Red Letter
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Political Agitation And Its Restriction By the Economists (Part 1 of the third chapter of What Is To Be Done)
by V.I. Lenin
1902
Estimated Reading Time: 9 min


We're in the midst of early Lenin raising real issues about economism (to repeat ourselves yesterday, "concentration on the economic struggle–for example, through trade union movements pushing for higher wages and benefits–at the expense of pushing for wholesale revolutionary change."), but let's pause and read a sympathetic, yet critical point from American-Canadian Marxist Ellen Meiksins Wood from almost a century later:

It is worth considering, by contrast, that modern revolutions have tended to occur where the capitalist mode of production has been less developed; where it has coexisted with older forms of production, notably peasant production; where 'extra-economic' compulsion has played a greater role in the organization of production and the extraction of surplus labour; and where the state has acted not only as a support for appropriating classes but as something like a pre-capitalist appropriator in its own right - in short, where economic struggle has been inseparable from political conflict and where the state, as a more visibly centralized and universal class enemy, has served as a focus for mass struggle. Even in more developed capitalist societies, mass militancy tends to emerge in response to 'extra-economic' compulsion, particularly in the form of oppressive action by the state, and also varies in proportion to the state's involvement in conflicts over the terms and conditions of work.

These considerations again raise questions about the sense in which it is appropriate to regard working-class 'economism' in advanced capitalist societies as reflecting an undeveloped state of class consciousness, as many socialists do. Seen from the perspective of historical process, it can be said to represent a more, rather than a less, advanced stage of development. If this stage is to be surpassed in turn, it is important to recognize that the so-called 'economism' of working-class attitudes does not so much reflect a lack of political consciousness as an objective shift in the location of politics, a change in the arena and the objects of political struggle inherent in the very structure of capitalist production.

There's a lot to think about in this section. Think about it.

A. Political Agitation And Its Restriction By the Economists

Everyone knows that the economic1 Footnotes mercifully abridged

1. To avoid misunderstanding, we must point out that here, and throughout this pamphlet, by economic struggle, we imply (in keeping with the accepted usage among us) the “practical economic struggle”, which Engels, in the passage quoted above, described as “resistance to the capitalists”, and which in free countries is known as the organised-labour syndical, or trade union struggle.—Lenin
struggle of the Russian workers underwent widespread development and consolidation simultaneously with the production of “literature” exposing economic (factory and occupational) conditions. The “leaflets” were devoted mainly to the exposure of the factory system, and very soon a veritable passion for exposures was roused among the workers. As soon as the workers realised that the Social-Democratic study circles desired to, and could, supply them with a new kind of leaflet that told the whole truth about their miserable existence, about their unbearably hard toil, and their lack of rights, they began to send in, actually flood us with, correspondence from the factories and workshops. This “exposure literature” created a tremendous sensation, not only in the particular factory exposed in the given leaflet, but in all the factories to which news of the revealed facts spread. And since the poverty and want among the workers in the various enterprises and in the various trades are much the same, the “truth about the life of the workers” stirred everyone. Even among the most backward workers, a veritable passion arose to “get into print” — a noble passion for this rudimentary form of war against the whole of the present social system which is based upon robbery and oppression. And in the overwhelming majority of cases these “leaflets” were in truth a declaration of war, because the exposures served greatly to agitate the workers; they evoked among them common demands for the removal of the most glaring outrages and roused in them a readiness to support the demands with strikes. Finally, the employers themselves were compelled to recognise the significance of these leaflets as a declaration of war, so much so that in a large number of cases they did not even wait for the outbreak of hostilities. As is always the case, the mere publication of these exposures made them effective, and they acquired the significance of a strong moral influence. On more than one occasion, the mere appearance of a leaflet proved sufficient to secure the satisfaction of all or part of the demands put forward. In a word, economic (factory) exposures were and remain an important lever in the economic struggle. And they will continue to retain this significance as long as there is capitalism, which makes it necessary for the workers to defend themselves. Even in the most advanced countries of Europe it can still be seen that the exposure of abuses in some backward trade, or in some forgotten branch of domestic industry, serves as a starting-point for the awakening of class-consciousness, for the beginning of a trade union struggle, and for the spread of socialism.

