This article is an edited version of a piece first appearing in Proletarian Revolution No. 56 (Spring 1998)

Propaganda and Agitation in Building the Revolutionary Party

The League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) is at present a small group of revolutionary workers organized mostly in New York and Chicago. By fighting alongside our fellow workers in their struggles, we seek to prove that the socialist revolution is the way to end the exploitation and oppression of life under capitalism. With a small number of supporters around the world, we work to advance the fight for socialist revolution by re-creating the authentic world party of socialist revolution, the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky.

With limited resources, we concentrate our efforts in a select few areas of activity where we are most likely to meet revolutionary-minded workers. We also spend a good deal of time extending our theoretical and political understanding of the class struggle. Especially in the pages of Proletarian Revolution, we have resurrected and developed the revolutionary method of work in the trade unions, the tenets of internationalism and interracialism, the Marxist analysis of Stalinism and of capitalism overall, and many other fundamental questions. (See “Twenty Years of the LRP,” in PR 53.)

There is an inevitable conflict in this. We became Marxists because we want to fight the capitalist system: we would like to participate in or initiate struggles over every injustice. But we must also make sure we do all we can to recruit the most politically advanced workers and youth and train them as revolutionary leaders, because it is these revolutionaries who will be able to lead in the decisive struggles of the future. So we have to balance our desire to be involved in struggles with our priority of building the revolutionary party.

This article examines the Marxist approach to building the revolutionary party.

What Kind of Party?

Marxism teaches that capitalism survives through the exploitation and oppression of the masses. It explains that the role of the working class (the proletariat) in production leads it toward making a revolution to overthrow capitalism and build a communist society of human freedom and equality.

But the founding Marxists’ discovery of the laws of capitalism has proven comparatively easy compared to the proletariat’s task of equipping itself with these ideas and making its revolution. Marx and Engels knew that the most important instrument for this was an organization of communist workers committed to raising the consciousness of their class on the basis of a clear revolutionary program. But they also hoped to build a party of the entire working class with a broader program, through which workers would gain political experience and in which the communists would work to convince the workers of the revolutionary perspective.

The experience of the big Social Democratic working-class parties of the Second International put to rest the idea of the working class developing revolutionary consciousness through broad parties open to the entire class. Those parties came to express the interests of the skilled, professional workers, a layer that grew tremendously along with imperialist exploitation of the colonies and of oppressed workers within the metropoles. These privileged workers – the labor aristocracy – have a stake in the capitalist system that the masses of workers do not. The reformist leaders’ policy of compromise with capitalism represented a betrayal of the revolutionary interests of the masses in the interests of the temporary privileges of the most aristocratic workers. This was proven when most parties of the Second International supported their respective “fatherlands” in the First World War, sending the masses to slaughter one another.

The working class needed a party that would stand for its historic interests. This meant fighting in particular for the interests of the most oppressed and exploited, and combating reformists and others who represent middle-class interests. For this the party would have to be international and internationalist, embodying the interests and experience of the world’s workers against the forces of nationalism.

Lenin’s Solution: The Vanguard Party

This need was addressed by Lenin. He saw that a party of the most politically conscious workers was needed. This vanguard party would have to be tightly disciplined to be able to respond to the twists and turns of the class struggle, to resist repression, and to politically combat those who sought to mislead the working class. Although the vanguard party would be politically distinct from the mass of workers, its members would participate side by side with their fellow workers in all struggles, seeking to raise their revolutionary consciousness. Lenin repeatedly stressed the importance of the vanguard workers in leading the masses:

The backward worker from the lower or middle strata of the masses will not be able to assimilate the general idea of the economic struggle; it is an idea that can only be absorbed by a few educated workers whom the masses will follow, guided by their instincts and their direct immediate interests. (“Apropos of the Profession de Foi,” Collected Works, Vol. 4, pp. 291-2.)

