Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
On Agitation (3 of 3)
by Julius Martov and Arkadi Kremer
Estimated Reading Time: 11 min

The crucial significance of this brochure for the subsequent evolution of Lenin's thought lay in its diagnosis of where the movement had gone wrong. It argued two closely related propositions. The first was that proletarian consciousness arose not out of theoretical induction and the educational work of intellectuals and worker-intellectuals: it had its origins, and was refined and developed, in the course of the very struggle for existence of the working mass. Secondly, it argued that it was utopian and unhistorical to imagine that the mass, even if blessed with cohorts of worker-intellectuals, would emerge directly from its pristine darkness into the full light of Social-Democratic consciousness at one blow. It argued that, on the contrary, the process of self-education through its own activity must take the working class through a series of transitional stages before this could be realised. Each stage built the basis for, and was the necessary precondition of, the next and higher phase in the development of consciousness. The idea of there being discernible stages in the evolution of working-class consciousness became, as we shall see, a central point of Lenin's theory of revolution; it seems clear that On Agitation provided him with the germs of it.

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.
If you're joining us late, you can read part one and two here.


As a result of the fact that social democracy can only become the real people’s party when it bases its programme of activity on the needs that are actually felt by the working class, and of the fact that to achieve this goalthe organisation of the working classit must begin with agitation on the basis of the most vital demands, the minor ones that are clearest to the working class and most easily attainable, we come to a new formulation of the question of what sort of individuals we should try to promote from among the workers for the leadership of the movement. In order to advance the most minor demands which could unite the workers in the struggle, we must understand what sort of demand will most easily exert a positive influence on the workers in particular conditions. We must choose the right moment to begin the struggle, we must know what methods of struggle are most appropriate to the particular conditions, place and time. Information of this kind requires constant contacts with the mass of workers on the part of the agitator, requires that he constantly interest himself in a particular branch of industry and follow its progress. There are many pressures in every factory and many trifles can interest the worker. To ascertain the most keenly felt grievance in the life of the workers, to ascertain the moment when a particular grievance should be advanced, to know in advance all the possible ramifications "Without regard to the consent of the governed, outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the states. With the gravest concern for the explosive and dangerous condition created by this decision and inflamed by outside meddlers."
Fear of the Agitator, often called "outside agitators" during Civil Rights struggles, continue to this day. This particular quote is from a racist 1956 "southern manifesto" protesting school de-segregation.
this is the real task of the active agitator. Knowledge of this kind can be given only by life: theory can and must only illuminate it for him. To immerse himself constantly in the mass, to listen, to pick on the appropriate point, to take the pulse of the crowdthis is what the agitator must strive for. Knowledge of the conditions of life, knowledge of the feelings of the mass will by and large give him his influence on the mass; these will enable him to find his feet whatever the circumstances, they will promote him from the crowd and make him its natural leader. Clearly, the social democratic views of the agitator will determine which road he considers he should lead the crowd along without abandoning his convictions. He is obliged to strive with all his strength to explain to the mass the advantages and disadvantages of each of the meausres that are proposed, to preserve it from any mistakes that might harm the development of its self-consciousness. Further, he must always go one step further than the mass, he must throw light on its struggle, explaining its significance from the more general standpoint of the opposition of interests, and should in so doing broaden the horizon of the masses.

But at the same time the agitator himself should not lose sight of the final goal, he should be so theoretically prepared that, whatever misfortunes occur, the connection between his present activity and the final goal is not lost from view. For this, however, theoretical preparation alone is not enough. The latter must constantly be reinforced by practical work. It is only by this constant verification, only by constant adaptation to the task known and learnt in theory, that the agitator can say that he has understood and mastered the theory. In its tum, practical activity will reveal which questions should be more thoroughly based in theory and, by a similar extension, the man will know how to make sure of the foundation of the theory itself and of its application to particular conditions.

For this reason we identify with neither of the extremes, neither losing touch with the practical basis and only studying, nor agitating among the mass, without at the same time concerning ourselves with theory. Only parallel activity, the complementing of the one by the other, provides a real preparation and produces solid convictions. What sort of character do and did the concepts of propaganda bear in the majority of social democratic circles? Individuals raised on theory worked out for themselves correspondingly theoretical convictions that they attempted to transmit to others. But a total world view, even the world view of scientific socialism, may by no means be grasped by everyone, and it is only at a certain stage of industrial development that the propaganda of scientific socialism finds a mass of disciples and in this case the mass is prepared by a long and persistent struggle. For this reason the more able workers who had been grouped in the circles were selected and, little by little, social democratic views were passed on to them (insofar as these were grasped by the leaders themselves) and then this raw material was sent to an intellectual for its finishing touches.

