The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

11. Agitation and Propaganda

Those who make nation-wide political agitation the corner-stone of their programme, their tactics, and their organizational work, as Iskra does, stand the least risk of missing the revolution. (Lenin)[1]

The first thing that must always be made clear about ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’ is that in Marxist discourse these terms are used differently than they are in standard everyday English, which reflects in this instance (as in many other instances) the prejudices of the ruling bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie tries to hide the fact that each class has its own interpretation of events based on its own material interests, and denounces all interpretations other than its own as “mere” agitation and propaganda. Since the overwhelmingly dominant ideology is that of the bourgeoisie, this has led to the terms ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’, and especially the second of the two, becoming virtually synonymous with ‘lies and distortions’.

The words are used quite differently by Marxists. In essence, ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’ have become technical terms within Marxist revolutionary theory. There is of course nothing wrong with this; every science needs its technical concepts and terminology. But it does mean that we must use such terms very circumspectly when our audience is the masses, since they are apt to misinterpret us. We must constantly explain what we mean by words when we use them in ways unfamiliar to the masses. And as part of the process of educating the masses in the science of revolution, we must be careful ourselves not to fall in to the habit of sometimes using such expressions in the bourgeois sense—even when we are condemning the bourgeoisie. Specifically, it is wrong to label bourgeois interpretations of events as “mere propaganda”; if we mean to condemn their interpretations as lies and distortions (which they invariably are), then we should call them that, not lambaste them as “propaganda”.

Our technical use of these two terms derives from Plekhanov. He drew the distinction between agitation and propaganda as follows: “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 a mass of people.”[2] Lenin quoted this and defended it against an attempt by right opportunists to distort it under the guise of improving on it.

It should be noted that the analytical concepts of ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’ as defined by Plekhanov and supported by Lenin are “value-free”. That is, they themselves are neutral as to which class’s views are being referred to. We can therefore talk about proletarian propaganda just as we can talk about bourgeois propaganda. (The bourgeoisie cannot do this with their loaded definitions; you will never hear them talk about “bourgeois propaganda”, for instance!) Moreover, the question of truth or falsehood is not presupposed in the concepts themselves. In the Marxist sense, it is possible to conceive of truthful or untruthful propaganda by any class. Of course we know that bourgeois propaganda will inevitably be at least somewhat untruthful, and generally blatantly so, just because they must continually fool the people in order to maintain their rule. Similarly, the Marxist principle (at least) is that proletarian propaganda must always be truthful, that we must never lie to the masses. But while bourgeois propaganda will in fact be untruthful, and proletarian propaganda will (or should) in fact be truthful, the truth or falsity in each case is a matter of fact; it is not built in or assumed in the term ‘propaganda’ itself.

Lenin elaborated on what Marxists mean by ‘propaganda’ and ‘agitation’ in an earlier pamphlet:

The socialist activities of Russian Social-Democrats [communists] consist in spreading by propaganda the teachings of scientific socialism, in spreading among the workers a proper understanding of the present social and economic system, its basis and its development, an understanding of the various classes in Russian society, of their interrelations, of the struggle between these classes, of the role of the working class in this struggle, of its attitude towards the declining and the developing classes, towards the past and the future of capitalism, an understanding of the historical task of international Social-Democracy and of the Russian working class. Inseparably connected with propaganda is agitation among the workers, which naturally comes to the forefront in the present political conditions of Russia and at the present level of development of the masses of workers. Agitation among the workers means that the Social-Democrats take part in all the spontaneous manifestations of the working-class struggle, in all the conflicts between the workers and the capitalists over the working day, wages, working conditions, etc., etc. Our task is to merge our activities with the practical, everyday questions of working-class life, to help the workers understand these questions, to draw the workers’ attention to the most important abuses, to help them formulate their demands to the employers more precisely and practically, to develop among the workers consciousness of their solidarity, consciousness of the common interests and common cause of all the Russian workers as a united working class that is part of the international army of the proletariat. To organize study circles among workers, to establish proper and secret connections between them and the central group of Social-Democrats, to publish and distribute working-class literature, to organize the receipt of correspondence from all centers of the working-class movement, to publish agitational leaflets and manifestos and to distribute them, and to train a body of experienced agitators—such, in broad outline, are the manifestations of the socialist activities of Russian Social-Democracy.[3]

This passage was written a few years before “What Is To Be Done?”, and before all the sins and distortions of the “Economists” had become completely evident. Probably if Lenin had rewritten this passage later he would have removed the implication that agitation is concerned only with economic issues. Even here, Lenin does not actually say that, but those are the only examples he gives. But there is no evidence that Lenin ever changed his mind about the basic point that agitation must be closely connected with the actual questions and concerns of the masses, and their actual day-to-day struggles of whatever kind.

In this book the distinction between the concepts ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’ is not very important. Most of what I have to say concerns them both.

The “Bullet Theory of Propaganda”

Bourgeois sociologists and psychologists have always been fascinated by the success that Adolf Hitler had in indoctrinating the German people. Hitler openly proclaimed the importance in propaganda of the “big lie”, the constant repetition of a few basic themes, and viewed the masses as mindless. The ideas that the masses did have on their own were to him an obstacle. He said that

At a mass meeting thought is eliminated. And because this is the state of mind I require, because it secures to me the best sounding-board for my speeches, I order every one to attend the meetings, where they become a part of the mass whether they like it or not, “intellectuals” and bourgeois as well as workers.[4]

No doubt there is some tendency for people to get caught up in the mass sentiment of the moment. And it is true that Hitler did have great success in indoctrinating the German people. But this success was not really due to his theories about propaganda; it was due primarily to his skill as a demagogue, as a person who appealed to people’s short-term, selfish interests, who directed the people’s anger at scapegoats, and the like. (And to some extent it was also due to mistakes on the part of the Communist Party of Germany, which knew little of mass line techniques, and had plenty of other shortcomings too.)

But though Hitler’s theories about propaganda had little to do with his success with it, his views colored bourgeois thought on the matter for a long time afterwards.

In the 1950s bourgeois researchers set out to discover exactly how political agitation and propaganda worked, no doubt for the purpose of learning how to better control the masses for the imperialists. At that time the predominant bourgeois theory of propaganda (actually, it is more a theory of agitation, in the Marxist sense) was the “bullet theory”, which “assumed that an audience was passive, waiting for the media to shoot a propaganda message into it, and would roll over in a state of docile surrender when hit, as long as the bullet was sufficiently powerful”.[5]

According to this view, it is entirely a question of how things are put which is important; you can get people to believe anything whatsoever if you say it right, if you say it long, if you say it loud. This is indeed a fascist outlook! (While there is in fact some tendency for people believe statements which they hear over and over again, this is only one aspect of the whole situation.)

A bourgeois concept of
effective propaganda.

