Red Letter
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On Agitation (1 of 3)
by Julius Martov and Arkadi Kremer
Estimated Reading Time: 12 min

It was the brochure/programme On Agitation which provided Lenin with the necessary perspective to set a course which (he hoped) would avoid both the threat of degeneration into trade unionism and the danger of hermetic isolation from the working class. It was the mutually reinforcing influences of the strike movement and the brochure On Agitation that made Lenin realise the vital importance of the notion of practice in the development of revolutionary consciousness. When this notion is integrated with Lenin's theoretical analysis—especially his formulation of the idea of the proletariat as vanguard class—the skeleton of his whole theory of revolution is laid bare.

On Agitation was the product of the then much more advanced Jewish workers' movement in the Pale of Settlement (i.e., those regions in the western and southern provinces of the empire to which Russian Jews were confined). At this time the Jewish workers were much better and more extensively organised than were the Russians. They had already organised large-scale strikes and street demonstrations and had established a firm organisational nexus which was later to be formalised in the Bund. It was two prominent activists of the Jewish movement operating out of Vilna, who, reflecting on the experience gained in the strike movement, penned the brochure On Agitation. They were Julius Martov and Arkadi Kremer.

From Neil Harding's Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory
and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions

Shout out to the blog People's War for posting this.


Our article is intended to clarify several questions relating to the practice of the Russian Social Democrats: the correct resolution of these questions is, in our opinion, a necessary precondition if social democratic activity is to attain its desired objectives. Drawing on our own experience and on the information that we have on the activity of other groups, we have come to the conclusion that the first steps taken by the Russian Social Democrats were the wrong ones and that, in the interests of the cause, their tactics must be changed. We have therefore tried in our article to show the direction in which the activity of the Social Democrats should be changed, which tasks they should set themselves in order to avoid the risk of remaining just as impotent at the end of the day as they were at the beginning.

The article was written with readers from amongst the intellectuals and advanced workers in mind; it was especially important for us to influence the convictions of this last group, because the majority of the worker Social Democrats sympathise with the practical activity that we condemn as useless. This is not the place to go into the causes of this phenomenon; this question is partly elucidated in the article itself and, in any case, we are convinced that, as long as the most advanced workers do not agree that we need to work in the direction indicated, the future of our workers’ movement remains in doubt. If our article does at least lead to a polemic on the question that concerns us, we shall count ourselves satisfied: in one way or another a polemic will serve its purpose, as it will have raised for examination a question that, until now, has been decided by separate closed circles.

The workers’ movement is the inevitable result of the contradictions inherent in capitalist production. As far as the working mass is concerned, the contradictions in capitalist production consist in the changes in the conditions of life and the conceptions of the people brought about by the capitalist system which make this mass ever less prone to exploitation. Requiring men to be automata, unquestioningly subordinate to the will of capital, this system prepares the soil for the emergence among the workers of thinking men and instils in the workers an understanding of their interests. If capitalism requires the atomisation of the workers in order to root out the possibility of a struggle against capital, it does, in its turn, gather the workers together and join them in a single workshop, a single settlement, a single manufacturing centre. If capitalism requires that the workers should not be conscious of the opposition of the interests of capital to those of labour, the same system, with its concentration of capital, nonetheless makes the distinction between the position of the capitalists and workers ever more acute. If the differentiation of the worker suits capitalism, because it leads to atomisation, technical development at the same time destroys this differentiation and reduces the majority of workers to the level of unskilled workmen. If it suits the capitalist for the worker’s family to be strong and to hold him back from too passionate a struggle with capital, then, on the other hand, the latter itself emancipates the worker from his family and melts down his wife and children in this same crucible of factory life. In a word, if capital, faced with the threat of its own ruin, is obliged to try and erect obstacles to the development of the working class, it is, on the other hand, itself destroying its own edifice and preparing a force that is hostile and dangerous to it. It is true that, at a certain level of its development, the same capitalist system prepared a strong weapon for the struggle even against the united proletariat, but then as a weapon this is double-edged. In struggling against it, the force it has itself created and developed, capitalist society suffocates and hastens its own destruction. It is sufficient to mention the reserve army of workers, which weighs on the working population like a millstone and paralyses the success of the struggle. But the increase in the worker army that forms this reserve curtails the home market, since it makes it ever more difficult for the working population to bear the burden of taxes, which the transition from indirect to direct taxation gives rise to; finally, this army requires state assistance (not to mention the increases in expenditure on the police, the courts and prisons) which leads to an increase in state expenditure.