Of course, which workers are advanced and which are backward is not static. The experience of the class struggle can radicalize backward workers, and the work of the vanguard party can help the more advanced become theoretically trained Marxists. As Trotsky wrote:

The masses are by no means identical: there are revolutionary masses, there are passive masses, there are reactionary masses. The very same masses are at different times inspired by different moods and objectives. It is just for this reason that a centralized organization of the vanguard is indispensable. ( Their Morals and Ours, p. 59)

The strict separation of revolutionary workers into their own vanguard party allows them to adopt very flexible tactics in participating in common struggles with other workers. As revolutionaries, we openly say to our fellow workers that we believe socialist revolution is the only solution to the masses’ needs, even while we support and join in every struggle to better the masses’ conditions, putting forward the best means to conduct the struggle. We do so because the more workers fight to change the present system, the more they will see that capitalism cannot be reformed. As well, through victories in the class struggle, the working class will recognize that it has the power to defeat the capitalist class and create a new society.

The working class will not come to this understanding automatically. Different groupings and layers of the working class embrace different ideas at different times, expressing the influence of different experiences. In particular, the labor aristocracy exerts a conservative influence on the more exploited and oppressed workers. This is reinforced by racial and national oppression, which encourages political conservatism among the workers of the privileged groups.

The class struggle will provide the necessary experience from which growing numbers of workers can draw Marxist conclusions. But this requires that the most politically advanced workers and youth join together in a vanguard party and fight to win their fellow workers to its revolutionary program. As Trotsky summed up:

[The] masses undergo their own experiences that permit them to choose and to progress along the revolutionary road, but on condition that they find a vanguard that, at every stage of the struggle, explains the situation to them, shows them the objectives to be obtained, the methods to use and the ultimate perspectives. (Writings 1933-34, p. 292.)

Propaganda and Agitation

Great historical experiences led to the understanding of the importance of the vanguard party, and Lenin and Trotsky summed up these lessons clearly. Nonetheless, tremendous confusion continues today regarding the question. This is not surprising: under the pressures of their small size and isolation from the masses, Marxist groups run the risk of adapting to their isolation and becoming inward-looking sects.

Another danger facing small revolutionary groups is the temptation of trying to attract masses of workers before they have won the most politically advanced layers of their class. The revolutionary socialist message can only appeal to masses of workers when they have already come to feel their social power through mass struggle, and have rejected capitalism. Even then, reformist socialist leaders – and centrists who vacillate between their revolutionary rhetoric and really reformist policies – can win influence among the masses. This presses revolutionaries to pay more attention to the day-to-day struggles and issues that masses of workers are interested in, and pay less attention to the revolutionary lessons. This can lead revolutionaries to adapt to the backwardness of the masses, at the expense of building the revolutionary party of vanguard workers.

This problem was already apparent to Lenin and later to Trotsky. It demanded a very clear understanding of the different activities of revolutionaries in building the party and leading the revolution.

First, there is a difference between the overall strategy of world socialist revolution and the various tactics used to advance the daily struggles of workers toward that goal. Second, there are the different ways that revolutionaries address the vanguard workers and the more backward masses.

These two types of political communication have been carefully distinguished by Marxists as propaganda and agitation. Plekhanov, the founder of Marxism in Russia, developed this scientific understanding. Lenin quotes him as his authority on the subject in his famous work on building the party, What Is to be Done?:

A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but he presents them to the mass of people. (Plekhanov, quoted in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 409.)

A propagandist communicates a complex and many-sided message to a limited number of workers, those who are interested in gaining a wide understanding of class-struggle ideas. An agitator communicates a few ideas to the masses, those who at the time are only open to the simpler message. For example, masses of workers will listen to revolutionaries agitate for a strike, but at this time far fewer will listen to propaganda about why capitalism is headed for a profound crisis and why socialism is the working-class solution.