The overwhelming majority of Russian Social-Democrats have of late been almost entirely absorbed by this work of organising the exposure of factory conditions. Suffice it to recall Rabochaya Mysl to see the extent to which they have been absorbed by it — so much so, indeed, that they have lost sight of the fact that this, taken by itself, is in essence still not Social-Democratic work, but merely trade union work. As a matter of fact, the exposures merely dealt with the relations between the workers in a given trade and their employers, and all they achieved was that the sellers of labour power learned to sell their “commodity” on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal. These exposures could have served (if properly utilised by an organisation of revolutionaries) as a beginning and a component part of Social-Democratic activity; but they could also have led (and, given a worshipful attitude towards spontaneity, were bound to lead) to a “purely trade union” struggle and to a non-Social-Democratic working-class movement. Social-Democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich. Social-Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organised political force. Hence, it follows that not only must Social-Democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness. Now that Zarya and Iskra have made the first attack upon Economism, “all are agreed” on this (although some agree only in words, as we shall soon see).

The question arises, what should political education consist in? Can it be confined to the propaganda of working-class hostility to the autocracy? Of course not. It is not enough to explain to the workers that they are politically oppressed (any more than it is to explain to them that their interests are antagonistic to the interests of the employers). Agitation must be conducted with regard to every concrete example of this oppression (as we have begun to carry on agitation round concrete examples of economic oppression). Inasmuch as this oppression affects the most diverse classes of society, inasmuch as it manifests itself in the most varied spheres of life and activity — vocational, civic, personal, family, religious, scientific, etc., etc. — is it not evident that we shall not be fulfilling our task of developing the political consciousness of the workers if we do not undertake the organisation of the political exposure of the autocracy in all its aspects? In order to carry on agitation round concrete instances of oppression, these instances must be exposed (as it is necessary to expose factory abuses in order to carry on economic agitation).

One might think this to be clear enough. It turns out, however, that it is only in words that “all” are agreed on the need to develop political consciousness, in all its aspects. It turns out that Rabocheye Dyelo, for example, far from tackling the task of organising (or making a start in organising) comprehensive political exposure, is even trying to drag Iskra, which has undertaken this task, away from it. Listen to the following: “The political struggle of the working class is merely [it is certainly not ‘merely’] the most developed, wide, and effective form of economic struggle” (programme of Rabocheye Dyelo, published in issue No. 1, p. 3). “The Social-Democrats are now confronted with the task of lending the economic struggle itself, as far as possible, a political character” (Martynov, Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10, p. 42). “The economic struggle is the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into active political struggle” (resolution adopted by the Conference of the Union Abroad and “amendments” thereto, Two Conferences, pp. 11 and 17). As the reader will observe, all these theses permeate Rabocheye Dyelo from its very first number to the latest “Instructions to the Editors”, and all of them evidently express a single view regarding political agitation and struggle. Let us examine this view from the standpoint of the opinion prevailing among all Economists, that political agitation must follow economic agitation. Is it true that, in general, the economic struggle “is the most widely applicable means” of drawing the masses into the political struggle? It is entirely untrue. Any and every manifestation of police tyranny and autocratic outrage, not only in connection with the economic struggle, is not one whit less “widely applicable” as a means of “drawing in” the masses. The rural superintendents and the flogging of peasants, the corruption of the officials and the police treatment of the “common people” in the cities, the fight against the famine-stricken and the suppression of the popular striving towards enlightenment and knowledge, the extortion of taxes and the persecution of the religious sects, the humiliating treatment of soldiers and the barrack methods in the treatment of the students and liberal intellectuals — do all these and a thousand other similar manifestations of tyranny, though not directly connected with the “economic” struggle, represent, in general, less “widely applicable” means and occasions for political agitation and for drawing the masses into the political struggle? The very opposite is true. Of the sum total of cases in which the workers suffer (either on their own account or on account of those closely connected with them) from tyranny, violence, and the lack of rights, undoubtedly only a small minority represent cases of police tyranny in the trade union struggle as such. Why then should we, beforehand, restrict the scope of political agitation by declaring only one of the means to be “the most widely applicable”, when Social-Democrats must have, in addition, other, generally speaking, no less “widely applicable” means?