However, in their experiments in the 1950s the bourgeois researchers were very surprised to discover that things really did not work this way. To their consternation, they found that their test audiences obstinately refused to adopt the ideas that were being pushed on them, no matter how insistently. And sometimes their efforts even backfired, causing their audiences to adopt the opposite view. Eventually the social psychologists

were able to demonstrate dramatically that the audience was far from passive; that it actually went out seeking what it wanted from the mass media, interpreted what it found there to fit its own needs and predispositions, and seldom changed its mind as a result of mass persuasion. This development from the bullet theory to the study of an Obstinate Audience to the concept of an Active Audience is one of the most interesting and important chapters in modern social science.[6]

Science writer Jeremy Campbell connects up this new view of “propaganda” with the new enlightened, broader picture of how the mind works:

In a wide range of activity, the brain chooses the information it needs. In visual perception, the nervous system attunes itself to certain aspects of a scene rather than to others, so that each act of perception is unique to the person and the moment. Seeing is not like holding a camera up to the world, merely registering an image, but a restless searching and scanning. Hearing is a complex process of disentangling sounds we need to hear from sounds we need to ignore. Memory is not a tape recorder, storing information at the flick of a switch. It, too, is selective. In part, memory is a way of reorganizing information so as to make it special to the individual who remembers...
     The rise of the doctrine of the selective brain spells trouble for any hypothesis based on the idea of mind as helpless victim. This doctrine is not at all compatible with the tenets of behaviorism, which assumes that mental processes are uniform, predictable, and easily controlled from without.[7]

Another illustration of the “selective brain” is the following little experiment: Have someone look around the room for 10 or 20 seconds and try to memorize all the red things that they see. Now have them close their eyes and tell you all the green things in the room. Chances are, they won’t remember much of anything despite the fact that they have just been studying the room.

Yet another illustration of the “selective brain” is what is known by psychologists as the “cocktail party effect”. At a crowded cocktail party there are many conversations going on simultaneously, and most of what people in other conversations say goes unheard by you. But if your own name is mentioned in a neighboring conversation, you are much more likely to pick it out than other words spoken in the same tone of voice. Why? Because people are socially primed to be alert when others speak their name. Your hearing system and brain are in effect searching through the background noise for the mention of your own name.

In light of this broader and more sophisticated theory of the selective brain, “the failure of political propaganda to coerce or win over large audiences to a particular point of view, even with the resources of the modern media behind it” should come as no surprise. And indeed to genuine Marxists, it does not.

People already have one or another world view, though it may often be rather primitive and undeveloped. They already recognize some things as being in their own interests, and others as being alien to their interests—though they may also be mistaken about these things sometimes. They are thinking individuals who are looking to satisfy their interests and concerns, who are looking for answers to their perceived problems, and who are quick to reject any political idea or program which they do not recognize as in their own collective interests. This is as true of the proletariat and the masses as it is of any other class or strata.

Because all this is true, there are really only two ways to win the masses to your political banner. First, the honest approach, the proletarian approach, the revolutionary approach: to actually adopt the already perceived interests and concerns of the masses as your own, and to demonstrate to the masses that you wish to help them struggle to satisfy their already recognized needs, and work on resolving their already recognized problems, while at the same time working to raise the masses own understanding of what is in their ultimate interests and what their most basic problems are, and why only proletarian revolution can resolve those problems. Second, the dishonest approach, the opportunist or demagogic approach, the anti-revolutionary approach: to merely pretend to adopt the interests and concerns of the masses as your own, or to merely address a few of their more superficial and immediate needs, while secretly opposing their more important interests, and doing everything in your power to prevent the masses from deepening their understanding of their own interests (and especially doing everything possible to steer them away from the idea of revolution). These are the only two viable approaches to mass politics.

The second way can be initially quite successful because it promises an easier path for the masses, but ultimately it must fail and be rejected by the masses who will inevitably discover, sooner or later, that they have been tricked and misled. Only the first way can be fully, and permanently successful, as long as it is adhered to.

Real Marxists have always said that the purpose of agitation and propaganda is not to shove something unwanted down people’s throats, but to answer their real and pressing questions about why things are as they are, and about what can be done to change things. We have always viewed agitation and propaganda as relations between those who can teach and those who want to learn. We have always viewed the masses as active, thinking human beings, and not as passive subjects for manipulation.

This at any rate is what our theory says. In practice it must be admitted that we do not always work according to our own doctrines, and that is why we must continually study our hard-won revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and attempt to keep its many aspects firmly in mind.

We must condemn the “bullet theory” and reaffirm the Marxist view that our agitation must always be in response to the problems and difficulties the masses face and the questions the masses have on their minds.[8] Let us summarize this point and a couple of its direct consequences:

1) The questions and concerns of the masses are the starting point for effective Marxist agitation and propaganda.

2) Effective agitation and propaganda are completely impossible if you are not close to the masses, if you are unaware of what problems they face and what their concerns are.

3) Effective agitation and propaganda are therefore next to impossible if you divorce yourself from the struggles of the masses.

The Sphere of Agitation and Propaganda

At this point an objection might be raised. Didn’t Lenin also say some things that seem to conflict with the notion that it is the questions of the masses that we must address with our agitation? Didn’t he say for example that agitation is essentially a matter of “political exposure”?[9] Doesn’t this mean that we must bring things to the attention of the masses that they are not already aware of, let alone already questioning?

It certainly means we must bring things to the attention of the masses that they are not aware of. But things that people are not aware of can in fact help to answer their existing questions and concerns. The point is to build on what people already know; to connect up what they do not know with what they do know and are concerned with, and to do it in a living, concrete way. That can only mean by presenting them with facts and explanations which truly answer the questions on their minds. When this is done correctly, they will form new questions and seek deeper explanations. This is the way that we all learn and develop. Our goal is to expand people’s knowledge, to deepen their understanding, and to broaden their concerns. But this can only be done by starting from where people are at to begin with.

In bringing some outrage of the bourgeois system to the attention of the masses we must at the same time do our best to connect this outrage up with the life of the masses we are addressing. We must always seek to show how events and circumstances that the masses were not aware of are related to their own class interests and the cause of the problems which confront them.

Well, ok, but didn’t Lenin say that our agitation and propaganda should cover not only the life of the proletariat, but of other classes as well?[10] Shouldn’t we expose all the outrages of the present system, even those which do not directly affect the life of the proletariat? Well, yes we should. But why? Because, for one thing, these events indirectly affect the proletariat. The proletariat’s real concerns are broader than the proletariat; they encompass the broad masses. They encompass the workings of the entire capitalist system.

We are concerned in our educational work not simply with events affecting a few particular individuals among the proletariat, but with the life of the proletariat in general. We use what happens to individual people and sections of the proletariat to deepen people’s class consciousness and knowledge of the system as a whole. Events which affect other classes and strata, especially classes and strata allied to the proletariat (and hence part of the masses), can and should be used in the same way. Our goal is always to broaden the range of concern of the people and their depth of understanding of the true nature of the present system—and why we have no alternative but to replace it.

