On the Propaganda Perspective
[Originally posted on Feb 7, 2003 at http://www.bolshevik.org/Leaflets/IG_list.html
An exchange between an Internationalist Group supporter and one of our comrades [Samuel Trachtenberg] on the question of revolutionary press policy recently took place on a New York City leftist discussion list. We reprint below the reaction of the IG’s comrade Abram to our posting of a historical article on the Korean War, followed by two emails from our comrade in response.
Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2003
Subject: [reconstruction] question
A question prompted by S’s recent postings:
Why has his organization, the “International Bolshevik Tendency,” apparently published no article, leaflet or statement on two of the most crucial recent battles of the class struggle: the lock-out against West Coast longshore workers, and the struggle of New York transit workers?
Both are key examples of how imperialist war abroad means repression against labor, blacks and all the oppressed within the U.S. Both are arenas in which any organization genuinely struggling for Bolshevik politics would seek to intervene. In both cases the Internationalist Group intervened actively, fighting for the program of revolutionary Trotskyism. But from the IBT, nothing. (And I saw zero from them when I was on the West Coast for the recent conference against Taft-Hartley, even though one of their long-time supporters attended the ILWU Coast Caucus.)
I think this is one more confirmation that the IBT is little more than a literary society on the road to open social democracy.
The first response by our comrade
Date: Fri, 24 Jan 2003
I gather that Comrade Abram had no criticisms of the political line of the rather important historical article on the Korean War I posted, but there is a clear implication in his comment that this sort of article is somehow less useful or important than agitational leaflets on more current issues. I think it is a mistake to counterpose the two, and I think that both the New York transit dispute and ILWU lockouts pose important issues for the working class today. If my group had more capacity it would have been good to have produced statements on these and a variety of other current struggles.
At this time, given our resources, we have decided that our main orientation as a tiny organization must be to seek to clarify major issues of program, often through polemical struggle with other ostensibly revolutionary groups, in order to assist in the regroupment of people who are already somewhat radicalized and politically active. Of course we welcome opportunities to recruit directly from among raw workers, but for very small propaganda groups this cannot be a primary strategy. First one must build a nucleus of cadres, and that can only be done on the basis of struggle for political program.
The question of press policy and “mass orientation” has been the focus of many political debates in the Marxist movement, see, for example., Lenin’s polemic with the economists in What Is To Be Done?, James P. Cannon’s critique of Albert Weisbord, and Trotsky’s writings in The Crisis of the French Section. The early Spartacist League had parallel debates with Healy-Wohlforth and Ellens-Turner on questions of press policy and Potemkin Village fake-mass pretensions.
These are, I think, a valuable part of our revolutionary heritage and deserve some attention. I think we can begin with the recognition that the IBT and the IG are both very small organizations (“sub-propaganda groups”) aspiring to help build the nucleus of a future mass revolutionary party. The job of a propaganda group is to disseminate Marxist propaganda, as James P. Cannon, pointed out in his History of American Trotskyism:
“…these circumstances made obligatory that our primary work be propaganda rather than mass agitation. As has already been pointed out, in the terminology of Marxism quite a sharp distinction is drawn between propaganda and agitation, a distinction which is slurred over in popular language. People commonly describe as propaganda any kind of publicity, agitation, teaching, propagation of principles, etc. In the terminology of the Marxist movement, as it was defined most precisely by Plekhanov, agitation and propaganda are two distinct forms of activity. Propaganda he defined as the dissemination of many fundamental ideas to a few people; what we perhaps in America are accustomed to call education. Agitation he defined as the dissemination of a few ideas, or only one idea, to many people. Propaganda is directed toward the vanguard; agitation towards the masses.”
The following quotes are from two sources that the IG and IBT both regard as part of the political tradition of authentic Trotskyism: James P. Cannon in the 1940s and the Spartacist League of the 1970’s.
From The History of American Trotskyism:
“Our paper 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.”
“The fate of every political group–whether it is to live and grow or degenerate and die–is decided in its first experiences by the way in which it answers two decisive questions.
“The first is the adoption of a correct political program. But that alone does not guarantee victory. The second is that the group decide correctly what shall be the nature of its activities, and what tasks it shall set itself, given the size and capacity of the group, the period of the development of the class struggle, the relation of forces in the political movement, and so on.”
“…if the group misunderstands the tasks set for it by the conditions of the day, if it does not know how to answer the most important of all questions in politics–that is the question of what to do next–then the group, no matter what its merits may otherwise be, can wear itself out in misdirected efforts and futile activities.”
“The [founding] conference didn’t take up every question posed by the political conditions of the time. It took up only the most important questions, that is, those which had to be answered first….”
“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 lies through the vanguard and not over its head. That was not understood by some people. They thought they could by-pass the Communistic workers, jump right into 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….
