First Published: The Communist, Vol. III, No. 11, June 6, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The August Twenty-Ninth Movement (ATM) has announced an organizational retreat from the line that propaganda is the chief form of activity. In their May Day Editorial, Part II, in “Revolutionary Cause”, v.2, no.3, May, 1977, they repudiate this line, claiming that it is part of a “left” opportunist line on party building.
This development is a setback for our movement, and must be quickly isolated and defeated. Propaganda as the chief form of activity goes to the essence of party building. At bottom, the attack on this line is a retreat from party building as the central task.
ATM is not alone in this attack. Martin Nicolaus opened the campaign in his journal “Forward”, The Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee (MLOC) then followed, purporting to prove that the line on propaganda – put forward by Stalin in his outline on Strategy and Tactics – was actually an example of Trotskyism in our movement.
In the footsteps of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), these forces casually discard Stalin. ATM has a consistent line on this question. Stalin is inconvenient for them so they condemn any reliance on teachings of his which do not fit their narrow prejudice as “textualism”.
We first saw this in their pamphlet on the Chicano National Question. They made it plain they did not want to really pursue the matter according to the science of Marxism-Leninism. Instead they complained that applying Stalin’s criteria for the existence of an oppressed nation in the Southwest would be “making reality fit definitions”–i.e. textualism.
Now ATM is smarting from the so-called “Revolutionary Wing’s” distortions of Marxism-Leninism which ATM for a time swallowed whole. One of the most flagrant of these distortions was the Wing’s misuse of the line that propaganda is the chief form of activity. ATM is so anxious to put a good face on a bad situation that they rush not only to repudiate distortions of that line, but also to repudiate Bolshevik lessons on party building strategy summed up by Stalin. Instead of fighting to grasp the line correctly and make a good application of it, they abandon it on the first sign of difficulty.
ATM claims that the application of Stalin’s line on propaganda is a “mechanical application of a summary done by Stalin of a particularly restricted period of Bolshevik activity in Russia.” Convenient, but wrong. Stalin’s outline was made in preparation for a pamphlet summing up the general lessons and international significance of the experience of the Bolshevik party on strategy and tactics.
Furthermore, ATM, like others, tries to drive a wedge between Stalin and Lenin, and attempts to ignore that Stalin’s pamphlet only summarized principles put forward by Lenin in the “Conclusion” to “LEFT” WING COMMUNISM–AN INFANTILE DISORDER. In that book, Lenin is clearly speaking not to a “restricted period of Bolshevik activity” but to the international significance of the Russian revolution.
We have quoted the passages of Lenin and Stalin so that the reader can judge for himself the source and significance of the propositions summarized by Stalin.
According to Lenin and Stalin, the revolutionary preparation of a Marxist-Leninist party places on the agenda two strategic tasks. These tasks are:
(1) winning the vanguard to communism; and
(2) winning the broad masses to the side of the vanguard.
The first task is the task of creating a Communist party, that is, party building. “Without this, Lenin writes, “not even the first step towards victory can be made”.
The second task, which alone can ensure victory, is to develop the practical revolutionary activity of the broad masses under the leadership of the party. This is the task of mobilizing the United Front.
These are general principles broadly applicable to Marxist-Leninist leadership in every country and not narrowly confined to a “restricted period of Bolshevik activity in Russia.”
What is the relationship of propaganda and agitation to these two strategic tasks?
Winning the vanguard to communism requires that propaganda be the chief form of activity. Winning the vanguard to communism means winning the vanguard over ideologically. It means winning the vanguard to the science of Marxism-Leninism. It means achieving a complete ideological and political victory over opportunism and social chauvinism. None of these can be accomplished, Lenin emphasized, unless priority goes to propaganda work.
That also is a general principle.
The reasons are evident. A propagandist, Lenin writes, “must present ’many ideas’, so many indeed that they will be understood by (comparatively) few persons.” An agitator, however, “will direct all his efforts to presenting a single idea to the ’masses’ ....he will strive to rouse discontent and indignation among the masses.” (WHAT IS TO BE DONE (WITBD) Peking ed., p.82) An agitator prepares the conditions for a call to action.
Marxism-Leninism is a scientifically connected body of many ideas. Winning the vanguard over ideologically must be done by propaganda work. Obviously no one can be won to scientific knowledge by agitation or the presentation of a single idea to the masses. This is not “textualism” but common sense. What ATM attacks is the proposition of Engels that since socialism has become a science it must be studied like a science.
There is another point. Marxist-Leninists internationally have become steeled in their struggle against formal declarations of Party unity, for which they reserve their scorn. In opposing the first efforts to call a second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, Lenin insisted:
Before we can unite and in order to unite we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. (Declaration of the editorial Board of ISKRA and ZARYA, LCW, v. 4, p.329.
This is also a general principle of party building applicable to our own revolutionary movement. Because it involves distinguishing shades of difference on matters of principle, it is also necessarily a matter of propaganda work.