Many issues cut across class lines, affect people in different classes. The oppression of women, and racial discrimination, for example, affect even some members of the ruling class, and certainly all classes and strata making up the masses. The masses are not as insular and self-centered as they are often portrayed. They do have concern for other people, even people in other classes. And they do see themselves as part of society, with its major problems and all the questions which these problems constantly raise.

On the other hand, different people are more concerned about some particular issues than others; some people have serious questions that others do not have. In general people do tend to be most concerned with issues that most closely affect them personally. This is why agitation and propaganda must be tailored to its specific audience to be most effective. And it is why the tailoring process means more closely relating the agitation and propaganda to the specific interests, concerns, and questions of the people involved.

Lenin also said that agitation and propaganda must concern itself not just with what is happening locally or nationally, but with international events as well. How can events in distant lands be of great concern to people? A naive question indeed! Events in other countries may be far removed physically, but very close socially and politically. Vietnam was far away, but the body bags kept returning to the home towns. In today’s world many distant events illustrate very well the workings of the system that also rules and oppresses at home. There are in fact essential connections between distant events and the important concerns and questions of the people, but many of these connections are somewhat hidden and need to be brought to light.

Of course agitation and propaganda will sometimes range far afield, often discussing events far away and directly affecting people far removed from the local scene. But the goal is always to connect these events and ideas up to the life of the masses being addressed. That is the key to the success of proletarian education.

The Purpose of Agitation and Propaganda

One might think that for a revolutionary Marxist the purpose of agitation and propaganda would be completely obvious. However, I am beginning to believe that nothing at all in revolutionary theory can really be considered completely “obvious”. Somebody, somewhere, always manages to misconstrue it.

I said above that Marxists believe that the purpose of agitation and propaganda is to answer the real and pressing questions on the minds of the masses, about why things are as they are, and about how they may be changed. Of course, our answer to these questions amounts to an exposure of capitalism, and an explanation of why revolution is necessary. Thus we may also say that the primary purpose of agitation and propaganda is to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the masses.

There are, to be sure, secondary goals in our agitation and propaganda, the most important of which is to facilitate and advance the organization of the proletariat and the broad masses. Sometimes Lenin and Mao describe revolutionary consciousness and mass organization together as the primary goal of our educational work. Lenin said, for example, that “Our principal and fundamental task is to facilitate the political development and the political organization of the working class.”[11]

And there are also other secondary (or tertiary) goals in our educational work. The raising of the revolutionary consciousness of the masses will itself lead to other results, such as more unrest among the masses, more strikes and other economic struggles, more intensive mass struggles of all kinds, more combativity on the part of the masses, and so forth. These things are all generally good, and help prepare the masses for revolution through a kind of positive feedback.

But we must be very clear that it is raising revolutionary consciousness, and mass organization, that are our main goals here. The true side effects, such as more (and more intensive) economic strikes, more mass struggle of all kinds, and even more combativity on the part of the masses in general, are well and good, but are not the main point. We should not lose our bearings and turn such secondary things into the focus of our political work. This has been done in the past, and the revolutionary movement has degenerated into a reformist movement, even if it was “militant” and/or “combative”, at first. (For more on the dangers of an obsession with “combativity”, see chapter 23.)

There are many aspects to raising the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. One aspect I’ll mention immediately lies in combating the spontaneous summation of events of interest and concern to the masses. Of course such “spontaneous” summations are generally “guided” by the bourgeoisie, either directly or indirectly, and are in essence therefore usually bourgeois summations. The RCP addressed this issue in speaking of the Moody Park Rebellion in Houston on May 7, 1978:

The Party’s summation of the rebellion was definitely not what spontaneously arose from the masses, even though many of those who had participated and others were very proud of the rebellion. It was up to the conscious forces to take this summation broadly among the masses and to fight for it.[12]

The basic purpose of agitation and propaganda remains essentially the same even after the proletarian seizure of power, and during the entire period of socialist society. Mao, speaking specifically of the peasants here, makes a remark which is more broadly true under socialism: “The basic requirement of political work is constantly to imbue the peasant masses with a socialist ideology and to criticize capitalist tendencies.”[13]

The Central Importance of Agitation and Propaganda

Just how important is agitation and propaganda? Lenin said that “the basis and chief content of our work is to develop the political understanding of the masses.”[14] And he also said, as I quoted in chapter 4, that “the principal content of the activity of our Party” should always be “work of political agitation, connected throughout Russia, illuminating all aspects of life, and conducted among the broadest possible strata of the masses.”[15]

Lenin even said that

To a great extent, the purpose of our strict separation as a distinct and independent party of the proletariat consists in the fact that we always and undeviatingly conduct this Marxist work of raising the whole working class, as far as possible, to the level of Social-Democratic [i.e., communist] consciousness, allowing no political gales, still less political changes of scenery, to turn us away from this urgent task. Without this work, political activity would inevitably degenerate into a game, because this activity acquires real importance for the proletariat only when and insofar as it arouses the mass of a definite class, wins its interest, and mobilizes it to take an active, foremost part in events. This work, as we have said, is always necessary.[16]

But note that while Lenin is saying here that politics, and political leadership, is a “game” if not accompanied by constant Marxist educational work, he is at the same time drawing a distinction between politics (or political leadership) and educational work.

Lenin says that the core of agitational work is the political exposure of the enemy, and emphasized its importance as follows:

A basic condition for the necessary expansion of political agitation is the organization of comprehensive political exposure. In no way except by means of such exposures can the masses be trained in political consciousness and revolutionary activity.[17]

And later he summed this up by saying that

We have seen that the conduct of the broadest political agitation and, consequently, of all-sided political exposures is an absolutely necessary and a paramount task of our activity, if this activity is to be truly Social-Democratic [communist].[18]

The Party Programme is the Basis For Our Agitation and Propaganda

The world is complicated, and there are always many issues, many questions, many things which can be focused on in our agitational and propaganda work. Isn’t there some guide for Marxists as to where our work of political education should be focused? Yes, there is. The party and its ideology provide several levels of such guidance. At the most abstract level there is the general theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism itself. At the next level is the guidance provided by the party programme. And then there are the more specific points of guidance for our educational work that appear in the party press and in the form of directives from the party center. If, for example, the party newspaper devotes a great deal of attention to a certain issue, it is safe to assume that it should be a focus of agitational work for party members.

But for the moment, I want to discuss the middle-level of guidance here, the party programme, and emphasize its importance. A party programme is not something to be written and then filed away and forgotten (as with bourgeois parties). The programme of a proletarian party is the product of an enormous amount of effort and thought, and is constructed for the purpose of guiding the work of the whole party. Of course that includes our work of political education, since that is our highest task. If the party is any good, it will have a really good programme. And if the programme is really good, it will be the result not only of the higher-level guidance of the theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, but also the extensive application of the mass line.

