I am posting here an edited version of the contribution I made to yesterday’s session of the Workers’ International Network conference. All comments are welcome!
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This discussion today is of vital importance. At our previous sessions we have drawn attention to what is rapidly looking like a worldwide uprising taking place across all the continents. Every day we see new evidence: literally just yesterday, the magnificent display of protest and defiance throughout Russia, and in just the last couple of days new upsurges of the youth revolt in Uganda, Nigeria and Thailand. We have an inexhaustible pool from which to find potential recruits to socialism.
And paradoxically, it is precisely in the period of lockdown, when logically we’re all supposed to be retreating into our shells, that not only has the revolution been surging ahead worldwide, but WIN has experienced an explosive new growth of contact and influence. In addition to the nuclei of co-thinkers we already had in Britain, Ireland, France, Sweden, Denmark, the USA, South Africa, Pakistan and Iran, we’ve gained or resumed contact with outstanding comrades in Germany, Cyprus, Belarus, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, the Netherlands… We’ve even touched the nerve of a few of these new uprisings in Louisville in the USA, in Belarus and elsewhere… It’s an exciting period for us.
And yet… we must not get carried away. We are not an International, not even its embryo. We are still a tiny handful, a drop in the ocean of the vast multi-millioned proletariat worldwide, which for the first time in history constitutes a majority of human kind. We’ve had perhaps fifty or sixty comrades attending our conference – certainly not even a hundred in total. We don’t have many young people, who make up the overwhelming majority of the revolutionary mass on the streets. And yet we caught the faint breath of the future International here in these gripping sessions of our conference.
The question looms large before us all: how do we transcend the huge historic gap between what small modest gains have been achieved and what colossal tasks lie ahead? What are the immediate tasks before us? What questions demand urgent answers and are crying out aloud to be resolved in the crucial period ahead?
We need energy, confidence, audacity. But we also need above all a sense of proportion. One of Ted Grant’s sayings was: you can’t shout louder than your voice. A small group can’t hijack the movement of the masses. That’s where strategy and tactics come in: the distinction between propaganda and agitation.
Lenin used to quote Plekhanov’s definition: “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…” And Trotsky further defined propaganda as “the education of the cadres” (the trained leaders), and agitation as the “influencing of the masses through the cadres”.
So which role is most appropriate for us at this time? How do a tiny handful of Marxists reach the millions on the streets?
Let’s keep in mind Trotsky’s brilliant metaphor: “The revolutionary tendency is the cog, the cog engages the wheel. The goal is not to jump ahead and arouse the mass of the working class and the youth with one or two snappy agitational slogans, but first to understand and develop our own theoretical understanding, then develop the cadres, explain and amplify the understanding of the vanguard with revolutionary propaganda.”There could be no better advice for us now.
Developing this metaphor further, he wrote: “If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels – a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme – you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses – omitting the medium-sized wheel of the soviets – would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion… Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
This is timely advice. There’s no shortage of steam today. What is needed is to create the mechanism by which it can move the world. And, to return to Trotsky’s original metaphor, an impatient attempt on the part of what is in our case not even a party but mere handfuls of individuals – to try to engage directly in mass agitation without first winning the key cadres through theoretical education and propaganda – would put us in danger of “breaking our teeth” in a doomed adventure.
The world revolution has started. After distant rumblings at the beginning of the century, it really got started in 2011, with the Arab spring, the Occupy movement, the Greek uprising, spreading to Spain and across Europe and the world. This upsurge has already lasted a decade. It will not come to completion quickly; it’s a long drawn-out process. There will be advances, setbacks, brilliant upsurges, periods of defeat and reaction, and new outbursts. In the process, a new generation will learn and reflect and absorb the lessons. The worst mistake we could make is to be impatient. Personal impatience is always in itself harmful, and political impatience all the more so.
Let’s take the most graphic case study: in April 1917, Lenin returned to a Petrograd seething with revolution and shocked Russia with his “April theses”, raising the slogan “All power to the soviets”. There could not be imagined a more urgent and desperate situation. A centuries-old dynasty had just been overthrown. Russia was seething with revolution. Within months the workers’ Soviets were to take power into their hands. But how did Lenin advise the Bolsheviks to conduct themselves? He called for “patient, systematic, and persistent explanation” – that’s a direct quote – “so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience”.
“Patient explanation”. That was Lenin’s advice when the Bolsheviks already numbered tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, with revolution raging all around him. How much more important is this advice today so for a handful of Marxists scattered throughout the world? It would be disastrous to strain and snap our resources with a jump into mass agitation.
As I said in my lead-off at the first session of this conference: what would Marx and Engels do today? Let’s take a comparable period: the years leading up to 1848, when the growing rumblings of the approaching revolution were getting louder, but well before the establishment of the first workers’ international – a momentous historical turning-point described in the editorial column of The Times as equivalent to the birth of Christianity. Their practice was 1) active participation in the established labour movement (in their case, for instance with the London Trades Council); 2) building links worldwide (they worked tirelessly to establish contacts with socialist circles on the continent, irrespective of sometimes fundamental political differences); and 3) above all, political education: in thorough research and scientific study (developing the theoretical foundations of Marxism).
We are striving today on a modest level to follow their example: with such activities as our participation in the Labour Party’s recent elections for the national executive committee; our establishment of strong links with comrades already in fifteen to twenty countries located on four continents; and in our documents, our website, our social media presence, our theoretical journal, and our outstandingly successful zoom meetings.
There are no short cuts. Like Lenin in 1917, the role of our tiny forces must be to embed ourselves into all possible struggles of the working class and the youth and offer patient, persistent and systematic explanation and education. And we will be amazed ourselves at how quickly in the current hot-house conditions that work will bear fruit.