“At that time there appeared on the horizon a figure who is also perhaps strange to many of you, but who in those days made an awful lot of noise [Albert Weisbord]….His revelation was: The Trotskyists must not be a propaganda circle, but go directly into ‘mass work.’ That conception had to lead him logically to the proposal of forming a new party, but he couldn’t do that very conveniently because he didn’t have any members. He had to apply the tactic of going first to the vanguard on us….The heart and core of the fight with Weisbord was this question of the nature of our activities. He was impatient to jump into mass work over the head of the Communist Party. We rejected his program and he denounced us in one thick mimeographed bulletin after another.”
“There were impatient people in our ranks who thought that Weisbord’s prescription might be worth trying, a way to get rich quick. It is very easy for isolated people, gathered together in a small room, to talk themselves into the most radical proposals unless they retain a sense of proportion, of sanity and realism. Some of our comrades, disappointed at our slow growth, were lured by this idea that we needed only a program of mass work in order to go get the masses.”
“We, with our criticisms and theoretical explanations, appeared in the eyes of all as a group of impossibilists, hairsplitters, naggers. We were going around trying to make people understand that the theory of socialism in one country is fatal for a revolutionary movement in the end; that we must clear up this question at all costs. Enamored with the first successes of the First Five Year Plan, they used to look at us and say, ‘These people are crazy, they don’t live in the real world.’ At a time when tens of thousands of new elements were beginning to look toward the Soviet Union, going forward to a new Five Year Plan, while capitalism appeared to be going up the spout; here were these Trotskyists, with their documents under their arms, demanding that you read books, study, discuss, and so on. Nobody wanted to listen to us.”
“We decided that the most revolutionary thing we could do was not to go out to proclaim the revolution in Union Square, not to try to put ourselves at the head of tens of thousands of workers who did not know us, not to jump over our own heads.”
“Our task, our revolutionary duty, 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.”
From the introduction to Documents of the Buffalo Marxist Collective (Young Communist Bulletin No. 1)
“Given the lack of a mass working class party in the United States, the primary task of the SL/RCY is to accumulate a cadre and reach the advanced workers and students attracted to revolutionary politics. This is a point profoundly misunderstood by New Leftists, PLers, Maoists and ‘radicals’ of all stripes full of utopian schemes to conquer the masses ‘now.’”
“While the ex-New Leftists with their new-found ‘Leninism’ delude themselves into thinking that a group of a few hundred or even a few thousand, with a minimum program but lots of good intentions, can organize the ‘working-class as a whole,’ the SL/RCY is accumulating a cadre that will enable it to intervene in a principled and effective way in the working-class movement. These New Leftists, ignoring the preparatory and propagandistic tasks necessary to the construction of a mass revolutionary party, incorrectly view the SL/RCY’s emphasis on public polemics and regroupment as some sort of insane sectarianism.
“The SL/RCY has always argued that all get-rich-quick schemes that ignore the need to develop a conscious coherent cadre can only lead to the worst opportunist politics. Opportunism flows from a misconception of the relationship of the party to the class. A small grouping, expecting to ‘lead the masses’ without the necessary preparatory work, inevitably finds itself tailing after the present level of working class consciousness, adding a few ‘socialist’ flourishes.
“While a regroupment today cannot lead immediately to the type of mass parties that affiliated to the Communist International (because of the relatively small size of the left and it’s lack of a real working-class base), the SL/RCY seeks to attract all militants who will aid in the preparation to such a mass party. In doing this, we have actively intervened in the ostensibly revolutionary movements as a hard pole of communist attraction. The cadre we are attempting to recruit are not only the ‘untouched pure’ radicals that PL enthuses over, but equally important, those that have organizational and theoretical experience in the left-wing organizations.”
The second response by our comrade
Date: Fri, 24 Jan 2003
In my previous post I tried to explain what the IBT views as the main responsibility for a small propaganda organization. What is essential is to produce first-rate Marxist material, which is well written, but most importantly, programmatically correct. “Better fewer but better,” to borrow a phrase from Lenin. Of course it is also good to address as many issues as possible.
Unfortunately we were not able to produce a leaflet on the recent transit contract, but at the union rallies we concentrated on distributing our statement on the impending war on Iraq which I previously posted to this list, and selling the then current issue of our journal 1917 along with a back issue with the lengthy front page article titled “American Labor Besieged,” which discusses the historical development of the American labor movement and it’s current political state due to the betrayals of the union bureaucrats. We also sold our edition of Trotsky’s Transitional Program which includes a lengthy introduction on its relevance for today and a collection of documents on the history of Communist and Trotskyist work in the unions. We believe that the more politically conscious transit workers who may be directly recruitable to a revolutionary organization will be interested in broader political questions in addition to their current contract dispute.