In the dim and distant past (a full year ago!) Rabocheye Dyelo wrote:

“The masses begin to understand immediate political demands after one strike, or at all events, after several”, “as soon as the government sets the police and gendarmerie against them” [August (No. 7) 1900, p. 15].

This opportunist theory of stages has now been rejected by the Union Abroad, which makes a concession to us by declaring: “There is no need whatever to conduct political agitation right from the beginning, exclusively on an economic basis” (Two Conferences, p. 11). The Union’s repudiation of part of its former errors will show the future historian of Russian Social-Democracy better than any number of lengthy arguments the depths to which our Economists have degraded socialism! But the Union Abroad must be very naive indeed to imagine that the abandonment of one form of restricting politics will induce us to agree to another form. Would it not be more logical to say, in this case too, that the economic struggle should be conducted on the widest possible basis, that it should always be utilised for political agitation, but that “there is no need whatever” to regard the economic struggle as the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into active political struggle?

The Union Abroad attaches significance to the fact that it has substituted the phrase “most widely applicable means” for the phrase “the best means” contained in one of the resolutions of the Fourth Congress of the Jewish Workers’ Union (Bund). We confess that we find it difficult to say which of these resolutions is the better one. In our opinion they are both worse. Both the Union Abroad and the Bund fall into the error (partly, perhaps unconsciously, under the influence of tradition) of giving an Economist, trade-unionist interpretation to politics. Whether this is done by employing the word “best” or the words “most widely applicable” makes no essential difference whatever. Had the Union Abroad said that “political agitation on an economic basis” is the most widely applied (not “applicable”) means, it would have been right in regard to a certain period in the development of our Social-Democratic movement. It would have been right in regard to the Economists and to many (if not the majority) of the practical workers of 1898-1901; for these practical Economists applied political agitation (to the extent that they applied it at all) almost exclusively on an economic basis. Political agitation on such lines was recognised and, as we have seen, even recommended by Rabochaya Mysl and the Self-Emancipation Group. Rabocheye Dyelo should have strongly condemned the fact that the useful work of economic agitation was accompanied by the harmful restriction of the political struggle; instead, it declares the means most widely applied (by the Economists) to be the most widely applicable! It is not surprising that when we call these people Economists, they can do nothing but pour every manner of abuse upon us; call us “mystifiers”, “disrupters”, “papal nuncios”, and “slanderers” go complaining to the whole world that we have mortally offended them; and declare almost on oath that “not a single Social-Democratic organisation is now tinged with Economism”. Oh, those evil, slanderous politicians! They must have deliberately invented this Economism, out of sheer hatred of mankind, in order mortally to offend other people.

What concrete, real meaning attaches to Martynov’s words when he sets before Social-Democracy the task of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”? The economic struggle is the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour-power, for better living and working conditions. This struggle is necessarily a trade union struggle, because working conditions differ greatly in different trades, and, consequently, the struggle to improve them can only be conducted on the basis of trade organisations (in the Western countries, through trade unions; in Russia, through temporary trade associations and through leaflets, etc.). Lending “the economic struggle itself a political character” means, therefore, striving to secure satisfaction of these trade demands, the improvement of working conditions in each separate trade by means of “legislative and administrative measures” (as Martynov puts it on the ensuing page of his article, p. 43). This is precisely what all workers’ trade unions do and always have done. Read the works of the soundly scientific (and “soundly” opportunist) Mr. and Mrs. Webb and you will see that the British trade unions long ago recognised, and have long been carrying out, the task of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”; they have long been fighting for the right to strike, for the removal of all legal hindrances to the co-operative and trade union movements, for laws to protect women and children, for the improvement of labour conditions by means of health and factory legislation, etc.

