Realistic propaganda and cynical agitation

Has the SWP learnt the lessons following the debacle of 'All out, stay out'? Laurie Smith investigates

Readers may recall that the Socialist Workers Party’s slogan, ‘All out, stay out’ - the demand for an immediate, indefinite general strike to stop the cuts - went from being the centrepiece of the group’s offer to the anti-cuts movement to quiet oblivion, literally overnight.[1] More precisely between the regular edition of Socialist Worker dated November 30 and the eight-page special that came out on December 1.

In the SWP’s second Pre-conference Bulletin (November 2011), at a time when ‘All out, stay out’ was being pushed hard, the central committee rather defensively informed the membership: “Clearly, this is largely a propaganda slogan.” By the third bulletin (No3, December 2011) the slogan had been dropped, and part of the justification for this was that it had ‘only’ been a propaganda slogan anyway.[2] By which we are, presumably, to understand that the CC did not really mean it when it was raising it. Whether or not the SWP ever actually believed in ‘All out, stay out’ is not unimportant. But the whole episode raises interesting questions about what ‘propaganda’ is, and the consciousness-raising role of revolutionaries in the trade unions and worker’s movement as a whole.


The classic Marxist definition of propaganda comes from Georgi Plekhanov and is best known through Lenin’s quotations in his 1902 pamphlet, What is to be done?: “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.”[3] Of course, there are grey areas and so on, but it is necessary to understand this distinction to be even slightly effective politically in the varied situations encountered in real life. A short flyer or banner designed to be seen by many is not the natural medium for presenting an extended argument about the inevitability of capitalist crisis that a newspaper or website can. A three-minute speech at a protest rally, unlike an hour-long introduction at an educational event, would not be the occasion to explain the declining rate of profit and its relationship to the organic composition of capital. There is also temperament. Some comrades are better at agitation than others.

Note that in the Marxist definition, ‘propaganda’ has no negative connotations: it is simply about the expounding of many ideas. In What is to be done?, Lenin defends Plekhanov’s meaning against the likes of Alexander Martynov and the journal Rabocheye Dyelo, who had attempted to justify their own economism (ie, giving primacy to economic and trade union-type struggles over democratic and political struggles) by reading into the above distinction another, false one between ideas and action. By agitation, they said, Plekhanov meant only calls for “concrete actions”; ideas could wait for those who were interested in the propaganda. In this way, the quote could be made to fit with their narrow outlook: that economic issues inevitably lead to political revolution. In fact agitation can be for an idea, just as much as it can be for a demand like increased pay or the repeal of a piece of legislation.

Rabocheye Dyelo’s criticism of Iskra under Lenin’s editorship was that it placed the “revolutionising of dogma above the revolutionising of everyday life” (a criticism levelled by some against the Weekly Worker). Lenin happily acknowledged an emphasis on propaganda, because political education was what the movement needed most of all at that time; and for small groups to go calling for actions left, right and centre was often superfluous anyway, because the masses might well be ahead of them when it came to strikes and so on.

Another fallacious approach to propaganda can be found in an article from a 1984 issue of Socialist Worker Review penned by Duncan Hallas - at the time touted as one of the SWP’s great thinkers.[4] He makes a distinction between what he calls “abstract propaganda” and “realistic propaganda”. And, as might be expected, the former is to be rejected, the latter promoted. So what is “abstract propaganda”, according to Hallas? It may be “formally correct”, he says, but it does not “relate to struggle or to the level of consciousness which exists” - as an example Hallas uses the abolition of the wages system under socialism. “Realistic propaganda”, on the other hand, is for “flat rate increase, the full claim, all-out rather than selective strike, etc”. Hallas clearly wants to turn propaganda into agitation, and in the process reduces socialist work to routine trade unionism. It is, of course, vital to explain why wage-slavery has become historically redundant and why the free association of the collective producers is needed to replace it. Not that one would give such an explanation at every strike meeting, rally, etc.

But note here Hallas’s claim that “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”. This was in the midst of the miners’ Great Strike ... when there was the real possibility of dockers, railworkers, pit supervisors and print workers coming out too. There was also Liverpool, Lambeth, the national struggle in Northern Ireland ... The SWP was arguing against others joining the miners and against demands for a general strike with or without the TUC. Such calls were dismissed as “abstract propaganda”.


It is clear that ‘All out, stay out’ was not propaganda in the Marxist sense - of disseminating many complex ideas to a few people. It was in fact an agitational demand.

There is nothing wrong with this per se. But ironically the CC was actually using the slogan as ‘propaganda’ in the pejorative, mainstream sense of cynical messages, meant to deceive for the purpose of control. The assumption of party cadres - if the experience of “Justin”, related in Pre-conference Bulletin No3, is at all indicative[5] - is that ‘All out, stay out’ was intended as a recruitment tool rather than a realistic demand; the idea being that by ‘out-militanting’ the other sects, the SWP could gain an advantage over its rivals in getting more workers to sign up to it.

Essentially it was one-upmanship in economism, not a serious Marxist answer to capitalist crisis, to the question of government and democracy. The working class is not, thankfully, stupid, however: workers know that to launch an all-out, indefinite general strike is to pose the bringing down of the existing government  - and that means being able to say what sort of government will replace it. The SWP, of course, has been silent on such questions.

All this would not be so bad if the SWP actually encouraged the growth of open and democratic class organisations, and could comfortably accommodate differences in its ranks. But it does neither (if it did, that really could make a difference in the coming battles). This is not to dismiss the idea of escalating action to general strike proportions - if not immediately, then over the coming period - which is in fact perfectly possible and necessary if we are to force a retreat in the cuts assault. The speed with which the working class can organise itself might well surprise the spontaneity-worshippers at the end of the day.

That will not come about through the calls of one of the present groups, or sects. But it could happen more quickly, and be a lot more effective, if we sought to arm the class politically. As Lenin explained at length in What is to be done?, workers do not need us to explain how to organise a union branch or a strike. And socialist trade union representatives - if they have an economistic outlook - are no different from other trade union reps, who, especially among the rank and file, are often very good at fighting for their members’ interests and giving a militant lead.

But these are ultimately struggles over the employment relationship; they remain in the sphere of trade unionism.


1. ‘The disappearing slogan’ Weekly Worker December 8 2011.

2. ‘Signs of an awakening’ Weekly Worker December 22 2011.

3. http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/download/what-itd.pdf.

4. www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1984/09/agitprop.htm.

5. See ‘Signs of an awakening’ Weekly Worker December 22 2011.