Even with a statement on the current situation in transit, without supporters in the union it would have been virtually impossible for us or the IG to fight for leadership of the workforce. We want to avoid the kind of Potemkin Village fake-mass posturing the SL engaged in with their claims that their tiny group was anywhere close to playing the role of a revolutionary leadership for the workers of the DDR in 1989-90.
The first bound volume of Spartacist, which throughout the 1960s, along with some leaflets, was the publication of the then-revolutionary Spartacist League, laid the basis for the regroupment of a significant layer of New Leftists in the early 1970’s that qualitatively transformed it as an organization and vastly expanded its propaganda capacities. It also provided the human material necessary to begin to construct active communist caucuses in the unions, as Comrade Abram will confirm. This history is outlined in our edition of the Transitional Program. As the SL degenerated, its leadership made a conscious decision to dismantle all their union caucuses, something the IBT’s founders waged a struggle against.
The revolutionary SL of the 1960s lacked the capacity to make serious mass interventions and its paper came out at best twice a year and sometimes was only eight pages in size. This meant that it missed some very important issues. For example, the SL was unable to publish an article on the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslavakia, nor did it publish any significant analysis of the Black Panthers until 1972 when they were in an advanced state of political decline. There were also many union struggles that the SL was unable to cover in this period. This was not due to political indifference, but rather limited capacity.
In contrast to the SL’s irregular but programmatically superior press, Tim Wohlforth’s Workers League produced a regular paper with mass pretensions which covered a much wider range of issues. The Wohlforthites derided the SL and claimed that it was uninterested in the struggles of the masses. The Buffalo Marxist Caucus (BMC), one of the left-Maoist collectives the SL successfully regrouped in the early 1970s, explained why they were won to the SL instead of the WL:
“While at first we were hostile to the SL based on WL statements about SL ‘abstentionism’ in the class struggle, we found that we could not defend political points that we advanced from the WL perspective. This was brought out to a focus around the WL’s ‘mass press.’ The Bulletin, the RCY argued, did not reflect the limited reality of the WL’s work in the trade unions which was confined primarily to one white collar union. Most of the articles are written from the outside, many of them rewrites from the bourgeois press, while the centerfold features destined for the Bulletinpamphlet series are reserved for the methodological profundities. To this conception of a ‘Bolshevik’ press the SL counterposed its own: They demonstrated the way in which Workers Vanguard was an organizing tool, directly related to the tactic of posing themselves as a pole of communist attraction in the trade unions on the basis of a full program. Workers Vanguard did not pretend to be the mass organ of a mass party. Things must be called by their right names. Rather, Workers Vanguard was mainly directed toward advanced workers with whom the SL had contact through implantation in the trade unions, and towards ostensibly revolutionary organizations, students and intellectuals. Polemics were directed against other left tendencies the SL intersected in it’s actual trade union work, work on campus and in political events on the left, and was thus connected with the SL’s Leninist perspective of splits and fusions. The SL compared the Bulletin to PL’s Challenge, pointing out that real mass work was the penetration of the working class through it’s most advanced layers, not tailing the class at it’s present level of consciousness.”
The BMC quoted from Trotsky’s article, “What is a Mass Paper?”:
“What is a ‘mass paper’? The question is not new. It can be said that the whole history of the revolutionary movement has been filled with discussions on the ‘mass paper.’ It is the elementary duty of a revolutionary organization to make its political newspaper as accessible as possible to the masses. This task cannot be solved except as a function of the growth of the organization and its cadres who must pave the way to the masses for the newspaper—since it is not enough, it is understood, to call a publication a ‘mass paper’ to have the masses accept it in reality”
The WL’s political descendent, the Socialist Equality Party, has an even more frequent press, with its web site being updated on a daily basis with lots of articles. Yet their politics remain revisionist, and they consciously attempt to whitewash their history while posturing as a far more significant social force then they really are.
While Wohlforth is rightly remembered as a despicable a toady of Gerry Healy, he once played a positive political role, and, as James Robertson on occasion stated, it was a shame he had no backbone as his literary talents would have been very useful to the Trotskyist movement.
I think that the comrades of the IG could also make a valuable contribution to building a genuine Trotskyist organization if they were able to critically examine their own political histories and evaluate the SL’s prolonged degeneration that preceded their own purge. This is a history that must be carefully studied and from which the essential political lessons must be learned, just as they have been learned from the Pabloist degeneration of the leadership of the Fourth International, and subsequently of the descent of Cannon’s SWP into revisionism. We attempted to engage the IG in a discussion of our common history in a lengthy letter addressing the degeneration of the SL several years ago (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6).
To use this list to post a serious assessment of an important historical question such as the Korean War (which clearly is directly relevant to today’s headlines) does not, I would argue, qualify one for membership in a “literary society.” Because if we are unable to learn from the past we will be condemned to repeat it.