The first consequence is that the capitalist is forced to seek new markets, which becomes more and more difficult, and this then leads to frequent, and then also to permanent, crises, and the crises lead to losses instead of profits, to the reduction of some capitalists to the ranks of the proletariat, to the destruction of a part of capital. The change in the system of taxation and the increase in expenditure caused by the members of the reserve army takes away an ever greater part of profit for the use of the state and, as profit is reduced, so, consequently, is accumulation. But these new contradictions result in the urge to increase exploitation and further improve technique, in increasingly bitter competition and other similar phenomena, which, as we saw above, will in their turn lead to consequences which do not contribute to the objectives of capitalismthey develop strength and a degree of hostility in the working mass towards the existing order. Thus the contradictions inherent in a certain stage of capitalist development drive the working mass against capital. The further the development of capitalist production goes, the keener this struggle must become and the further the demands and the consciousness of the working mass will extend. Hence capitalism is a school, not only training materialworker militantsbut also educating them and impressing upon them its all-too-glaring contradictions. It has not only increased the strength of the working class by uniting the workers, but also prepared the soil for the development and dissemination of ever-more extreme ideas. The idea of socialism as something concretely possible could be worked out only on the basis of the capitalist system and, in addition, only at a certain stage of its development.

But how does the school of capitalism act on the working mass?

Gathering the workers together still does not mean uniting them for the struggle. The concentration of the proletariat is fertile soil for the movement. If capitalism were able constantly to satisfy the worker in his daily needs, then this unification would not play a revolutionary role. But capitalism, which depends on competition and the absence of planning in production, constantly forces individual entrepreneurs to strive for an increase in surplus value, for a reduction in the share of labour in the product, for a constant niggling struggle with the proletariat, which defends its existence and cannot but protest against the obvious encroachment on its well-being. This struggle is inevitably the main educational factor acting on the working mass and makes it, at a certain level of development, one of the principal forces undermining this system. Becoming keener, deeper and more general, this struggle takes on the character of a class struggle with the corresponding class consciousness of the proletariat, which we are now experiencing in all capitalist countries. Capital will not surrender immediately, it will not surrender until the last moment: defeated on all counts, it tries to get up again and begin the struggle with renewed strength. In this struggle the naked interests of capital emerge most boldly: at a certain level of development the struggle can no longer be conducted under the banner of high-flown ideas, capital discards its mask and, unabashed, announces that it is fighting against the claims on its pocket; at this stage capital will be waging a struggle not for predominance, but simply for existence. It snatches at the political forms of the capitalist system, just as a drowning man clutches at a straw. Only state power is still in a position to fight against the working mass, and, as long as political power remains in the hands of the bourgeoisie, it is possible to assert categorically that there can be no great improvements in the position of the workers. Therefore, however broadly based the workers’ movement may be, its success will not be secured until such time as the working class stands firmly on the ground of political struggle. The achievement of political power is the principal task of the struggling proletariat.

But the working class can only be confronted with this task when the economic struggle demonstrates to it the clear impossibility of achieving an improvement in its lot in the current political circumstances. It is only when the aspirations of the proletariat collide head on with current political forms, only when the torrent of the workers’ movement meets political force, that the moment of transition in the class struggle to the phase of consciously political struggle occurs. As Social Democrats, we set ourselves the task of leading the proletariat to an awareness of the need for political freedom as the preliminary condition for the possibility of its broad development.

But how is this to be achieved?

The idea of political freedom is by no means a simple and obvious one, especially in a politically backward country; the working class cannot be inspired with this idea as long as that class remains suffocated in the present political atmosphere and as long as the satisfaction of the demands that it deems vital is impossible within the limits of existing political conditions. Just as for a recognition of the opposition of interests, the emergence of this opposition is in itself not enough, but a constant struggle is necessary, so, for a recognition of the lack of political rights, the very fact of this lack of rights is in itself inadequate, until such time as it conflicts with the efforts of the working mass to improve its situation. We see the best evidence of this fact in the history of England where, thanks to the prosperity of industry, it was at a certain period necessary to struggle solely for such improvements as it was possible to achieve in existing political conditions by means of a purely economic struggle with the capitalists, who did not resort to the help of the organised strength of the state. At first sight the results turned out to be really startling. In England there is the most highly developed capitalist production, the most highly developed workers’ movement, but the political character of the movement is very insignificantly developed and the majority has until now stood aside from active political struggle. The proletariat has only very recently begun to acquire a social democratic leaning, as the working class, through the very course of the struggle, arrives at a recognition of the need for reforms that cannot be realised by any means other than direct influence on the state machine. But if we take Austria, in which the workers’ movement is very young, there we meet with a startlingly rapid growth of the political elements in the proletarian movement, caused by a narrower political framework within whose limits the original struggle of the proletariat had to be conducted. Or, for example, Ireland. The struggle of the small farmers, divided by capital, has for a long time had a political character, because the economic struggle for the maintenance of their level of prosperity brought the Irish people into sharp conflict with the organised force of the English state. From the above-mentioned examples it follows that it is unthinkable to expect a class movement with a political programme where the purely economic struggle is not conducted on a sufficiently large scale. It is therefore utopian to suppose that the Russian workers, in their general mass, can wage a political struggle unless they clarify with sufficient conviction the need for this in their own interests. The popular mass is drawn into the struggle not by reasoning, but by the objective logic of things, by the very course of events which drives them to struggle. The role of the party, having taken upon itself the political education and organisation of the people, is limited in this respect to determining correctly the moment at which the struggle becomes ripe for transition to the political struggle and for the preparation in the mass itself of the elements that will ensure that this transition is accomplished with the minimum loss of resources. How, for example, can the proletariat come to recognise the need for freedom of assembly? The mass does not arrive at a demand like this in a purely logical way. Freedom of assembly must be recognised as a means of struggle for the proletariat’s own interests and it follows that these interests should be recognised; and practice should demonstrate before their very eyes the link between the interests of the worker and freedom of assembly. This practice reveals itself in the struggle for their own interests, a struggle in which it is necessary to face up to the kind of general questions on which their thoughts appeared, even to them, to be nonsensical. It only remains for critical thought to direct the mass to the conclusions that result from the posing by life itself of the questions that are vital to it, and to formulate the results that flow from the logic of things, from the logic of the struggle itselfin other words, to produce a programme.