Speaking of the Bolshevik party programme, Lenin said:

The special sections of our programme dealing with the questions of government, finances, and labor legislation, and with the agrarian question, provide exact and definite material to guide the entire work of every propagandist and agitator, in all its many aspects; they should enable him to particularize on our election platform in speaking before any audience, on any occasion, and on any subject.[19]

And in answer to the confusion about the purpose of the party programme shown by some party members, Lenin said:

Lastly, Comrade Yegorov asked the authors of the programme what the programme signified. Is the programme, he asked, a conclusion drawn from our basic conceptions of the economic evolution of Russia, a scientific anticipation of the possible and inevitable result of political changes (in which case Comrade Yegorov might agree with us)? Or is our programme a practical slogan for agitation? In that case we could not beat the record of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and the programme must be regarded as incorrect. I must say that I do not understand the distinction Comrade Yegorov draws. If our programme did not meet the first condition, it would be incorrect and we could not accept it. If, however, the programme is correct, it cannot but furnish a slogan of practical value for purposes of agitation. The contradiction between Comrade Yegorov’s two alternatives is only a seeming one; it cannot exist in fact, because a correct theoretical decision guarantees enduring success in agitation. And it is for enduring success that we are working, not in the least disconcerted by temporary reverses.[20]

Lenin’s stand could hardly be clearer: the party programme must guide our agitational and propaganda work. But now I see a look of discomfort and consternation forming on the brows of some of my readers...

On the one hand our agitation must be guided by the questions and concerns on the minds of the masses, and on the other hand our agitation must be guided by our Marxist theory and programme. Is there a contradiction here? Well, actually, yes there is. But what is its nature? According to many people this contradiction is unresolvable; in other words, both things cannot be true. Right opportunists see an unresolvable contradiction here, and therefore downplay any guidance from revolutionary Marxist theory in educational work, and at the same time modify what should be a revolutionary programme into a bourgeois-populist reformist programme. “Left” sectarians also see an unresolvable contradiction here, focus entirely on the ultimate revolutionary goal, and therefore ignore the immediate questions on the minds of the masses that must be addressed if we are to raise their revolutionary consciousness and actually get to that revolutionary goal.

The correct position here is that both our Marxist theory and programme, and the questions and concerns on the minds of the masses must guide our agitation and propaganda work, and that these things complement each other and interpenetrate. As I already mentioned, the party program itself should be based not only on scientific revolutionary theory but also on a concrete analysis of the overall situation and the extensive application of the mass line to determine the general approach toward revolution for the broad masses and their mass struggles. The additional guidance from the party center which comes from further application of the mass line, and indeed the constant application of the mass line by the whole party, supplements the party programme, adjusts it somewhat over the short term, and fleshes it out on a day-to-day basis. Only if the programme is in fundamental error in its general guidance will the further application of the mass line provide political guidance in basic opposition to it. And in that case, it is time to construct a new party programme.

There are other important principles besides the constant application of the mass line which may sometimes seem to some people to be in opposition to the party programme, but which cannot really be in opposition to it if the programme is a sound, Marxist document. It is true, for example, as Mao said, that “we should teach the masses to understand their own long-term interests”[21], and that in fact this is a cornerstone principle of our agitation and propaganda work.[22] But this is not in opposition to the principle that the party programme must form the basis for our agitation and propaganda because the party programme itself (if the party is a real proletarian party) will reflect and focus on precisely the real long-term interests of the masses.

Revolutionary Agitation and the Reformist Struggles of the Masses

The whole question of reforms, of reformism versus revolution, of the relation of the revolutionary struggle to spontaneous mass struggles for reforms, etc., is one of the most central questions in Marxism. It is so important that I often think: if we can just get completely clear on this basic question, everything else will come very easily. Because of the importance of this subject, I will return to it again and again throughout this book.

With regard to the relation of agitation and propaganda to reforms, Lenin wrote that

In order to really defeat opportunism, which caused the shameful death of the Second International, in order to really assist the revolution, is necessary:
     Firstly, to conduct all propaganda and agitation from the viewpoint of revolution as opposed to reforms, systematically explaining to the masses, both theoretically and practically, at every step of parliamentary, trade union, co-operative, etc., activity, that they are diametrically opposed. Under no circumstances to refrain (save in special cases, by way of exception) from utilizing the parliamentary system and all the “liberties” of bourgeois democracy; not to reject reforms, but to regard them only as a by-product of the revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat.[23]

But a bit of clarification is called for here. We communists must regard reforms as only a by-product of the revolutionary struggle, but we must also recognize that the masses in general will not look at things this way. If the masses in general were looking at reforms this way, they could and would immediately launch an insurrection instead of battling over these measly reforms. We must view our participation in the reformist struggles of the masses as being primarily for the purpose of raising their revolutionary consciousness, but we must also be clear that the masses—even many revolutionary-minded individuals among the masses—will for the most part view their own reformist struggles exclusively as ends-in-themselves. That is the whole problem, the whole reason why a revolutionary situation has not yet developed, and why we still have a tremendous amount of work to do to help it develop.

Of course, in saying that we should regard reforms only as a by-product of the revolutionary struggle, Lenin is in no way denying that the reformist struggles of the masses are important. On the contrary, he is saying that they are truly important precisely because they give us revolutionaries an opportunity to join up with the masses and raise their revolutionary consciousness. (It is not opportunism to seize upon “opportunities” to advance the revolution!) Lenin is in no way denying the importance of the reformist struggles of the masses for the revolutionary process; he is merely denying their importance as ends in themselves, from the revolutionary perspective. He is in no way saying that we as revolutionaries should not participate in the reformist struggles of the masses; on the contrary, he is saying explicitly that in the masses’ “parliamentary, trade union, co-operative” and other day-to-day reformist activities and struggles, we must be there to systematically raise their revolutionary consciousness “at every step”.

What is the revolutionary attitude toward reforms and the spontaneous struggle for reforms by the masses? In “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin said

Revolutionary Social-Democracy has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities. But it utilizes “economic” agitation for the purpose of presenting to the government, not only demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) the demand that it cease to be an autocratic government. Moreover, it considers it its duty to present this demand to the government on the basis, not of the economic struggle alone, but of all manifestations in general of public and political life. In a word, it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and for socialism.[24]

What is reformism? Is it simply the participation in the masses’ struggles for reforms? No! It is the practice of working for reforms instead of revolution, of putting forward reformist demands instead of, and in opposition to, the necessity for revolution. “Vivid examples from real life must be used continuously to demonstrate all the harmfulness of reformism, i.e., the tactics of putting demands for partial improvement to the fore instead of revolutionary slogans.” (Lenin)[25]

I must emphasize again that the reformist struggles of the masses provide revolutionaries with a great opportunity to advance the revolutionary struggle by raising the revolutionary consciousness of the masses involved. This is the principle role of agitation and propaganda in Marxist political work. As revolutionaries, we prize the reformist struggle not for the reforms it consciously aims at and sometimes manages to achieve, but for the possibility it provides—if we do our work right, and remain revolutionaries—of advancing the mass struggle towards revolution, by steadily deepening the revolutionary consciousness of the masses.

