahead to improve the quality of these articles. We must raise their political level, and better systematize our agitation, and propaganda nationally. But the fact is that the material for our newspaper comes from the masses. It speaks their language, and reflects the very heat of the class struggle through which all the work of building our party has been carried out. Together with its Marxist-Leninist line, this is a hallmark of our newspaper that distinguishes us from all other trends.

This is indeed a conference of unity, and The Call has played a great role in bringing it about. Standing at the center of our trend, The Call has united large numbers of workers and Marxist-Leninists around its line, especially on all the major questions that we elaborated in our recently-published program on. It has also built unity around our line on newspaper work itself–what the newspaper should look like, how it should be used, the role of agitation and propaganda within it, the forms of organization around it, and its centrality to the party.

But this is also a conference of sharp struggle against revisionism and opportunism on these questions. Most important, it is a conference of struggle against revisionism. In particular, we must combat the line promoted by the capitalist-roader Martin Nicolaus. This revisionist nestled in our ranks for some time before his line fully came out into the light of day where it could be unmasked and attacked. This struggle against the Nicolaus line has been the most decisive development pushing our work forward in the last period.


Before reviewing the lessons of this struggle in depth, I think it is important that everyone get a good picture of who Nicolaus is and what he stands for politically.

Martin Nicolaus is not just some one who made some mistakes or had some wrong formulations. He is a revisionist of the Browder type; of the Khrushchev type. He is a revisionist who tried to sneak into the ranks of the Marxist-Leninists in order to subvert our movement and bring us to our knees before the capitalists.

Nicolaus stands with the bourgeoisie, not the working class. I’d like to share a story that some comrades from Washington, D.C. told me about Nicolaus. He visited their city to give a speech about a year ago. He met with their Call Committee, and told them: “You comrades here in D.C. are at the ’seat of power’ in the U.S. Here is where all the intrigues of the government are concentrated. This should be your main work, analyzing all these developments and making an in-depth investigation of what’s going on in Congress.” As he spoke to them, a glint came into his eyes. He was thinking fondly of his favorite dream–becoming a radical muckraker for the Washington Post or the New York Times.

But the comrades in D.C. stood up to Nicolaus. Even though they hadn’t written any books on the Soviet Union, or translated any of Marx’s writings, they could see through Nicolaus’ bankrupt line. Some one from the committee said, “You say our main task should be following the developments in Congress. This isn’t right. The main thing about Washington D.C. is that it is a city which is over 80% Black and heavily working class. I think the articles from our committee should focus on the political aims of the class struggle, and on what’s happening among the Afro-American people and working people, and only secondarily on the intrigues among the politicians. Our political exposures must serve the workers, not the bourgeoisie.”


This story is reflective of Nicolaus’ basic outlook–his love for the liberal bourgeoisie and his blatant disregard for the real tasks of a proletarian party. He put forward a whole body of revisionist theory: that we should support and ally with the Sadlowskis and other labor misleaders, only distinguishing ourselves from them by telling the masses that communists are leaders with more backbone; that the revisionists, centrists and other opportunists posed no danger at all and needed no consistent ideological struggle among the masses; that the working class at this time had no “direct reserves,” chauvinistically ignoring the oppressed nationalities, urging us therefore to bank our hopes for revolution on the “indirect reserves;” that we should form a united front with the U.S. imperialists to fight the Soviet Union, if not today, then tomorrow. And on the question of the Soviet Union itself, supposedly, Nicolaus’ area of “expertise,” his book on the subject is completely confused and bankrupt on the fundamental questions of what is socialism and what is capitalism. He actually describes what Chairman Mao called a “fascist dictatorship of the Hitler type” in the USSR as still a basically socialist society in the 1960s.

This is the voice of the bourgeoisie in our movement. Underneath all his fancy talk, Nicolaus had the dictatorship of the proletariat completely confused with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. He tried to obscure and belittle the main force and main alliance of our revolution, the working class and oppressed nationalities, while he paraded the liberals and reformers as the forces of social progress in need of our support to “stop their waverings.”