Another example given by Lenin shows how propaganda and agitation complement one another:

We thought (with Plekhanov, and with all the leaders of the international working-class movement) that the propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of the crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, etc. In a word, he must present many “ideas,” so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience, say, the death of an unemployed worker’s family from starvation, the growing impoverishment, etc., and utilizing this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses,” e.g., the senselessness of the contradiction between the increase of wealth and the increase of poverty; he will strive to rouse discontent and indignation among the masses against this crying injustice, leaving a complete explanation of this contradiction to the propagandist. (pp. 409-10.)

This understanding of propaganda and agitation is central to resolving the problems of building the small nucleus of revolutionaries into a vanguard party. It helps us decide which activities must be our priority, and how work among the masses and the vanguard workers can be combined.

The Propaganda Stage of Party Building

Small revolutionary groups must understand that rather than going to the backward masses, their priority is to reach the most politically advanced workers. This layer has to grasp the more complex ideas of Marxism, accept the need to build the revolutionary party and be trained as revolutionary leaders. These tasks define the propaganda stage of party building.

As Lenin wrote:

As long as it was (and in as much as it still is) a question of winning the proletariat’s vanguard over to the side of communism, priority still goes to propaganda work; even propaganda circles, with all their parochial limitations, are useful under these conditions. ( “‘Left-Wing’ Communism, An Infantile Disorder,” Collected Works, Vol. 31.)

That propaganda work among vanguard workers lays a solid foundation for agitation among the masses was made clear by Trotsky. He defined propaganda as “the education of the cadres” [the trained leaders], and agitation as the “influencing of the masses through the cadres.” (Writings 1935-36, p. 26.) Also:

The stage of individual propaganda was inevitable. When the centrists accused us of sectarianism, we answered them: without a minimal Marxist cadre, principled action among the masses is impossible. But that is the only reason we form cadres. (Writings 1934-35, p. 216.)

Either out of impatience or outright opportunism, most left groups reject this concentration on the vanguard workers in favor of finding shortcuts to the masses. Instead of making the revolutionary- or socialist-minded worker their priority, they look for broader numbers of “militant” workers to recruit and inevitably water down their politics in order to do so. A classic example of this approach is that of the ISO in the U.S. and the other groups of the International Socialism tendency around the world.

When he fought against the early Bernsteinist tendency in Russia to strengthen the party, Lenin saw precisely such a method behind the opportunists’ politics. “There cannot be anything more dangerous and more criminal,” said Lenin, “than the demagogic speculation on the underdevelopment of the workers.” He condemned as “profoundly harmful” the Bernsteinists’ “ignoring the interests and requirements of this advanced section of the workers, and the desire to descend to the level of understanding of the lower strata.” (“Apropos ... ,” pp. 291, 292.) Elsewhere he specified:

The newspaper that wants to become the organ of the Russian Social Democrats must, therefore, be at the level of the advanced workers; not only must it not lower its level artificially, but, on the contrary, it must raise it constantly, it must follow up the tactical, political and theoretical problems of world Social-Democracy. Only then will the demands of the working class intelligentsia be met, and it itself will take the cause of the Russian workers, and consequently, of the Russian revolution, into its own hands. ... The average worker will not understand some of the articles in a newspaper that aims to be the organ of the Party, he will not be able to get a full grasp of an intricate theoretical or practical problem. This does not at all mean that the newspaper must lower itself to the level of the mass of its readers. The newspaper, on the contrary, must raise their level and help promote advanced workers from the middle strata of the workers. (“A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social Democracy,” Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 281.)

But not all left groups reject the propaganda group approach in favor of opportunism. Some embrace it in words as an excuse for sectarian abstention from the struggles of workers in favor of passive theoretical study. Lenin made the crucial distinction between the propaganda stage of party building as a whole and that of “propaganda circles.” A Marxist group with its first handful of members often (although not always) goes through a period as a study group, a “propaganda circle”: a group with little or no involvement in workers’ struggles that concentrates almost exclusively on studying and discussing Marxist theory. Such a group can easily degenerate into a “sect” because it is isolated and inward-looking. Under varying conditions, a propaganda circle might be an unavoidable, although dangerous, phase. However, the overall propaganda stage of party building is not the same as that of the more limited initial phase within it of the propaganda circle.