But how can one explain, in this case, the proletarian movement at the end of the last century in France and in the first half of the present century in almost the whole of Europe?

That was the time of the political subjection of the bourgeoisie which encountered obstacles in its development that the political forms of absolutism or aristocracy had placed in its way. The bourgeoisie, by then already materially strong, was lacking in purely physical strength. In fact the working peoplefor example, the apprentices and the factory workersalso suffered from the same political conditions. Discontent was prevalent among the mass: it was encouraged by the political struggle, but this struggle occurred while the old forms of production were being replaced by the new and the whole significance and meaning of the new was not sufficiently clear even to the educated part of society, and even less to the backward popular mass. In these conditions the struggle could not give the proletariat either a clear consciousness of the fatal opposition between its interests and the interests of all the other classes or, even more, of the fact that the fundamental causes of the misfortunes of the working class lie in the foundations of the economic order of contemporary society. Meanwhile, the considerable repression of the bourgeoisie provoked in it the urge to fight for emancipation, accompanied by an idealistic enthusiasm and a flourishing of political talents in its midst which this class has never achieved either before or since. Whole masses of orators, politicians, writers and publicists emerged from its ranks, inspired with ideas of freedom and equality which, in the consciousness of the propagandists themselves, bore little relation to the material interests of the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, it was their children, nourished on political dissatisfaction and opposition who, admittedly, went beyond the boundaries within which the solid bourgeois had permitted himself to grumble, and not infrequently found themselves in open conflict with the representatives of the moderation and scrupulousness of financial and industrial liberalism, but who were nevertheless working for the benefit of the bourgeoisie alone. These very activists, moving out among the people with all the ardour of one who is unaware of the material roots of his idealism, found fertile soil in the mass, which was politically immature and in a state of turmoil. It was not difficult to convince the people that the cause of all their misfortunes resided in political restrictions and it was all the more easy to do this when the class that was standing over it sang in unison with the revolutionary agitators, although in truth an octave lower. This powerful combination confirmed in the minds of the workers the truth and significance of what the orators were saying in flysheets and at meetings. In addition the same powerful combination confirmed in their minds the idea of a link between all their interests and the interests of the entrepreneurs. Seeing in the owner his defender and patron, he surrendered to him completely, not suspecting that they would have only a short path to follow together, that their roads would diverge in opposite directions. Thus the bourgeoisie became the leader of a working class that, under its direction, did not destroy a single stronghold of ‘blessed’ absolutism. The working class went into battle, the bourgeoisie produced the programme and after the victory established the new foundations of order, while taking for itself the lion’s share of the plunder, culminating in political power. Nevertheless, even those crumbs of victory that fell to the proletariat after victory had their uses. Of still greater use to it was the political education that it had acquired in this struggle. But these positive attributes also bring negative ones in their train. Right up to the present the worker has seen in the honey-tongued bourgeois his ruler and natural representative in political affairs. Assisting the political education of the working class, training it for political struggle, this historical period did at the same time facilitate the weakening of its political self-consciousness as a separate class. The history of this epoch is important for us, both as a lesson and as valuable material for our own practice and the theoretical basis of the movement. We should conclude from this that only the mass can win political freedom. And, if this is the case, then the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat must not be postponed until such time as the bourgeoisie achieves political freedom. Whether our bourgeoisie achieves it, whether there are organised conflicts between government and capital in the near futurethis question is undoubtedly important. But whichever way this question is resolved should not alter the direction of our activity. In any eventuality it is most important for us that the working class be conscious, that it understands its interests that it should not become an appendage of the bourgeoisie if the latter wants to use the strength of the working mass as a protection which it will not only subsequently discard as unnecessary, but will also try to destroy, so that it cannot act against the victors themselves. If our bourgeoisie really does not know how to become revolutionary, then we should not give it the opportunity to appear as the teacher and leader of our proletariat, for an education received from the bourgeoisie will be repaid at too dear a price by the loss of class self-consciousness. If the bourgeoisie itself also advances into the arena of political struggle, then that is undoubtedly a bonus.

The worker will find a fellow-traveller along the way, but only a fellow-traveller; if not, then he will walk this part of the road before him alone, as he will also walk the whole of the rest of the road to complete emancipation. And how insignificant is this first part of the road compared to the road that stretches before him!

On Agitation (1 of 3)
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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