It is not surprising that a revisionist of this type would also have a bankrupt theory on the question of communist tasks and newspaper work. And it is the Nicolaus line in this area especially that our conference this weekend should target, criticize and smash.

Nicolaus drove a wedge between propaganda and agitation, falsely split them and claimed that “agitation should be our chief form of work.” His line attacked the masses as being incapable of responding to and grasping propaganda and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought. Instead he wanted to replace revolutionary science with liberal mush.

Before going further on Nicolaus’ views, it is necessary at this point to sum up our own views and how they have developed around these questions. While our basic orientation in the struggle against this revisionist line has been correct, it has not been without errors and unclarity inside our own trend. Nonetheless in this summary we must be as clear and precise as we can, with the understanding that more theoretical work still remains to be done in this area.


First of all, let us define our terms.

What is agitation? It is making one point clear to many people. Through our articles, speeches and leaflets, this form of work is best suited to exposing one or another injustice under capitalism; painting a picture of conditions of oppression and exploitation at a certain time or place; or teaching and driving home a single, fundamental political truth to the masses of people. Because agitation deals with only one central political point, all the examples and material that are used to develop this point should succeed in making its Marxist-Leninist viewpoint comprehensible to broad numbers of people.

What is propaganda? Propaganda treats many points and makes them clear to a relatively small number of people. Because it links these points together and shows their interconnections, it is more complex than agitation, and will therefore not be understood in its entirety by as many people. It is best suited for going into depth on the contradictions in the capitalist system. It provides a many-sided and comprehensive education on the truths of Marxism-Leninism.

These two tools of agitation and propaganda together comprise the basic method for carrying out the task of the revolutionary education of the working class, especially the most advanced workers. It is true that the workers also learn from their experience in life, from the class struggle. This is why our propaganda and agitation must be closely linked with mass activity and carried out in the heat of struggle. But we must recognize that we are in a period of building the party and standing it firmly on its feet. This is the chief characteristic of the present period.

It is still in the future that our party will pass into a period of active leadership of mass revolutionary struggles, enormous battles which will mobilize and educate the masses in their millions. Therefore, while our educational work is always carried out in close coordination with practical activity and organizational work, today we must still see this period of our development as one chiefly of revolutionary education, rather than mass action.

The correct use of agitation and propaganda will enable us to train the body of cadres necessary for the leadership of the revolutionary storms in the period ahead. Lenin, the leader of the Russian revolution spoke of these two periods as first, when the party “laid seige to the fortress” of capitalism, and second, when the decisive action is finally taken to “storm the fortress.” He pointed out that in order to successfully storm the fortress, the troops first had to be trained and organized. It is this training and organization that we seek to accomplish today through our agitation and propaganda work.

Lenin was also a powerful advocate of the firm unity between agitation and propaganda work. In his famous declaration that preceded the publication of Iskra, he said that Russian communist publications must employ agitation and propaganda on all questions, taking them to the broad masses. Here is how he defined the tasks of Russian communists:

Extend the bounds and broaden the content of our propagandist, agitational and organizational activity.

From Lenin’s time to our movement today, opportunists of all stripes have attacked this unity between agitation and propaganda work. Nicolaus has a long line of predecessors in severing agitational and propaganda work that runs from the economists of Lenin’s day, through to the “propaganda onlyists” of the so-called “Revolutionary Wing” today and the “two newspapers” approach of the RCP– propaganda for the intellectuals and agitation for the workers.

Understanding that agitation and propaganda work must always be combined, the only correct way to understand how to use these tools is to make a concrete analysis of concrete conditions.


Such an analysis made today shows that propaganda work assumes special importance at this time. Building our party, elaborating its program, polemicizing with modern revisionism and the opportunist trends–all these crucial tasks require extensive propaganda work, although they must be treated in the realm of agitation as well. Another way to grasp this point is to consider the following: Marxist-Leninists participating in the class struggle have brought hundreds, perhaps thousands of advanced workers to the doorstep of joining the party. These are the actual conditions facing us. Now we must bring these workers in on a firm ideological basis. Now we must bring about a qualitative leap–from activist class fighter to party member–by consolidating these gains. Propaganda plays a decisive role in doing this, just as agitational and organizational activity often played the key role in bringing forward these workers and developing their political consciousness in the initial stages of our work with them.