Thus, the pompous phrase about “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”, which sounds so “terrifically” profound and revolutionary, serves as a screen to conceal what is in fact the traditional striving to degrade Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade union politics. Under the guise of rectifying the onesidedness of Iskra, which, it is alleged, places “the revolutionising of dogma higher than the revolutionising of life”,6 6. This is the Martynov variation of the application, which we have characterised above, of the thesis “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” to the present chaotic state of our movement. In fact, this is merely a translation into Russian of the notorious Bernsteinian sentence: “The movement is everything, the final aim is nothing.” we are presented with the struggle for economic reforms as if it were something entirely new. In point of fact, the phrase “lending the economic struggle itself a political character” means nothing more than the struggle for economic reforms. Martynov himself might have come to this simple conclusion, had he pondered over the significance of his own words. “Our Party,” he says, training his heaviest guns on Iskra, “could and should have presented concrete demands to the government for legislative and administrative measures against economic exploitation, unemployment, famine, etc.” (Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10, pp. 42-43). Concrete demands for measures — does not this mean demands for social reforms? Again we ask the impartial reader: Are we slandering the Rabocheye Dyelo-ites (may I be forgiven for this awkward, currently used designation!) by calling them concealed Bernsteinians when, as their point of disagreement with Iskra, they advance their thesis on the necessity of struggling for economic reforms?

Revolutionary Social-Democracy has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities. But it utilises “economic” agitation for the purpose of presenting to the government, not only demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) the demand that it cease to be an autocratic government. Moreover, it considers it its duty to present this demand to the government on the basis, not of the economic struggle alone, but of all manifestations in general of public and political life. In a word, it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism. Martynov, however, resuscitates the theory of stages in a new form and strives to prescribe, as it were, an exclusively economic path of development for the political struggle. By advancing at this moment, when the revolutionary movement is on the upgrade, an alleged special “task” of struggling for reforms, he is dragging the Party backwards and is playing into the hands of both “Economist” and liberal opportunism.

To proceed. Shamefacedly hiding the struggle for reforms behind the pompous thesis of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”, Martynov advanced, as if it were a special point, exclusively economic (indeed, exclusively factory) reforms. As to the reason for his doing that, we do not know it. Carelessness, perhaps? Yet if he had in mind something else besides “factory” reforms, then the whole of his thesis, which we have cited, loses all sense. Perhaps he did it because he considers it possible and probable that the government will make “concessions” only in the economic sphere? If so, then it is a strange delusion. Concessions are also possible and are made in the sphere of legislation concerning flogging, passports, land redemption payments, religious sects, the censorship, etc., etc. “Economic” concessions (or pseudo-concessions) are, of course, the cheapest and most advantageous from the government’s point of view, because by these means it hopes to win the confidence of the working masses. For this very reason, we Social-Democrats must not under any circumstances or in any way whatever create grounds for the belief (or the misunderstanding) that we attach greater value to economic reforms, or that we regard them as being particularly important, etc. “Such demands,” writes Martynov, speaking of the concrete demands for legislative and administrative measures referred to above, “would not be merely a hollow sound, because, promising certain palpable results, they might be actively supported by the working masses....” We are not Economists, oh no! We only cringe as slavishly before the “palpableness” of concrete results as do the Bernsteins, the Prokopoviches, the Struves, the R.M.s, and Tutti quanti means "And All the Rest." tutti quanti! We only wish to make it understood (together with Nartsis Tuporylov) that all which “does not promise palpable results” is merely a “hollow sound”! We are only trying to argue as if the working masses were incapable (and had not already proved their capabilities, notwithstanding those who ascribe their own philistinism to them) of actively supporting every protest against the autocracy, even if it promises absolutely no palpable results whatever!

 
What is to be Done
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