Inspiring the masses to action?

February 21, 2012

Jason Netek explains what Marxists have said about "propaganda of the deed."

MOST PEOPLE who want to change the world understand the need for a mass movement--very few think they can actually do it all alone.

There is however, an important debate to be had concerning precisely how such movements are developed and how they grow. For some people, the best way to bring a mass movement into being is for a few dedicated people to inspire the masses or "wake them up" by taking daring actions on behalf of a yet-to-exist larger movement.

The idea is that if you do something daring, then people who are not currently joining in the struggle will decide to do so, either because they've been made aware of the need to fight or been made aware of their ability to do so.

This sort of approach is known as "propaganda of the deed" and has been championed by many famous revolutionists, mostly in the anarchist movement, such as Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and Michael Bakunin.

Advocates of this strategy aren't of the same school of thought as those who attempt to achieve revolutionary change without mass participation. Whereas a coup d'état attempts to supplant one set of rulers for another, the advocates of propaganda of the deed generally accept the need for the masses to step forward. The purpose of heroic and defiant acts against a repressive state or particularly detestable employer is to inspire the downtrodden--to convince them that they do not face unbeatable foes.

A depiction of the hanging of Narodnaya Volya members after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II
A depiction of the hanging of Narodnaya Volya members after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II

Propaganda of the deed is born out of a kind of revolutionary impatience. In times of relative social peace, revolutionaries frustrated with the slow pace of change develop all manner of ideas for transforming society without having to wait for the development of a mass movement.

George Plekhanov, a Russian Marxist from the late 19th century and early 20th century, said that as a revolutionary, you are driven to accept such tactics once you reject the political action of the working class.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin expanded on this position in What Is To Be Done? discussing a group called Svoboda that he said:

advocates terror as a means of "exciting" the working-class movement and of giving it a "strong impetus." It is difficult to imagine an argument that more thoroughly disproves itself. Are there not enough outrages committed in Russian life without special "excitants" having to be invented? On the other hand, is it not obvious that those who are not, and cannot be, roused to excitement even by Russian tyranny will stand by "twiddling their thumbs" and watch a handful of terrorists engaged in single combat with the government?

The fact is that the working masses are roused to a high pitch of excitement by the social evils in Russian life, but we are unable to gather, if one may so put it, and concentrate all these drops and streamlets of popular resentment that are brought forth to a far larger extent than we imagine by the conditions of Russian life, and that must be combined into a single gigantic torrent.

THE HISTORY of the revolutionary movement in Russia during Plekhanov's lifetime illustrates his point.

The Russia of the Tsars was an economically backward and highly repressive society. Russian radicals experimented with different methods of rousing the people into a state of revolt, which would destroy everything and rebuild the world anew. They called themselves Nihilists, which didn't mean that they believed in nothing, but rather that they recognized no authority, and that no part of the existing social order deserved support.

A better-known movement, with many characteristics in common and overlap among its advocates, was the "Narodniks" (meaning "Populists"). The Narodniks believed Russia's peasantry, the majority of the population, would be the basis for socialism--and that a peasant war was necessary to destroy the state and establish the collectively owned commune in the countryside as the basis for a new society.

Perhaps the most admirable effort of this generation was the somewhat naïve "Going to the People" movement of the 1870s, when hundreds of student radicals attempted to live and work among the peasantry and spread the ideas of socialism. The most famous organization of this movement was Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty), whose members "settled" permanently in the provinces to conduct sustained propaganda and education campaigns.

The movement produced few results, and many radicals of that generation would find themselves in prison or in exile for their efforts.

The next wave of radicalism, inspired by the repression of the movement and the brutality of the state in general, was exemplified by acts of vengeance.

An organization called Narodnaya Volya (the People's Will) was formed by veterans of the Going to the People movement, which adopted a more violent strategy for inspiring the masses to action. Assassination attempts and bombings were orchestrated in order to expose the weakness of the seemingly almighty state apparatus. The idea was that if the Russian people could see they were not up against an all-powerful enemy, they would be more likely to rise up against their oppressors.

It didn't happen that way. The only real results of such actions were harsh punishments for those who carried them out. In 1881, Narodnaya Volya succeeded in assassinating the emperor of Russia, Tsar Alexander II. In the aftermath, the movement was decimated by severe repression, and a new Tsar, Alexander III was crowned. No mass rising of the people took place.

In 1911, Leon Trotsky wrote that propaganda of the deed "belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission."

LENIN, TROTSKY and Plekhanov shared the same basic position on the role of the working class, even in a country like theirs, which was dominated by the peasantry.

That position which was vindicated by history. The Russian people did rise up, in 1905 and again in 1917, but in neither case was the revolution the result of an inspiring act. In both cases, the revolutions were kicked off by a wave of strikes by factory workers for improved conditions, protests against war-induced hardships, and for reforms in the political system. In both cases, the mass movement of the whole people was led by the working class in the big cities, and in both cases, the revolution was born out of a general desire for change.

The working people of Russia fought first for small gains and then for political power, not because some heroic figure inspired them to do so, but because it became increasingly apparent to millions of people that the existing social order was not suited to their interests.

The radicals of the 1870s and '80s were attempting to make sense of the fact that despite poverty and oppression, the Russian people seemed to remain passive. They sought to inject a revolutionary consciousness into the masses.

Prior to the development of a fighting labor movement, very few radicals understood the power of the working class. By the turn of the century, things were different and the early Russian Marxists spent the majority of their time making this case to those who still clung to propaganda of the deed. Continuing to rely on tactics born of the desperation of isolated revolutionaries during the movement's infancy was totally unacceptable in the face of a rising working class movement.

The great lesson of the revolutions of the last century is that there is no substitute for the self-activity of the working class. When discussing strategy and tactics today, we should start from this basic premise. Our tactics should be varied--and sometimes they may grab headlines. But more important than that, they need to be part of the building of a coordinated and participatory mass movement.

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