This is why we have said “propaganda is decisive in our work today.” It is decisive in the sense that it is the area we must emphasize the most in order to make a breakthrough in our work. You can see already from the readers survey I quoted earlier, and from numerous other indications, the profound effect that our emphasis on propaganda work is having.

But let us make sure that we don’t set up a Chinese Wall between agitation and propaganda work, or for that matter between the work of revolutionary education of the first period and that of the mass action of the second period. Let us firmly reject all the opportunist efforts to restrict our agitation, restrict our propaganda and restrict our organizational development with their metaphysical distortions of the Leninist formulations about periods and tasks.

Even some of the things we have written have not been completely clear on this point. They have sometimes confused what is the universal truth of Marxism–that agitation and propaganda should be combined–with the particularities of the present conditions when propaganda work assumes a decisive role. In contrast to the opportunists of all types, we must make sure that we keep all the tools of communist work in our arsenal, master and use every form, and give emphasis to them on the basis of the actual conditions of our struggle.

Here is the kernel of the Nicolaus line on the question of periods and tasks. It lies in his refusal to make a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, and in his restriction and splitting of propaganda, agitation and organization.


Nicolaus wrote three lengthy internal papers on these questions. He managed, however, to never once mention the question of factory cells, networks, or for that matter, any real life experiences of the workers. As Chairman Mao put it, “Our dogmatists are lazy-bones.” Nicolaus fancied himself the standard-bearer of Lenin, but his dogmatic application of Lenin’s writings only had the result of opposing Leninism.

Nicolaus took from Lenin’s work the emphasis which was placed on political agitation at a time in the Russian revolution when it was decisive to turn towards this form instead of the economic agitation that was then dominant. Extracting some quotations from these writings, Nicolaus claimed that it is a universal principle of Marxism that “political agitation is chief during the whole first period of party-building.” He used this formulation to attack our present emphasis on propaganda work. He opposed, for example, the view that articles like those in The Call’s trade union series could be influential among a large number of workers and that such articles should form the skeleton of discussions in factory networks.

In fact, he said that the party wasn’t necessary or appropriate to do propaganda work. This showed his restriction of both propaganda and organization. He thought propaganda was the exclusive domain of a handful of intellectuals like himself, and that all you needed to carry out propaganda work was bookstores and study circles. He said that propaganda consisted mainly of restating the “ABCs of Marxism.” This negated the real use of propaganda in the party–its role in making a living application of Marxism-Leninism and in giving a comprehensive Marxist-Leninist education to large numbers of workers who come to the forefront of practical class battles.

Nicolaus further restricted the scope of the party’s organizational work with his claim that “hardly any advanced workers” exist in the U.S. Without close ties to the advanced workers, of course, it is very difficult for communists to organize any real battles in the plants. Nicolaus imagined that we were living in some other epoch, and that we had to start from scratch to “develop” some advanced workers mainly through agitational work. While our revolutionary educational work does move intermediate workers to the level of the advanced, Nicolaus was behind the times. If followed to its logical extensions, his line would put off the day when we could really engage in mass activity on a broad scale forever.


Thus the limited propaganda work that Nicolaus did advocate was not only relegated to a place of unimportance at a time when it is most important to develop it, but it was dry, academic and consequently thoroughly divorced from the masses. In this sense, Nicolaus is scarcely different from the wild-eyed idiots of the so-called “Revolutionary Wing” whose infatuation with lifeless propaganda runs so deep that they have made a principle of confining it to their narrow study circles and refusing to even show it to the masses.

Now we come to Nicolaus’ line on “political agitation” itself–his sacred cow that he claimed was the answer to all our problems. His emphasis on agitation was actually a maneuver to alter the class content of our press. He wanted to make sure that our working class comrades didn’t develop too deep an understanding of Marxism-Leninism, and so he argued that they should be agitators, because “that’s what the workers are good at.”