How do we get from where we are today in this country to a revolutionary situation? There is only one way: educating the masses on the absolute necessity of proletarian revolution in the course of participating with them in their day-to-day, reformist struggles. That may seem strange to some people, but it is the actual truth of the matter.

The Language of Agitation

The questions we address are those of the masses. On the other hand, our agitation and propaganda must always be the truth, whether or not it is what the masses may want to hear. The questions are those of the masses; the answers we give are those that scientific Marxist theory tells us are correct.

Nevertheless, it is not wrong to phrase our answers in terms the masses can understand, and insofar as we can, in terms they can readily accept. What we say must be the unvarnished truth; but how we say it must be in the way which will be most effective in convincing and winning over the masses.

One point here I have already touched on—Marxist terminology. Marxism is a science and has numerous technical terms such as ‘class’, ‘proletariat’, ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘exploitation’, ‘imperialism’, ‘contradiction’, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, etc. Most of these terms are politically “loaded”; that is, they have different meanings or connotations for different classes. An important part of our educational work among the masses is getting them to understand and accept such scientific terminology. But where our audience does not yet understand and accept such terms, they should either be explained, paraphrased in the language of the people, or where these things cannot be done, sometimes avoided altogether. Much of the time this is simple, such as using ‘working class’ instead of ‘proletariat’, or ‘working-class rule’ instead of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Other times this becomes very cumbersome, and the scientific term simply has to be introduced and briefly explained.

It should not be underestimated what a tremendous obstacle such terms can be for the masses. I vividly remember my own experience with the word ‘imperialism’ around 1964. Like the bourgeois-indoctrinated population in general, I understood the term to just mean something like “the conquering of one country by another.” Thus when the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins began, I could sort of accept the charge that the U.S. was “being imperialistic” in Vietnam. But when leftists talked about “the imperialist system”, or “the imperialist ruling class”, it sounded like wild rhetoric and irresponsible jargon to me. I don’t think I really got over that until I read Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism several years later. In the meanwhile the leftists using the term ‘imperialism’ were really not communicating with me, since none of them ever adequately explained what they meant or referred me to Lenin’s pamphlet.

I suppose it could be argued that the “strange use” of the term ‘imperialism’ by Marxists was one of the things that finally did lead me to read Lenin’s pamphlet, and that therefore using Marxist terminology—even when it isn’t adequately explained—may serve some useful purpose. While there is a germ of truth to that, I think we can safely assume that quite enough unexplained “jargon” will slip into our speech without consciously trying to use it. For the most part, unexplained terminology is a serious obstacle to educating the masses, not a positive thing. It is one of the things that leads many to reject Marxism out of hand as an alien viewpoint, unconnected with their own concerns and problems.

Except for a few “red-diaper babies”, perhaps, we all had to struggle mightily to overcome the bourgeois indoctrination we grew up with, and we must not forget these difficulties when attempting to help other people do the same. It takes time, considerable exposure, and repeated explanation, for individuals—let alone large sections of the masses—to come to really understand and accept Marxist scientific terminology. One learns the terminology as one learns the science. This is something that we must constantly be aware of.

Lenin discussed this point, together with several other important points about agitation when he wrote (and quoted with approval a passage from Karl Kautsky from the period before Kautsky himself became a renegade from Marxism):

Agitation among the lower strata of the workers should, of course, provide the widest field for the personal qualities of the agitator and the peculiarities of the locality, the trade concerned, etc. “Tactics and agitation must not be confused,” says Kautsky in his book against Bernstein. “Agitational methods must be adapted to individual and local conditions. Every agitator must be allowed to select those methods of agitation that he has at his disposal. One agitator may create the greatest impression by his enthusiasm, another by his biting sarcasm, a third by his ability to adduce a large number of instances, etc. While being adapted to the agitator, agitation must also be adapted to the public. The agitator must speak so that he will be understood; he must take as a starting-point something well known to his listeners. All this is self-evident and is not merely applicable to agitation conducted among the peasantry. One has to talk to cabmen differently than to sailors, and to sailors differently than to printers. Agitation must be individualized, but our tactics, our political activity must be uniform.” These words from a leading representative of Social-Democratic theory contain a superb assessment of agitation as part of the general activity of the party.[26]

Amazingly enough, some people have thought that it is “opportunistic” to put things in a way the masses can understand. Sometimes people have used quotations from Lenin, such as the following, to back up such a stance:

Attention... must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries; it is not at all our task to descend to the level of the “working masses” as the Economists wish to do, or to the level of the “average worker”, as Svoboda desires to do...[27]

Of course what Lenin is talking about here is not how things are expressed, but about what is said. The political content of our agitation and propaganda must not be lowered from Marxism to reformist populism. But the language which is used to bring revolutionary Marxist theory to the masses must be clear and understandable to the masses. In this sense, it is not wrong to “descend” to the average level of our audience; on the contrary, it is obligatory!

Agitation Must Be Concrete

Another thing to mention is that political education, and agitation especially, must be very concrete; that is, it must be related to concrete situations and events. Lenin addressed this point when he wrote:

The question arises, what should political education consist in? Can it be confined to the propaganda of working-class hostility to the autocracy? [Or in our case, to bourgeois “democracy”? —S.H.] Of course not. It is not enough to explain to the workers that they are politically oppressed (any more than it is to explain to them that their interests are antagonistic to the interests of the employers). Agitation must be conducted with regard to every concrete example of this oppression (as we have begun to carry on agitation round concrete examples of economic oppression).[28]

To say that agitation must be concrete is not exactly the same as to say that it must address the concerns and questions of the masses, but there is definitely a close relation here; the two sets largely overlap. Of course there is a place for abstract argument and abstract conclusions, but people in general learn not from abstract considerations, but from concrete instances. The general principles are abstracted out of concrete examples. And, connecting things up again, the concerns and questions people have will mostly derive from specific, concrete situations.

There is another aspect to the idea that agitation must be concrete. Not only must agitation focus on specific events and situations, it must also be appropriate to specific circumstances and situations. Lenin, for example, warned against the tendency to keep the same old agitational slogans when circumstances have changed:

It is one thing to preserve the traditions of the revolution, to know how to use them for constant propaganda and agitation and for acquainting the masses with the conditions of a direct and aggressive struggle against the old regime, but quite another thing to repeat a slogan divorced from the sum total of the conditions which gave rise to it and which ensured its success and to apply it to essentially different conditions.[29]

How do we ensure that our agitation is always appropriate to the circumstances? Obviously through our application of the mass line together with a careful analysis of the concrete situation.

