From the archives: The collective organiser

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2004 - 8:57

The phrase "collective organiser" is from Lenin's Where to Begin, an article he wrote in 1901. Here Lenin talks about the kind of publication the Russian socialists, then organised in a scattered collection of local groups, needed to create. We reprint part of the article here.

Why is the revolutionary paper a "collective organiser"? For Lenin, "the mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents... the skeleton of precisely the kind of organisation we need..."

The revolutionary paper has to agitate, educate its readers and help organise them. It depends on the active network of supporters pushing it, sustaining it, carrying its arguments forward by word of mouth. That network which gives it life. And if today fewer people read newspapers than 20 or 30 years ago, more responsibility weighs on socialists to carry forward ideas through argument and patient explanation.

The precise qualities need for a revolutionary paper, the tool of a revolutionary organisation, have been much debated. Before the First World War Trotsky helped publish a paper, Pravda, which was quite different to Lenin's conception. Isaac Deutscher summed it up in Trotsky: The Prophet Armed: [Trotsky] "intended to address himself to 'plain workers' rather than to politically-minded party men, and to 'serve not to lead' his readers. Pravda's plain language and the fact that it preached the unity of the party secured to it a certain popularity but no lasting political influence. Those who state the case for a faction or group usually involve themselves in more or less complicated argument and address the upper and medium layers of the movement rather than the rank and file."

Lenin's paper did that, and gained more lasting influence.

On the other hand the revolutionary press cannot confine itself to politics in the narrow sense, or reflect only those activities that a revolutionary group is involved in, or confine itself to low level trade unionism or campaigning. Socialists need more than this. As Gramsci explained: "A Communist cultural review... must aim to become, in miniature, complete in itself, and, even though it may be unable to satisfy all the intellectual needs of the nucleus of men who read and suppport it, who live a part of thier lives around it, and who impart to is some of their own life, it must strive to be the kind of journal in which everyone will find things that interest and move him..."

Cathy Nugent

From Where to Begin, May 1901

In our opinion, the starting-point of our activities, the first step towards creating the desired organisation, or, let us say, the main thread which, if followed, would enable us steadily to develop, deepen, and extend that organisation, should be the founding of an All-Russian political newspaper.

A newspaper is what we most of all need; without it we cannot conduct that systematic, all-round propaganda and agitation, consistent in principle, which is the chief and permanent task of Social-Democracy in general and, in particular, the pressing task of the moment, when interest in politics and in questions of socialism has been aroused among the broadest strata of the population.

Never has the need been felt so acutely as today for reinforcing dispersed agitation in the form of individual action, local leaflets, pamphlets, etc., by means of generalised and systematic agitation that can only be conducted with the aid of the periodical press.

It may be said without exaggeration that the frequency and regularity with which a newspaper is printed (and distributed) can serve as a precise criterion of how well this cardinal and most essential sector of our militant activities is built up. Furthermore, our newspaper must be All-Russian.

If we fail, and as long as we fail, to combine our efforts to influence the people and the government by means of the printed word, it will be utopian to think of combining other means, more complex, more difficult, but also more decisive, for exerting influence.

Our movement suffers in the first place, ideologically, as well as in practical and organisational respects, from its state of fragmentation, from the almost complete immersion of the overwhelming majority of Social-Democrats in local work, which narrows their outlook, the scope of their activities, and their skill in the maintenance of secrecy and their preparedness. It is precisely in this state of fragmentation that one must look for the deepest roots of instability and the waverings.

The first step towards eliminating this short-coming, towards transforming divers local movements into a single, All-Russian movement, must be the founding of an All-Russian newspaper…

Without a political organ, a political movement deserving that name is inconceivable in the Europe of today.

Without such a newspaper we cannot possibly fulfill our task - that of concentrating all the elements of political discontent and protest, of vitalising thereby the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.

We have taken the first step, we have aroused in the working class a passion for "economic", factory exposures; we must now take the next step, that of arousing in every section of the population that is at all politically conscious a passion for political exposure.

We must not be discouraged by the fact that the voice of political exposure is today so feeble, timid, and infrequent. This is not because of a wholesale submission to police despotism, but because those who are able and ready to make exposures have no tribune from which to speak, no eager and encouraging audience, they do not see anywhere among the people that force to which it would be worth while directing their complaint against the "omnipotent" Russian Government.

But today all this is rapidly changing.

There is such a force - it is the revolutionary proletariat, which has demonstrated its readiness, not only to listen to and support the summons to political struggle, but boldly to engage in battle.

We are now in a position to provide a tribune for the nationwide exposure of the tsarist government, and it is our duty to do this. That tribune must be a Social-Democratic newspaper.

The Russian working class, as distinct from the other classes and strata of Russian society, displays a constant interest in political knowledge and manifests a constant and extensive demand (not only in periods of intensive unrest) for illegal literature.

When such a mass demand is evident, when the training of experienced revolutionary leaders has already begun, and when the concentration of the working class makes it virtual master in the working-class districts of the big cities and in the factory settlements and communities, it is quite feasible for the proletariat to found a political newspaper.

Through the proletariat the newspaper will reach the urban petty bourgeoisie, the rural handicraftsmen, and the peasants, thereby becoming a real people's political newspaper.

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser.

In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour.

With the aid of the newspaper, and through it, a permanent organisation will naturally lake shape that will engage, not only in local activities, but in regular general work, and will train its members to follow political events carefully, appraise their significance and their effect on the various strata of the population, and develop effective means for the revolutionary party to influence these events.

The mere technical task of regularly supplying the newspaper with copy and of promoting regular distribution will necessitate a network of local agents of the united party, who will maintain constant contact with one another, know the general state of affairs, get accustomed to performing regularly their detailed functions in the All-Russian work, and test their strength in the organisation of various revolutionary actions.

This network of agents will form the skeleton of precisely the kind of organisation we need-one that is sufficiently large to embrace the whole country; sufficiently broad and many-sided to effect a strict and detailed division of labour; sufficiently well tempered to be able to conduct steadily its own work under any circumstances, at all "sudden turns", and in face of all contingencies; sufficiently flexible to be able, on the one hand, to avoid an open battle against an overwhelming enemy, when the enemy has concentrated all his forces at one spot, and yet, on the other, to take advantage of his unwieldiness and to attack him when and where he least expects it.

Today we are faced with the relatively easy task of supporting student demonstrations in the streets of big cities; tomorrow we may, perhaps, have the more difficult task of supporting, for example, the unemployed movement in some particular area, and the day after to be at our posts in order to play a revolutionary part in a peasant uprising.

Today we must take advantage of the tense political situation arising out of the government's campaign against the Zemstvo [local councils, elected although landlord dominated]; tomorrow we may have to support popular indignation against some tsarist bashi-bazouk on the rampage and help, by means of boycott, indictment, demonstrations, etc., to make things so hot for him as to force him into open retreat.

Such a degree of combat readiness can be developed only through the constant activity of regular troops. If we join forces to produce a common newspaper, this work will train and bring into the foreground, not only the most skilful propagandists, but the most capable organisers, the most talented political party leaders capable, at the right moment, of releasing the slogan for the decisive struggle and of taking the lead in that struggle.

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