What has been the result of this kind of propaganda? The best, most able men have received theoretical evidence that is only very superficially connected with real life, with the conditions in which these people live. The worker’s desire for knowledge, for an escape from his darkness, has been exploited in order to accustom him to the conclusions and generalisations of scientific socialism. The latter has been taken as something mandatory, immutable and identical for all. This is why the majority of propagandised workers, for all their enthusiasm for scientific socialism, bore all the traits characteristic of the Utopian Socialists in their timeall the traits except one: the Utopians were convinced of the omnipotent power of the preaching of the new gospel and believed that the winning over of the popular mass depended on their own efforts alone, whereas our Utopian Social Democrats know perfectly well that the backward condition of Russian industry dictates narrow limits to any socialist movement, and this conviction deprives them of any energy in the task of propaganda and compels them to limit their activity to a narrow circle of the more advanced individuals. Our propagandised workers know and understand the conditions of the activity of Western social democracy much better than the conditions of their own activity.

Scientific socialism appeared in the West as the theoretical expression of the workers’ movement; with us it is transformed into abstract theory, unwilling to descend from the transcendental heights of scientific generalisation.

Moreover in this formulation socialism degenerates into a sect and the system of propaganda that was being practised had other, more harmful consequences. On the one hand, with this system of propaganda the mass have remained completely on one side, being regarded as material to be tapped and tapped as much as possible. This tapping has fatally weakened the intellectual forces of the mass; the better elements have been taken away from it, and it has been deprived of those people who, though lacking in consciousness, had, through their mental and moral superiority, served it before and could still have served as leaders and as the foremost front-line fighters in its purely spontaneous struggle for existence. On the other hand, these best elements of the proletariat have formed a special group of people with all the traits that characterise our revolutionary intelligentsia, doomed to everlasting circle life and activity with the results that flow inevitably from that. Convinced that further promotion of individuals from the mass will become all the more difficult (and such a moment must certainly come), the worker intellectuals are nonplussed, they ponder on the reasons for the difficulties and naturally are inclined either to the thought that the inadequate level of their own development is the reason for the failure of their activity, or to the conviction that in our country conditions are not yet ripe for a workers’ movement. In the first case they conclude that it is necessary to study and study and then to go and transmit their views to the mass; in the second case, if they do not conclude in complete disillusionment, with a reconciliation with reality, they become locked all the more irrevocably in their circles concerned with self-perfection right up until the moment when, of its own accord and without their assistance, the impending improvement in the cultural level of the mass renders it capable of understanding their teaching. In both cases these results of propaganda are an undoubted obstacle to the task of raising the class self-consciousness of the Russian proletariat. The more the worker Socialists are improved in their mental and moral attitude, the further they are removed from the mass, the more remote they become from reality and at the decisive moment, when some event or other might propel the worker mass into the movement, it and the worker Socialists will stand alienated from, and even hostile to, one another. It is difficult to foresee what this can lead to, but the history of Europe shows that in this kind of situation, when the conditions are ripe for a movement of the working mass and the genuine representatives of its interests are found to be divorced from it, it will find other leaders for itself, not theoreticians but practical men who will lead it to the detriment of its class development. For Social Democrats this prospect cannot fail to appear highly dangerous. Propaganda among the workers in order to recruit new individual adherents to socialism is no different from propaganda among the intelligentsia for the same purpose; however, as demonstrated above, this kind of propaganda has a directly harmful sideit weakens the intellectual strength of the mass. By creating a worker socialist intelligentsia, alienated from the mass, we harm the cause of the development of the proletariat, we harm our own cause.

Different results must be achieved by uniting propaganda with agitation, uniting theory with practice. Permanent unison between advanced individuals and the mass, unity on the basis of questions vaguely comprehended by the mass and made clear to it by an experienced agitator, will make him its natural leader. At the same time, every success that is achieved through this kind of union of individuals with the mass will enhance the slumbering strength of the mass, it will raise its spirit, it will provoke in it new demands, which previously seemed alien to it; in that way it will raise its cultural level and consequently bring it still nearer to the agitator. Constant struggle will stimulate it to the effort of thinking: in addition the same struggle will promote from the mass new individuals who are capable of becoming the object of the same rational propaganda and who, without it, would remain lost in the mass. The latter is especially true: whereas, when the mass was passive, the reserves of people who could be turned into Socialists were rather narrowly defined, when the movement is active, the movement itself will constantly refill the places of those front-line fighters who have left the ranks. The task of the agitator is to try and ensure that new thoughts are conceived in the mind of the worker, that he understands the attitudes of the owners towards him in a clearer light. The awakening, the eternal discontent and eternal striving for an improvement of its situation, alongside a broad understanding of the victories already achievedit is towards this that the agitator should lead the mass.

With propaganda in the circles it was necessary to make great sacrifices for the achievement of insignificant results. By working among the mass the number of sacrifices made in comparison with the results achieved decreases and, the broader and deeper the movement becomes, the more difficult it will be to cope with it, the more difficult it will be to uproot the socialist elements. The best example is Poland: the strikes there are beginning to receive official recognition and the government has decided not to apply existing laws to the participants. This proves that an open movement can render ineffective obstacles that the law has placed in its path. But for this the movement must have roots in the soil. He who does not promote by his own activity the growth of class consciousness and the revolutionary demands of the proletariat is not a Social Democrat.