The propaganda stage does not mean not working among the masses. On the contrary, agitation is crucial to the success of propaganda. Ideas developed in the course of theoretical study must be confirmed by the experience of the class struggle. Moreover, vanguard workers will in general pay no attention to revolutionaries who cannot address their current struggles and prove in action that Marxism can make sense to broader masses of workers.

The vanguard workers are constantly being pressed to give leadership to their fellow workers. The key tasks of the revolutionary propagandist are to support the vanguard workers who lead their fellow workers effectively, show them the tactics to use when they are in doubt, and convince them of the need for a revolutionary party and Marxist theory to lead the struggles to the socialist revolution.

Crucial to the success of the propaganda stage of party building is the task of establishing close relations with the mass organizations of the working class, especially the unions. The revolutionary group must strategically place itself among the most politically advanced workers, as well as among those who will be at the center of future struggles. This is important because workers are correct to be skeptical of people from outside their ranks who voice opinions on the situation inside their factory or union. And they are unlikely to trust ideas or individuals whom they have not seen tested in the course of struggle.

Developing an “organic connection” with the working class – becoming intimately connected with the day-to-day lives and struggles of broader numbers of workers – must take place in the propaganda stage, especially when fighting to overcome the infantile habits of an isolated propaganda circle. Often revolutionary groups are first formed among more privileged layers of the working class, the labor aristocracy and students. If the organization is to withstand the petty pressures of middle-class life, it must recruit workers and sink roots among the most oppressed.

In the propaganda stage of party building, agitation is subordinated to propaganda. The agitational work of a propaganda group must serve the central purpose of winning an audience among the vanguard workers for propaganda for the revolutionary party, and proving these ideas in action.

The Fourth International

As the Stalinists took over the Third International in the late 1920’s, Trotsky led the struggle to build new groups of revolutionaries, first attempting to reform the Third International, then later building a new world revolutionary party, the Fourth International. Overseeing its development in the early 1930’s, he set forth exactly this perspective of developing propaganda groups oriented toward the vanguard workers and their struggles:

Our strength at the given stage lies in ... a correct revolutionary prognosis. These qualities we must first of all present to the proletarian vanguard. We act in the first place as propagandists. We are too weak to attempt to give answers to all questions, to intervene in all specific conflicts, to formulate everywhere and in all places the slogans and the replies of the Left Opposition. The chase after such universality, with our weakness and the inexperience of many comrades, will often lead to too-hasty conclusions, to imprudent slogans, to wrong solutions. By false steps in particulars we will be the ones to compromise ourselves by preventing the workers from appreciating the fundamental qualities of the Left Opposition.

I do not want in any way to say by this that we should stand aside from the real struggle of the working class. Nothing of the sort. The advanced workers can test the advantages of the Left Opposition only by living experiences, but one must learn to select the most vital, the most burning, and the most principled questions and on these questions engage in combat without dispersing oneself in trifles and details. It is in this, it appears to me, that the fundamental role of the Left Opposition lies. (“Some Ideas on the Period and the Tasks of the Left Opposition,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1930-31), p. 297.)

Trotsky repeatedly explained that his insistence on not leaping over the propaganda stage did not mean abstaining from mass struggles. One example is found in a letter to the Communist League of Struggle group in the U.S. in 1932:

You especially emphasize the necessity of active participation by the Left Opposition in the mass movement and the struggles of the workers in general. Although the Left Opposition in a majority of countries is today a propagandist organization, it propagandizes not in a sectarian form but in a Marxist manner, that is, on the basis of participation in all aspects of the life of the proletariat. ... To a great extent the question reduces itself to the real possibilities, to which also pertain the natural capacity, experience and initiative of the party. (Writings 1932, p.106.)