Agitation Must Be Taken To the Masses Wherever They Are

Because the point of agitation and propaganda is to educate and win over the masses to a revolutionary perspective, we must strive to engage in agitation and propaganda wherever the masses are. This means overcoming many difficulties. The bourgeoisie will try to prevent us from educating the masses, even if it means hypocritically violating their own bourgeois democratic principle of “free speech”. They will erect a thousand obstacles in our path, in addition to the ones that already exist due to their near-monopoly on the means of mass communication. We must continually fight to overcome these obstacles, and we can overcome them.

For one thing, we must never let the bourgeoisie keep us from living with and politically working with the masses, or from maintaining the closest contact with them. Lenin said that revolutionaries

must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.[30]

And again, speaking of the tasks of party organizations, Lenin said:

Needless to say, the task of these cells and committees must be to utilize all the semi-legal and, as far as possible, legal organizations, to maintain “close contact with the masses”, and to direct the work in such a way that Social-Democracy responds to all the needs of the masses. Every Party cell and workers’ committee must become a “base for agitation, propaganda and practical organizing work among the masses”, i.e., they must go where the masses go, and try at every step to push the consciousness of the masses in the direction of socialism, to link up every specific question with the general tasks of the proletariat...[31]

Ironically, in some cases it has been not the bourgeoisie, but our own mistaken ideas that have kept us from working with the masses in their existing organizations and their existing struggles, and seeking there to raise their revolutionary consciousness. All too frequently amateurish revolutionaries have felt that it was sufficient to send out an abstract, general call to the masses to come talk to us about revolution, rather than for us to really go talk to them about it persistently, and in concrete ways connected with their lives and struggles.

It is true of course that we must use organizational means to help carry out our agitation and propaganda. Mao said that “Our objectives cannot be attained unless we use various organizational means to mobilize the masses and conduct propaganda among them...”[32] We must help construct many mass organizations of all kinds, to facilitate this political education. But we must also recognize that, while the bourgeoisie still rules, whatever mass organizations we manage to build ourselves will usually remain adjuncts to those we find already existing.

The Forms of Agitation and Propaganda

What are the various forms which agitation and propaganda may take? They are myriad. Either may be oral or written—though of course propaganda will generally be written. They may also be presented in works of art, in music, in plays and skits, and in many other ways. Mao mentions even such humble forms as lantern slides, along with movies, forums, mass rallies, and many other forms.[33] Naturally, written forms of agitation and propaganda will be dominant, at least in a literate society. (It is becoming somewhat questionable if this still includes the U.S., considering its mushrooming illiteracy rate.) The most important written forms are of course newspapers, leaflets, magazines, pamphlets and books. Talking about these, Lenin said:

Leaflets are the medium through which local factory exposures have always been and must continue to be made, but we must raise the level of the newspaper, not lower it to the level of a factory leaflet. What we ask of a newspaper is not so much “petty” exposures, as exposures of the major, typical evils of factory life, exposures based on especially striking facts and capable, therefore, of arousing the interest of all workers and all leaders of the movement, of really enriching their knowledge, broadening their outlook, and serving as a starting-point for awakening new districts and workers from ever-newer trade areas.[34]

And of course, newspapers should not focus just on the “typical evils of factory life” but on the typical evils of the entire life of society (as Lenin made abundantly clear elsewhere).

Agitation As a Spur to Action

It might be thought that agitation should always encourage, or even push, the masses to take immediate action. This, however, is not the case. As I have been saying, the purpose of agitation (and propaganda) is to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. It is always appropriate to raise people’s revolutionary consciousness, but it is not always appropriate to urge them to take immediate action. In fact, sometimes we should urge people to act with extreme caution, or to wait a bit until conditions are more favorable. This is no doubt more the exception than the rule, but it is something to be well aware of.

Along these same lines, Mao pointed out that sometimes the method of “reverse propaganda” should be used. An editorial footnote in Mao’s Selected Works explains what he means by this phrase:

Here “reverse propaganda” means making clear to the masses the difficulties and adversities they may come across in forming co-operatives, in addition to publicizing the advantages and favorable conditions. This was done when the masses were fully aroused and applied in great numbers for co-operative membership, so that they could weigh the matter thoroughly and join of their own free will.[35]

It is not that we want to talk people out of taking action; only that we want them to go into action with their eyes wide open, prepared in advance for the real difficulties they will confront. As Mao said, “we must constantly carry on lively and effective political education among the masses and should always tell them the truth about the difficulties that crop up and discuss with them how to surmount these difficulties.”[36]

This is a valid point even in economic work. I remember our radical caucus of bus drivers in the mid-’70s, which always pushed for a strike whenever the contract was up, without giving much attention to preparing the workers for the inevitable efforts and difficulties that a serious strike would entail. It always seemed to me that in addition to telling the drivers that they needed to fight, we should have also told them that they should not fight unless they were prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to fight and win. Of course this point is incomparably more important when it comes to the revolutionary showdown with the enemy.

Commandism in Educational Work

I have not so far said much about commandism in connection with agitation and propaganda for three reasons. First, commandism is primarily a problem in the area of leadership, not education. Second, even where commandism is a problem in work of political education, the party must first be in a position to command before this sin really is possible; in other words, the party must have first achieved state power, or at least widespread authority and respect. And third, even then, commandism in educational work is really its own negation. The point is to educate and enlighten people so they will take action in their own interests, and this cannot be done by issuing any kind of orders.[37]

After the proletarian party has achieved power, or in other words during the entire period of socialism, the sin of commandism becomes possible and likely, and it will become a major task of the party and the masses to combat this sin, primarily in leadership methods, but also in educational methods. For now (as well as then) the parallels between the “bullet theory” of propaganda and commandism in agitation and propaganda should be noted; trying to force things down people’s throats may itself be considered a kind of commandism.

Our comrades in propaganda work have the task of disseminating Marxism. This has to be done gradually and done well, so that people willingly accept it. We cannot force people to accept Marxism, we can only persuade them. (Mao)[38]

The Relationship Between The Mass Line and Agitation & Propaganda

In chapter four I said that there were two main relationships between the mass line, on the one hand, and agitation and propaganda, on the other hand. The first was an “internal” relationship, where agitation is employed in step three of the mass line process to take the concentrated ideas of the masses back to the masses. The second was an “external” relationship, where the mass line is viewed as the main method of proletarian leadership, and agitation and propaganda are viewed as the two methods of proletarian political education. In the latter case, leadership and education stand more or less as peers, as the two main tasks of the proletarian party (though education is the principal, or leading, task of the two). Thus, in the internal relationship, agitation is subsidiary; while in the external relationship, the two tasks are more or less on a par (though, if anything, the education task is principal).