However it is possible to assist the one or the other solely by concerning oneself directly with arousing the mass of the movement on economic grounds and every step in this direction shortens the remaining road and at the same time facilitates the further progress of the movement, removing one after another those obstacles that now seem irremovable and that hinder even circle work, which is essentially cultural, and that it cannot actually remove. In view of all this, we recognise the need for social democratic circles to make the transition to the programme whose main features we have outlined, or to cease thinking that their activity is more useful to the cause of the development of the proletariat than the activity, for example, of the Committee for Literacy. The experience gained in these circles, and the evidence of the workers who have been successfully propagandised by them, will make it possible to begin the struggle more or less rationally on new foundations. Intellectuals and workers should constantly discuss what demands should be advanced at a given moment in a given branch of production, and what should be the object of agitation, taking as a starting point the most vital needs of the workers. Further, there must be clarification of the means that would best facilitate the commencement of the struggle (agitation, strike, petitions to the inspector, and so on). The production of agitational literature should then be the task of the intelligentsia, literature suited to the conditions in a given branch of production or a given industrial centre, literature that would speak to the worker of his needs and would serve as a corresponding supplement to oral agitation. Finally, the intellectuals should strive to impart to their study sessions with the workers a more practical character, so that for the worker the knowledge he has received in these sessions will serve to broaden his horizons and not tear him away at once from solid ground into the sphere of completely abstract scientific positions. Propagandising literature which inclines in the same direction must be created.

We have still to say a few words about the sorts of limits within which the Social Democrats should restrict their activity. There is a view that only the most advanced industrial centres can furnish the basis for agitational activity. And, indeed, in handicraft and domestic industry the workers, who are uncoordinated and dispersed find it more difficult to unite on the basis of conscious common interests and the actual common character of these interests cannot easily be recognised as the opposition of interests between employer and worker. The absence of a pronounced differentiation between the position of master and worker adds to this. Moreover, it is comparatively easy for the worker to become an owner or an independent producer; as a result the worker regards his position as temporary and is willing to make certain sacrifices. But can one conclude from this that the struggle is absolutely impossible? Again, no! Handicraft and domestic (i.e. small-scale) production has some advantages in the struggle.

Skilled workers are culturally more advanced than unskilled, they are more scarce and cannot easily be replaced by others; with a good prospect of opening their own workshops, the workers lose less if they refuse to work, and so on. Finally, a large number of small workshops in one region makes it easier to change from one boss to another. Consequently if, on the one hand, small-scale production prevents the development of active struggle then, on the other, the same production will help us to wage the struggle.

If in the large centres life itself drives the workers into battle with the capitalists, and the role of the agitator is merely to show the way, then in small-scale production the agitator has to a far greater degree still to arouse the workers. On the other hand, once the movement has begun, it has some chance of success. People will ask, is this necessary? There is a view that we shall have to wait until small-scale production has in fact been transformed into large-scale industry and then begin agitation, but until that time be satisfied with propaganda directed at the making of individual worker Socialists. But, apart from the doubt that exists as to whether we should in general strive to create a worker intelligentsia isolated from the mass, there are objections of a different sort that might be made against the suggested tactic. The fact is that small-scale production does not become a branch of industry by a sudden leap: the transition is completed very slowly and in the meantime it is not at all easy to determine whether the said small-scale or domestic production has been transformed into manufacturing industry or not. In the process of transition it is the workers above all who suffer most because of their unpreparedness. The workers are gradually caught in the iron vice of large production and it is a misfortune for them if they participate only passively in this process. Terrible sufferings, material insecurity, unemployment, the constant reduction of earnings, almost degenerationthis is what happens from day to day if the workers themselves do not take note of their descent down the slippery slope of decreasing wages and increasing insecurity, if by their own efforts they do not fight for the achievement of better living conditions. It is the workers’ misfortune if, in exchange for the advantages of skilled labour, which they lose at every step, they do not acquire another weaponthe recognition of their interests, the understanding of the need to adhere solidly one to another for a successful struggle. It is true that agitation in such circumstances is much more difficult, owing to the advance of this terrible force which is crushing the workers, but it is consequently that much more important to prevent the most acute suffering and thus to create the chances of a more successful struggle with the new conditions once the latter have been established. We count ourselves fortunate that we live in an epoch when the progression of the movement is so clear that we can foresee its further stages.

To be aware of this progression, and not to use the knowledge, would be to commit an enormous historical error. Similarly, the notion of the feasibility of a strong workers’ movement in a few centres is mistaken. With the greater mobility of workers, the provincial workers, reduced to the ranks of the unemployed by the first stages of capitalism, will play the part of emigrants from a less cultured country in relation to the organised workers of the large centres. Thus, to neglect workers in small-scale production is to complicate the task of organisation and of struggle in the large workers’ centres. From this it follows that only widespread agitation can bear fruit. As far as the mass, which has still not been united by industrial capital, is concerned, we must exert ourselves so that capitalism, in its conquest of one branch of production after another, will not just leave ruination behind it but that following immediately on its heels the ranks of the organised workers’ army should rise so that, though deprived of their skills and turned into unskilled workers, the proletarians will know how to oppose exploitation with the strength of organisation, the strength of class self-consciousness.

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