Further, arguing against a centrist group called the Brandlerites, who descended from the Right Opposition in the Third International and criticized the Trotskyists for not making mass struggle their priority, Trotsky wrote:

First of all we are creating the elements and preconditions for a Marxist crystallization within the official party. We are creating cadres. Whether we are a sect or not will be determined not by the quantity of the elements who are at present grouped around our banner, nor even by the quality of these elements (for we are very far from the point where all are of the highest quality), but rather by the totality of the ideas, the program, the tactics, and organization our particular group can bring to the movement. This is why at the present stage the struggle of the Left Opposition is above all a struggle for program and for strategic principles. To say that we must speak to the needs of the masses, and to counterpose this truism to the Left Opposition, means to fall to a fatal level of vulgarity; for our task is precisely to know with what ideas to address ourselves to the masses, with what perspective to develop their demands, including their partial demands. ... At a time when we are just beginning to educate and reeducate the cadres, the Brandlerites counterpose mass work to cadre education. That is why they will have neither one nor the other. Because they have no principled positions on basic questions and therefore are unable to really educate and temper their cadres, they spend their time carrying out a caricature of mass work. (“Principled and Practical Questions,” Writings [1930-31], pp. 252-3.)

Many of today’s “Trotskyist” organizations call themselves propaganda groups: they have little choice, since Trotsky was so clear on the question. But their practice – disdain for theoretical discussion and debate, reluctance to speak of socialism or revolution in front of the workers, adaptation to the labor bureaucracy and thereby to the privileged aristocracy – suggests that their real historical ancestry is to be found in groups like the Brandlerites!

Cannon on Building the SWP

An excellent example of Trotsky’s approach to building the parties of the Fourth International is to be found in The History of American Trotskyism, a somewhat idealized account of the building of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) written by its leader, James Cannon. The book’s weaknesses come primarily where it avoids a critical examination of the mistakes made by the Trotskyists in the U.S. But its strength is that it summarizes the direction Trotsky gave to his followers, including very clear explanations of the propaganda stage of party building.

Cannon begins his description of the stages of building the Trotskyist group by explaining the Marxist understanding of propaganda and agitation in precisely the terms we quoted above from Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky. He then describes how the Trotskyists decided that they could not go directly to the masses, but had to first build a propaganda group directed principally toward the vanguard workers. At the time, the most politically advanced vanguard workers whom Trotskyists could hope to recruit were in the Communist Party. Cannon notes that the Trotskyists’ newspaper

... was aimed directly at the members of the Communist Party. We didn’t try to convert the whole world. We took our message first to those whom we considered the vanguard, those most likely to be interested in our ideas. We knew that we had to recruit at least the first detachments of the movement from their ranks. ... We had to either turn our face towards the Communist Party, or away from the Communist Party in the direction of the undeveloped, unorganized and uneducated masses. ...

The problem was to understand the actual situation, the stage of development at the moment. Of course you have to find a road to the masses in order to create a party that can lead a revolution. But the road to the masses leads through the vanguard and not over its head. That was not understood by some people. They thought they could bypass the Communistic workers, jump right in the midst of the mass movement and find there the best candidates for the most advanced, the most theoretically developed group in the world, that is, the Left Opposition which was the vanguard of the vanguard. This conception was erroneous, the product of impatience and the failure to think things out. Instead of that, we set as our main task propaganda, not agitation.

We said: Our first task is to make the principles of the Left Opposition known to the vanguard. Let us not delude ourselves with the idea we can go to the great unschooled mass now. We must first get what is obtainable from this vanguard group, consisting of some tens of thousands of Communist Party members and sympathizers, and crystallize out of them a sufficient cadre ... . (pp. 65-66, 86-87.)