There is another way of looking at propaganda, in particular, however. The whole of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory may be viewed as the great theoretical summation of the ideas and experiences of the masses over the past couple centuries. When looked at this way, Marxist education as a whole may be considered as the “stage three” of an immense, centuries-long, application of the mass line—in other words, as the taking back to the masses of this great revolutionary theory which we have learned from the masses. This grandiose view, however, is presented mostly for the purpose of showing the intimate connection between education and leadership even at the highest level. In our immediate work it would be just as wrong to consider that our entire task is the application of the mass line, as it would be to consider that our entire task is agitation and propaganda. We do not want to lean towards either the sin of “all leadership, no education”, or the opposite sin of “all education, no leadership”.

The best way to keep a balanced position on the relationship between the mass line and agitation & propaganda is to view it the way that the RCP did back in 1976:

...the Party must not only “process” the ideas of the masses and raise their experience to rational knowledge, but must continually arm the masses themselves with the science of revolution, to enable ever broader numbers to know and change the world, and develop the struggle of millions, more and more in conformity with the revolutionary outlook and interests of the working class.[39]

In short, the view here is that agitation does have an important role to play within the mass line process, but that also there is an important and independent role for agitation and propaganda in bringing the science of revolution to the broad masses.

It is extremely important to always keep in mind that the mass line in no way goes against the independent propagation of Marxism among the masses. In fact, in important respects, the failure to propagate the revolutionary science of Marxism among the masses should be considered as going against the Marxist mass perspective. The RCP brought out one aspect of this in a 1978 article in Revolution:

By arming the masses with an understanding of the basis of events in society (and the Party’s actions) and by arming them with a scientific outlook, propaganda plays an important role. The Party cannot adopt the view that revolution will be made by a “conscious” Party leading the “blind” masses in struggle against their oppression. This is nothing but the “heroes make history” line. Through the work of the Party, both learning and leading, and together with the development of the objective situation, larger and larger sections of the masses must become increasingly class conscious and armed with revolutionary science.[40]

On the other hand, it should also be pointed out here that the failure to propagate Marxism amongst the masses is by no means the only way of slipping into the “heroes make history” line. A more typical way would be to fully accept the importance of ongoing Marxist propaganda, to engage in ongoing educational work, but to abandon the mass line and Marxist leadership tasks in general, and thus substitute the activity of the party for the activity of the masses.

The Use of the Mass Line Within Agitation and Propaganda

When Guatemalan guerrillas enter a village, they don’t hand out tracts by Marx or Mao; instead they talk to the villagers about their own lives: about how they see themselves and how they came to be who they are, about their deepest longings and the things they’ve striven for and hoped for, about the way in which their deepest longings were frustrated by the society in which they lived. Then the guerrillas encourage the villagers to talk about their lives. And then a marvelous thing begins to happen. People who thought that their deepest problems and frustrations were their individual problems discover that their problems and longings are all the same... and, finally, that out of the discovery of their common humanity comes the decision that men must unite together in the struggle to destroy the conditions of their common oppression. That, it seems to me, is what we are about.
     —Greg Calvert, National Secretary of SDS, in a 1967 speech.[41]

The mass line is primarily a method of leadership. But, secondarily, it is also a method of education. As I have argued elsewhere in this book, education and leadership are dialectically related even though they are distinct processes. To say that two things are dialectically related is to say (in part) that aspects of each are contained in the other. To lead, you must also educate; to educate, you must also lead. Since the primary tool for leadership is the mass line, it is therefore not surprising that the mass line is also of value in work of political education.

One way in which the mass line is of value in educational work is in determining what specific points to concentrate on in agitation and propaganda (and especially in agitation). To a considerable degree we must learn from the masses what we can and should teach the masses. We must of course discover what they do not understand, so we can focus on raising their understanding, rather than merely repeating to them what they already know. But within the sphere of what the masses do not yet understand some things are more important than other things; in any situation there are a few key points to understand. It is our Marxist theory (and an analysis of the current situation) that tells us what is most important to explain to the masses at any given time and place. But the mass line also has a role in determining where we should focus our educational work. Most obviously, we must determine from the masses what they need to understand in order to take political action. But in addition to this, we must learn what ideas have initially been effective in gripping the masses, and thus where we can hope to make the ideological breakthroughs that each situation calls for.

The mass line can and should be used to determine not only which specific points to concentrate on in agitation, but also how to present these points. This is the question of method, which Mao constantly emphasized.

Education, to be effective, must include feedback mechanisms, so that the teacher may quickly discover what the students are grasping, and how they most easily grasp the material being presented. The mass line is one of the most effective and important of such feedback mechanisms.

Speaking a bit more generally and broadly, education, to be effective, must be an interrelationship between teacher and student, in which the teacher learns from the student, as well as the student learns from the teacher. This, of course, is the whole point of the mass line, its theoretical essence.

In 1978 the RCP published an important article entitled “On the Role of Agitation and Propaganda”, which I already referred to above.[42] Among the perceptive comments in the article was the following: “By digging into a contradiction, by taking a clear cut stand, agitation seeks to unite with the basic class feelings of the masses and raise them to a new and higher level.”[43] That is worth thinking about for a bit. It implies that effective agitation must focus on the sharp contradictions facing the masses. Not the contradictions we may feel to be important, but the contradictions which the masses themselves feel. It also implies that you can’t be effective in your agitational work if you are not very close to the masses, and intimately aware of their actual sophistication (or relative lack of it) in their “basic class feelings”. The article goes on to say

To really play this kind of role in concentrating the deep feelings of the masses and raising their class consciousness, agitation must be revolutionary and powerful. And the masses must feel it truly speaks for them. This kind of agitation is impossible without applying the mass line and without knowing the masses—their experiences, their feelings, their language. In short, it is necessary to learn from the masses in order to educate them. Without this constant process agitation will become sterile and stereotyped, learned from a formula instead of concentrated from life.[44]

There is no better way to put it: agitation must be concentrated from life. This means, among other things, that agitation must be concentrated by means of the mass line from the actual contradictions confronting the masses, and from the actual struggles that they are engaged in—in short from the actual life of the masses.

Sometimes revolutionary intellectuals lose sight of such things completely. Back when Lenin was struggling to set up the Third International on sound Marxist principles he had to combat all kinds of silly views about agitation, and organization, and political work in general, which was completely divorced from the life of the masses. In those days questions about trade unions were more important than they are in the U.S. today, now that few among the basic proletariat are in unions, and union membership is so small and shrinking even among the better off workers. Nevertheless, an old dispute about reactionary trade unions will illustrate the broader point. Lenin ridiculed the “left” communists in various countries who wanted to boycott reactionary trade unions and set up “revolutionary” ones where the only condition of membership would be “recognition of the Soviet system and the dictatorship” of the proletariat:

It would be hard to imagine any greater ineptitude or greater harm to the revolution than that caused by the “Left” revolutionaries! Why, if we in Russia today, after two and a half years of unprecedented victories over the bourgeoisie of Russia and the Entente, were to make “recognition of the dictatorship” a condition of trade union membership, we would be doing a very foolish thing, damaging our influence among the masses, and helping the Mensheviks. The task devolving on Communists is to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly “Left” slogans.[45]

The tendency of intellectuals in the communist movement, who are divorced from the life and actual struggles of the masses, to turn agitation into childishly “left” slogans was one of the most serious political problems in Lenin’s day. It is also one of the most serious problems we face today. The basic problem is always the same: “left” intellectuals cannot imagine how the present ideas of the masses and their present struggles fit into the revolutionary equation. Thus there is no way their slogans and agitation can effectively connect up with the life of the masses.