Party building is winning the vanguard to communism. The lesson of the Bolshevik Party is inescapable:
As long as it was (and insofar as it still is) a question of winning the proletariat’s vanguard over to the side of communism, priority went and still goes to propaganda work. (Lenin, “LEFT” WING COMMUNISM)
For these reasons the attempt to repudiate the line on propaganda as the chief form of activity is actually a retreat from party building as the central task.
What then is the role of agitation? Agitation is a means of developing the class consciousness and guiding the class struggle of the proletariat. It is inseparably connected to propaganda.
Agitation demands that Marxist-Leninists take part in all spontaneous manifestations of the working class struggle, drawing attention to every manifestation of tyranny and abuse:
Just as there is no issue affecting the life of the workers in the economic field that must be left unused for the purposes of economic agitation, so there is no issue in the political field that does not serve as a subject for political agitation. (Lenin, The tasks of the Russian Social Democrats, LCW, v.2, p.329)
One aspect of this is political exposure which trains proletarian leaders and the oppressed masses to systematically appraise all aspects of political life and every example of working class struggle and popular resistance. This is the task of providing an independent communist policy on every issue that concerns the proletariat. It is not a matter of either propaganda or agitation, but of skillfully using both. Agitation fosters the class consciousness and striving of the proletariat for communism. In this respect it lays a basis for the work of the propagandist who must give a more complete explanation of capitalist oppression and proletarian revolution. This applies particularly to vanguard elements which may be set into motion by agitation, but who must be won over by propaganda.
Agitation is also a means to guide the broad masses in the conduct of political struggle. As such it is a weapon of the leadership of the proletariat. When Lenin says in WHAT IS TO BE DONE that we need an organization that makes nation-wide political agitation the cornerstone of its program, he is referring to the role of agitation in leading the proletarian masses. Through agitation the vanguard lays a line around which the broad masses can mobilize. By arousing discontent and indignation at every example of abuse, the vanguard prepares the conditions for practical actions of the masses under the leadership of the proletarian party.
Agitation is therefore a means to win the broad masses to the side and leadership of the vanguard.
ATM is wrong to conclude that because we strive to create an organization capable of unfolding nationwide political agitation that therefore agitation is the chief form of activity. This confuses what an organization does, with what must be done to forge the organization. As long as our primary task is to build a party, we must give priority to propaganda work. Insofar as our task is one of winning the masses to the leadership of the party, agitation comes to the fore.
But on the other hand, it is also an error to conclude that we can put off tasks of party agitation among the masses because party building is our central (or “only”) task. Party building is a practical task. A vanguard organization does hot sit around in self-congratulation being won to a science in isolation from the every day struggle of the proletariat. Our science is not to interpret the world but to change it. From day one, an organization of the vanguard must act like a party in order to change the world. In other words, winning the masses to the side of the vanguard is an integral part of party building itself. Unless we undertake simultaneously with the principal task of winning the vanguard to communism, the task of giving leadership to the masses and strive to enter and lead spontaneous manifestations of class struggle, we do not win the vanguard to communism in a practical way. We fail to train the vanguard in the most important characteristic of the proletarian party – its capacity for political leadership – unless we take up simultaneously the tasks of political agitation and propaganda.
But here too propaganda must be the leading factor, giving direction and depth to our agitational work. “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary, movement. This thought cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes, hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.” (Lenin, WHAT IS TO BE DONE, Peking ed, p. 28.)
In an earlier article in THE COMMUNIST, we give a good example of the relationship, of propaganda to our agitational work:
For example, we have an article in this issue, of THE COMMUNIST on agitation in one plant carried out around the struggle for trade union democracy. This work was based on a relatively low level of propaganda and small consolidation of the advanced forces. If it is to go forward and expand, broadening its scope to include also political agitation, it will be on the basis of the full consolidation of a Bolshevik core. This depends first of all on our propaganda work and the chief form of our activity is geared to that. Any belittling of our propaganda work, in this sphere means to restrict the scope of our agitation as well, condemning our work to tailing the trade union movement. Thus we must be vigilant against any attempt to belittle the decisive role of propaganda or divert us to aimless agitation at the workplace and in the mass movement. (“Win the Vanguard”, THE COMMUNIST, August, 1976, v. II, no. 11, p.9)
There has not been adequate struggle over the character of our political agitation and its relation to our party building tasks. If ATM and the other forces in our movement who have now retreated from the principal tasks of party building had developed struggle on that basis– had, for example, deepened our grasp of the necessity for genuinely communist political agitation for the dictatorship of the proletariat in contrast to more familiar examples of anti-imperialist agitation – we would have supported them in the struggle. But they have not done that. Instead their position reflects a capitulation to longstanding right opportunist tendencies never rooted out of their work. Retreating to a line on practical activity guaranteed to tail rather than lead the spontaneous struggles of the working and oppressed masses, these forces have attacked the essential task of party building – winning the vanguard to communism. ATM throws the baby out with the bathwater.
Nonetheless the struggle opened up will be a healthy one. But it begins with consolidation on the line that propaganda is the chief form of activity. ATM calls that “textualism”. We call it a defense of militant orthodoxy essential to grasping the science which is our only guide to revolution.