The Trotskyists tried at this time to find entry points into the mass movement, with the purpose of fighting alongside CP members to win their respect and attention. But the Stalinists often repelled them. Limited to a small propaganda circle fundamentally unable to participate in any mass work, the Trotskyists’ task, according to Cannon, “was to print the word, to carry on propaganda in the narrowest and most concentrated sense, that is, the publication and distribution of theoretical literature.” (pp. 95-96.)

After a long period of little class struggle, a wave of strikes and protests began around 1933. Openings to make contact with the workers appeared, first among the unemployed, then in the unions. The pressure of the rising workers’ struggle also led to the creation of new, leftward-moving centrist groups and left wings in the old parties, like the reformist Socialist Party.

These events coincided with the Trotskyists’ decision to abandon attempts to reform the Third International, and to build independent revolutionary parties and a Fourth International. At this time Trotsky raised the slogan “Turn from a propaganda circle to mass work,” and urged his comrades to seek a new orientation to fresh groups of vanguard workers.

The Trotskyists in the U.S. took advantage of the new opportunities. By 1934 they were leading the hotel workers’ union in New York and led a strike of all hotel workers in the city. Later in the year, they led the most important strike at the time, still a landmark in U.S. labor history: the Minneapolis Teamster strike. They fused their party with a left-moving centrist group which had just led another historic strike in Toledo, forming the Workers Party. Then the Workers Party entered the much larger Socialist Party with the aim of influencing radicalizing worker members.

After all this, by the late 1930’s, the Trotskyists were over a thousand strong. Trotsky at this time still considered the American organization a propaganda group (see In Defense of Marxism, p. 161), proving that the determinant of a propaganda group is not its size but whether it still faces the task of winning the vanguard workers to building the party.

Twenty Years of Building the LRP

The LRP, after some twenty years of hard work and struggle, is still in the propaganda stage of party building. Our most important task remains recruiting and training the vanguard workers.

During this time we have laid solid theoretical foundations for our future work. We formed at a time when, to our knowledge, no genuinely revolutionary Marxist groups existed, and what was presented as Marxist theory was in fact cynical middle-class lip-service to Marxism. We lay claim to no less than having resurrected Marxist theory in the pages of this magazine and in our book, The Life and Death of Stalinism. Our theory has been confirmed by its ability to foresee, explain and guide us through the major events of our times. Its main achievements have been our analyses of capitalism’s epoch of decay, the nature of Stalinism and its collapse, the roots and function of racial oppression in capitalism, and the role of the revolutionary party in raising the working class’s socialist consciousness.

We have accumulated a rich experience of the class struggle, particularly through our comrades in the unions, who have held elected positions as shop stewards, delegates and contract negotiating team members, and who have succeeded in upholding our revolutionary socialist politics. And through comrades around the world we have played an important role in, and learned a great deal from, major class struggles, particularly in the case of our Australian comrades of the then-Workers Revolution Group.

However, we have largely failed to recruit in the United States. Inexperience and mistakes may have caused us to miss opportunities here and there. But fundamentally, it has been the defeats of the U.S. and international working class, and the accompanying downturn in class struggle, that have limited our organization to its present small size and isolation. Large numbers of workers can only be radicalized and convinced of the ideas of revolutionaries on the basis of experience of mass struggle and victories.

The coming mass working class struggles will open far greater opportunities to build the LRP as the nucleus of the revolutionary party. We will only be able to take advantage of those opportunities if we do everything in our power today to recruit and to position ourselves to best take advantage of those struggles when they come.

The LRP will continue to make every effort to build our organization, spread its influence and aid our fellow workers’ struggles. But we must face the truth that until the mass struggles erupt, we will not be able to fundamentally change the small, isolated character of our organization. Guided by our propaganda perspective, we [will] vigilantly avoid the dangers of sectarian adaptation to our isolation, as well as opportunist attempts to go to the masses without working to recruit the most politically advanced workers. We will position ourselves to take maximum advantage of the first outbreaks of the coming struggles. Because of the importance of building the revolutionary leadership for those struggles, we encourage every revolutionary-minded worker and youth to contact us and discuss our ideas.