The Limits of Agitation & Propaganda

Work of agitation and propaganda is always of extreme importance. Every Leninist knows this very well. It is difficult to over stress the importance of constant revolutionary agitation and propaganda. But even here it is possible to have exaggerated expectations, to imagine that agitation and propaganda may by themselves accomplish more than they really can.

Lenin was of course the greatest champion of the importance of agitation and propaganda, but he also said:

Of course, there also exists mankind’s far wider collective experience, which has left its impress upon the history of international democracy and of international Social-Democracy, and has been systematized by the foremost representatives of revolutionary thought. Our Party draws on that experience for material to be used in its everyday propaganda and agitation. But while society is based on the oppression and exploitation of millions of working people, only the few can learn directly from that experience. The masses have to learn mostly from their own experience, paying dearly for every lesson.[46]

And in another place, Lenin said flatly that “revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.”[47] The important topic of the experience of the masses will be further discussed in chapter 24. The point for now is just to recognize the real limits of what can be accomplished with agitation and propaganda alone.

In another sense, there is a material limit as to what can be accomplished with agitation and propaganda. These are after all only ideas, and ideas alone cannot change the world. As Marx so nicely expressed it, at some point the weapons of criticism of the established order must turn into the criticism of weapons. But fortunately, when revolutionary ideas grip the masses, this transformation must inevitably occur.


[1] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:513.

[2] Quoted by Lenin in “What Is To Be Done?”, LCW 5:409.

[3] Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats” (1897), LCW 2:329-330.

[4] Adolf Hitler, in Herman Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction: Hitler Speaks; quoted in George Seldes, The Great Quotations (Seacaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1977), p. 320. A few other choice comments by Hitler on propaganda, from Mein Kampf and elsewhere, are quoted in Seldes, pp. 316-321.

[5] Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life (NY: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1982), p. 197. While the “bullet theory” of propaganda discussed in the text is in fact essentially wrong, there is in fact some secondary partially verified scientific evidence for a part of it: the repetition of ideas does tend to make people more likely to believe them, even when they are far-fetched on the face of things. For some brief information on this, see the “Illusory Truth Effect” entry in the Dictionary of Revolutionary Marxism, online at:

[6] Wilbur Schramm, “Mass Communication” (1973), in George A. Miller, ed., Communication, Language and Meaning (NY: Basic Books); quoted in Jeremy Campbell, op. cit., p. 197.

[7] Jeremy Campbell, op. cit., p. 196. Further information on this topic can be found in Kenneth Klivington, The Science of Mind (MIT, 1989), chapter 17 on “Attention and the Brain” (see especially p. 221).

[8] There is one possible misconception I want to prevent here. The RCP has issued a collection of revolutionary quotations by its chairman, Bob Avakian, under the title Bullets (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1985). Despite its title, I am not at all claiming that this is evidence that Avakian or the RCP believe in the the bourgeois “bullet theory of propaganda”.

[9] Lenin, LCW 5:412 & 421.

[10] Lenin, LCW 5:412.

[11] Lenin, “Urgent Tasks of Our Movement” (1900), LCW 4:369.

[12] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, “Uphold Rebellion—Prepare for Revolution”, Revolution, vol. 4, #7-8, July/Aug. 1979, p. 12.

[13] Mao, “Editor’s Notes from Socialist Upsurge in China’s Countryside (Sept.-Dec. 1955), SW 5:261.

[14] Lenin, “Lessons of the Moscow Uprising” (Aug. 29, 1906), LCW 11:178.

[15] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:514.

[16] Lenin, “On Confounding Politics With Pedagogics” (June 1905), LCW 8:453.

[17] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:412.

[18] Lenin, ibid., LCW 5:421.

[19] Lenin, “The Election Campaign and the Election Platform” (Oct. 31, 1911), LCW 17:285.

[20] Lenin, “First Speech in the Discussion on the Agrarian Programme” (Aug. 13, 1903), at the Second Congress of the R.S.D.L.P., LCW 6:494-5.

[21] Mao, “On Some Important Problems of the Party’s Present Policy” (Jan. 18, 1948), SW 4:186.

[22] See for example Mao, SW 4:203.

[23] Lenin, “The Tasks of the Third International” (July 14, 1919), LCW 29:504.

[24] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:405-6.

[25] Lenin, “The Tasks of Agitation in the Present Situation” (Sept. 1913), LCW 19:420.

[26] Lenin, “A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social-Democracy” (1899), LCW 4:282-3.

[27] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:470.

[28] Lenin, ibid., LCW 5:400.

[29] Lenin, “Against Boycott” (June 26, 1907), LCW 13:39-40.

[30] Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:53.

[31] Lenin, “On the Road” (Feb. 10, 1909), LCW 15:354.

[32] Mao, “Pay Attention to Economic Work” (Aug. 20, 1933), SW 1:134.

[33] Mao, “The Party’s Mass Line Must Be Followed in Suppressing Counter-Revolutionaries” (May, 1951), SW 5:50.

[34] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:486.

[35] Mao, “Editor’s Notes from Socialist Upsurge in China’s Countryside” (Sept.-Dec. 1955), editorial note #2, SW 5:267.

[36] Mao, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (Feb. 27, 1957), SW 5:415.

[37] See for example Mao, “Pay Attention to Economic Work” (Aug. 20, 1933), SW 1:134-5.

[38] Mao, “Speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work” (March 12, 1957), SW 5:424.

[39] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 4.

[40] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, “On the Role of Agitation and Propaganda”, Revolution, vol. 3, #15, Dec. 1978, p. 8.

[41] Greg Calvert, speaking at an SDS conference at Princeton University in February 1967. Quoted in Steward Burns, Social Movements of the 1960s: Searching for Democracy (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co./Twayne Publishers, 1990), p. 77. Part of the first sentence is not in quotes in the Burns book, and may be a paraphrase.

[42] Revolution, vol. 3, #15, Dec. 1978.

[43] Ibid., p. 4.

[44] Ibid., p. 4.

[45] Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:54.

[46] Lenin, “Revolution Teaches” (July 26, 1905), LCW 9:147.

[47] Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:84.

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