Agitation and propaganda

This essay by Duncan Hallas is from a collection of "What do we mean by..." articles first published in Socialist Worker Review in September 1984, and later republished in Education for Socialists No. 6. This text is republished from the Marxists Internet Archive.

Marxist Classics

TO AGITATE is "to excite or stir it up," according to the Oxford dictionary whereas propaganda is a "systematic scheme or concerted movement, for the propagation of some creed or doctrine."

These definitions are not a bad starting point. Agitation focuses on an immediate issue, seeking to 'stir up' action around that issue. Propaganda is concerned with the more systematic exposition of ideas.

The pioneer Russian Marxist Plekhanov pointed out an important consequence of this distinction. "A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but presents them to a mass of people." Like all such generalizations this one should not be taken too literally. Propaganda can, in favorable circumstances, reach thousands and tens of thousands. And the 'mass of people' reached by agitation is a highly variable quantity. Nevertheless, the general point is sound.

Lenin, in What Is to Be Done, develops this idea:

The propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of this society into a socialist society, etc. In a word, he must present "many ideas", so many indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration the death of an unemployed worker's family from starvation, the growing impoverishment etc. and utilizing this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the "masses." Consequently the propagandist operates chiefly by means of the printed word; the agitator by means of the spoken word.

On this last point Lenin was wrong, because he was too one-sided. As he himself had argued, before and after he wrote the statement above, the revolutionary paper can and must be a most effective agitator. But this is a secondary matter. The important thing is that agitation, spoken or written, does not try to explain everything. So we say, and must say, that those individual miners who resort to the capitalist courts against the National Union of Mine Workers are scabs, villains, in terms of the struggles today; quite apart from the general argument about the nature of the capitalist state. Of course we make the argument but we seek to 'excite', 'stir up', 'rouse discontent and indignation' against the courts among as many working people as possible. This includes those (a big majority) who do not yet accept that the state, any state and its courts, is necessarily an instrument of class rule.

Or take another example. Lenin speaks of "crying injustice." Yet as a profound student of Marx he knew very well that there is no 'justice' or 'injustice' independent of class interest. He is pointing to, and appealing to, here, the contradiction between the notions of 'justice' or 'fairness' which are promoted by the ideologists of capitalist society and the realities exposed in the course of the class struggle. And that is absolutely right from an agitational point of view.

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THE PROPAGANDIST, of course, must probe deeper, must examine the notion of justice, its development and transformation through different class societies, its inevitable class content. But that is not the main thrust of agitation. Those 'Marxists' who do not understand this are themselves victims of bourgeois ideology, of timeless generalizations which reflect an idealized class society. Most important, they do not grasp concretely the way in which working class attitudes actually change. They do not understand the role of experience, for example the experience of the role of the police in the miners' strike. They do not understand the difference between agitation and propaganda.

Both are necessary, indispensable, but both are not always possible. Agitation requires bigger forces. Of course an individual can sometimes agitate effectively against a particular grievance, say, lack of soap, or decent toilet paper in a particular workplace, but a widespread agitation with a general focus is not possible without a significant number of people who are suitably placed to carry it, without a party.

So what is the importance of the distinction today? For the most part socialists in Britain are not talking to thousands or tens of thousands. We are talking to small numbers of people, usually trying to win them through general socialist politics, rather than on the basis of mass agitation. So what we are arguing is basically propaganda. But it is here that the confusion arises. Because there is more than one sort of propaganda. There is a distinction between abstract propaganda, and that propaganda which can hopefully lead to activity, concrete or realistic propaganda.

Abstract propaganda raises ideas which are formally correct, but which do not relate to struggle or to the level of consciousness which exists among those to whom the ideas are being put. For example to argue that under socialism the wages system will be abolished is absolutely correct to place such a demand to workers today is not agitation, but propaganda of the most abstract form. Similarly constant demands for a general strike regardless of whether the prospect is a real one in the present situation leads not to agitation but to abstaining from the real struggle in the here and now.

Realistic propaganda on the other hand starts from the assumption that tiny groups of socialists cannot decisively influence large groups of workers at present in most circumstances. But ii also assumes that there are arguments over specifics around which socialists can attempt to build. So the realistic propagandist in a factory will not argue for abolition of the wages system. He or she will argue for a set of demands which hopefully can lead the struggle to victory, and certainly beyond the tokens of the trade union bureaucracy. So they will argue, far example, for a flat rate increase, the full claim, all out rather than selective strike, etc.

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NONE OF this is agitation in the sense that Lenin talked about it; it is one or two socialists raising a set of ideas about how to win. But neither is it abstract propaganda because it relates to a real struggle and so can relate to a sizeable minority of the workforce. This means that realistic propaganda can strike a chord with a much larger group of people than those who are fully open to socialist ideas. That at present very small group of people will be open to all the ideas of socialism. The larger group will not be but may still accept much of the propaganda of socialists about not trusting the officials, organizing among the rank and file and so on.

The importance of the distinction is twofold. Those socialists who believe that they make propaganda in their small discussion groups, and agitate in their workplace, are very likely to overestimate their influence among the mass of workers and therefore miss the opportunity to build a base among a tiny number of supporters. Those who believe they just raise abstract propaganda in their discussions with other socialists and in their workplace are likely to adopt an abstentionist attitude when real struggles do break out.

By raising realistic propaganda in a period when mass agitation is not generally possible socialists are much more likely to be able to avoid both traps.