Ob Agitatsii by Arkadi Kremer and Julius Martov. Written in 1893 and published online here in English for the first time. Translation by Richard Taylor.
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 capitalism—they 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 material—worker militants—but 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 itself—in 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 people—for example, the apprentices and the factory workers—also 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 future—this 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!
In view of the above, the task that faces us is clear: we should strive to develop political self-consciousness among the mass of workers, to interest them in political freedom. But political self-consciousness does not only mean a change in the present political system but also a change in favour of the working class. Consequently, recognition of the opposition of interests must precede political class self-consciousness. The opposition of interests will be recognised when this opposition makes itself apparent in the life of the proletariat. It must make itself felt at every step, be constantly repeated to the worker and make itself felt in every detail. But is it enough just to feel this opposition for oneself, to promote one’s own interests first and foremost, and to bear them constantly in mind? Life often obscures simple and clear relationships and not infrequently it seems possible to explain the antagonism between the position of the owner and the workers purely by natural circumstances, which only confuse the worker. For instance, nothing is easier than bewildering the worker and proving to him that a reduction in the working day is impossible. Even the depressed state of trade in the particular branch of industry is cited in evidence; the impossibility of shortening the working day because of competition with other owners, small profits, the battle with large stores, and so on, are cited. These are precisely the arguments, even if they were incorrect or correct only for a particular case, that appear quite conclusive to the worker who has a limited understanding. Obviously, to feel and to understand the justice of their demands, and to promote them constantly and persistently, are far from one and the same thing. But to ensure that tricks and deceptions of various kinds do not deflect the workers from their just demands, these demands must be promoted constantly, and not only on important questions, but also—this is particularly important as preparatory work—on questions that appear very insignificant. Where petty demands are concerned, the owner will not confuse the workers in this way because the possibility of satisfying petty demands is obvious to everyone. It depends only on the particular owner and failure to satisfy a demand is easily explained to the workers as simply the unwillingness of the owner himself, and in this way the opposition of their interests to those of the owners are partially made plain. In this connection petty demands can more easily meet with success without particular persistence in the struggle for them, and this brings with it a faith in their own strength, it teaches the workers the practical concepts of struggle, it prepares and promotes individuals who were hitherto lost in the mass and gives to other workers an example of how to fight successfully with the owners. Even in the struggle for petty demands the workers must willy-nilly join together, convincing themselves in practice of the necessity for, and possibility of, unity. This practice is much more important in the education of the mass, and more convincing, than books about the same thing. In the struggle the relations between the opposing sides become acute and the owner appears in his true guise; it is only then that he throws off his mask as the paternal benefactor and reveals his genuine thoughts and aspirations. In this struggle the worker can clearly distinguish his friends from his enemies, can observe the solidarity of all the owners, the whole of the bourgeoisie in general—both big and petty bourgeoisie—against him, the worker. On the basis of the awakening that the struggle has produced, the worker is more inclined to accept the ideas that earlier seemed nonsensical to him.
This struggle for petty demands, provoked in particular by exploitation by one or several owners, is limited to the arena of one or a few workshops or factories. The struggle, which is in the majority of cases confined to a struggle only with the most immediate exploiter, who is not supported by the administration, must serve as the elementary school for the Russian proletariat, which has still not been lured into the class struggle; in the struggle it will be educated and strengthened and from it it will emerge prepared for the struggle for the more important demands even without the unity of the workers of several factories or the whole trade.
The first phase of the struggle for petty demands, towards which the worker is propelled by a calculation that is easily grasped—exploitation by the owner being easy to explain—demands from the workers a certain degree of energy and unanimity. In the second phase, when it is necessary to make common cause against the entire bourgeois class, which the government will immediately rush to help, a much greater degree of endurance, solidarity and courage will be required. Moreover, a certain level of consciousness will also be demanded, the ability to link one’s own interests with the interests of other workers in the same branch of production, sometimes even of another, but such consciousness can be developed only when the worker comes, through his own experience, to the conclusion that success in a particular struggle for the interests of workers in separate factories is not feasible. This very struggle with separate owners will develop in the working class a degree of stability and endurance, of unity, a sense of independence and class self-confidence, which it will need when it comes face to face with the inevitability of the class struggle in the proper meaning of the word. As it enters this stage, the workers’ movement will begin little by little to take on a political tinge. Indeed, as the workers advance a particular demand for significant change in the existing methods in a particular factory or in a whole branch of industry, so they join in a struggle in which the attitude towards them of not just one, not just a few owners, but of the whole of the upper classes and government will become clear to them. Conscious of the complete justice of their demand, the workers at first behave peacefully and with restraint, confident that everyone must be on their side, that everyone must sympathise with them. After all, this is all so simple, their demands are so clear, the oppression is so unjust! They send a deputation to the factory inspector. He will certainly help them, he is after all their defender, he knows all the laws, and the laws certainly speak in their favour … The inspector just pours a bucket of cold water over them … There is nothing about this in the laws; the factory owner stands on completely legal ground, I can do nothing … The door is closed in front of my nose … How is it that the laws did not intercede for us! It cannot be that our little father has not defended us! The inspector has been bribed by the factory owner, he is lying, lying insolently! … The workers try other ways: everywhere they meet refusal, sometimes accompanied by a threat which soon takes on a real form—the troops are sent to help the owners. The workers receive their first lesson in political science which says that right is on the side of the strong, that against the organised force of capital there must emerge a similarly organised force of labour. Broadening as they develop, enveloping whole areas of production instead of individual factories, with every step the movement conflicts ever more often with state power, the lessons of political wisdom become all the more frequent, and on each occasion their powerful moral is imprinted ever more deeply on the minds of the workers, class self-consciousness is formed, the understanding that everything the people strive for can only be achieved by the people themselves. The ground is prepared for political agitation. This agitation now finds a class, organised by life itself, with a strongly developed class egoism, with a consciousness of the community of interests of all workers and their opposition to the interests of all others. Then the alteration of the political system is only a question of time. One spark—and the accumulated combustible material will produce an explosion.
Thus the task of the Social Democrats is to conduct constant agitation among the factory workers on the basis of existing petty needs and demands. The struggle aroused by such agitation will train the workers to defend their own interests, increase their courage, give them confidence in their strength, a consciousness of the need for unity, and ultimately it will place before them the more important questions which demand solutions. Having been prepared in this way for the more serious struggle, the working class proceeds to the resolution of these vital questions, and agitation on the basis of these questions must have as its aim the formation of class self-consciousness. The class struggle in this more conscious form establishes the basis for political agitation, the aim of which will be to alter existing political conditions in favour of the working class. The subsequent programme of the Social Democrats is self-evident.
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 goal—the organisation of the working class—it 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—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 crowd—this 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 time—all 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 side—it 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 achieved—it 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 degeneration—this 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 weapon—the 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.
The top portrait is NOT of the author, Julius Markov.
That’s because it’s a portrait of Arkadi Kremer who co-authored the pamphlet with Martov. Sharp eye! 🙂