But what was the agitation he wanted them to do? It was oriented simply toward the inner workings of the ruling class as its main subject matter and told purely from the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie itself, rather than linking such exposures to the pressing issues, demands and questions faced by the masses of proletarians. This is what he was saying in essence to the Washington, D.C. Call Committee. Taking out of context a phrase from Lenin about the need to do agitation on “every liberal question,” Nicolaus argued that we should become tails on the liberal imperialists today. Like the RCP and Guardian centrists, he argued that the liberals are propelling the masses into action, and that by entering into alliances with these liberals, we can win the workers to our side. All the articles of political agitation which he wrote eventually had to be rejected by The Call staff. These rantings reeked of petty-bourgeois moralism and were filled with prettification of the liberals under the guise of “criticizing” them.

Nicolaus tried to rob us of the firm inner structure of our propaganda work by urging us into a realm of agitation largely divorced from the real issues affecting the working class. He was trying to set us up for a fall into the arms of the present liberal ideological offensive of Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young and company. The RCP and the Guardian have already bought this bait with their worship of Sadlowski, their glorification of Roots, their praise of the reformists and revisionists, and their pacificism in the face of the war danger.

This is the road Nicolaus tried to lead us on with his restriction of our agitation and propaganda, and his separation of these tasks.

But Nicolaus could not succeed. The masses were mobilized to crush his line. Although the struggle with him was initially focused inside The Call staff and the October League, our whole trend has now taken up the critique of his brand of revisionism, linking it firmly to our overall battle with modern revisionism. In every city, comrades have stood up and denounced the Nicolaus line. They have studied the documents of the struggle, summed-up their own work, and resolved to turn their own practice into a living model of the fight against Nicolaus’ revisionism.


We must harness this political energy and the clarity that comes out of this struggle. We must consolidate the 400 people who are here today and the many more at home to carry the lessons of this struggle forward into the building of our party with our Marxist-Leninist press at its center.

Before concluding, I would like briefly to point to some of the tasks that must be taken up in the period ahead if we are to build our press into the type demanded by the party. The implications of our views on carrying out the revolutionary education of the working class point clearly to the need to train thousands of agitators and propagandists. We must bolshevize all the work around the newspaper in order to do that. In the period ahead, we must pay particular attention to the development of our worker correspondents and to insuring that our Call Committees bring ever-larger numbers of workers into their activities. The best and most active of these people at the local level should be recruited to our central staff.

Our networks in the factories must be developed, taking on all the aspects of work around the newspaper–reading and studying for it, writing for it, and distributing it broadly in the factories. We must carry out our subscription drives and our fundraising campaigns among the broad masses of people.

Out of the workshops and discussions at this conference, I am sure people will be able to share experiences and learn a great deal about the many aspects of newspaper work which are under discussion here. This will provide a good basis for raising the political level of the work around the paper, and organizing more people to contribute to the newspaper in all different areas. This means especially making a division of labor at the local level so that different questions can be developed more fully in our agitation and propaganda work.

We must take the 400 people here today, and all the others who could not come, and weld them into a solid, highly organized, militant force for carrying out the work of revolutionary education in every city, community and factory.

In conclusion, I would like to read a short quote from Chairman Mao, taken from his talk to the editorial staff of the Shansi Suiyan Daily in 1948:

(The newspaper) should be sharp, pungent and clear-cut, and it should be run conscientiously. We must firmly uphold the truth, and truth requires a clear-cut stand. We communists have always disdained to conceal our views. Newspapers run by our Party and all the propaganda work of our Party should be vivid, clear-cut and sharp and should never mutter and mumble. That is the militant style proper to us, the revolutionary proletariat. Since we want to teach the people to know the truth and arouse them to fight for their own emancipation, we need this militant style. A blunt knife draws no blood.

It is in this spirit that we should continue to criticize Nicolaus, wage our life-and-death struggle with modern revisionism, and carry out all our tasks of agitation and propaganda work. Let us resolve to make The Call into the sharpest of all possible knives in the hands of our party and our class!

Agitate! Propagandize! Organize! Build The Call! Build the Party!
Agitar! Propagandizar! Organizar! Construir El Clarin! Construir El Partido!