The gist of the 1969 “Troops Out” dispute in the International Socialists

Submitted by AWL on 25 October, 2014 - 3:19

“Tactics contradict principles” — IS/SWP founder Tony Cliff (quoted by Ian Birchall, International Socialism no.127)

In August 1969, IS/SWP suddenly switched from raucous agitation for “British troops out” of Northern Ireland (on the spurious grounds that all the troops would ever do is back up the Orange sectarian regime) to de facto support for the troops as providing a “breathing space”.

The Trotskyist Tendency, forerunner of Workers’ Liberty, had criticised the earlier shallow “Troops Out” agitation, and now also criticised the de facto support for the troops.

The debate hinged on the relation between “agitation” and “propaganda”, as the following extracts show. They refer to the classic Marxist statement on that relation, by G V Plekhanov in The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats in the Famine (1891). “Agitation is also propaganda, but propaganda that takes place in particular circumstances, that is in circumstances in which even those who would not normally pay any attention are forced to listen to the propagandist’s words. Propaganda is agitation that is conducted in the normal everyday course of the life of a particular country.

“If I had to clarify further the relationship between agitation and propaganda I should add that the propagandist conveys many ideas to a single person or to a few people, whereas the agitator conveys only one or a few ideas, but he conveys them to a whole mass of people, sometimes to almost the entire population of a particular locality”.

1. Calls to action

Stephen Marks, Socialist Worker, 18 September 1969

Those who... demand... withdrawal in the present situation... do not understand the difference between propaganda and agitation and between strategy and tactics. Marxism is not an alternative description of the world but a guide to action. And slogans are not just an expression of the fine feeling of those who utter them, nor even a stylistic device of the summing-up of a political argument. For those involved in a struggle they are calls to action.

To say the immediate enemy in Ulster is the British troops is incorrect. At the present time it is the Paisleyites who threaten murder and, in particular, the physical elimination of those in whose hands lie the key to any future socialist strategy for Ireland. To prevent illusion in the role of the troops, and to prepare for a future turn in the situation when the demolition of the barricades may be needed in the interests of British capital itself, and not merely of its local retainers, socialists must constantly explain the roll of the troops, as Socialist Worker has done.

But those who would raise the demand for withdrawal now must explain how they would implement that demand if they were behind the barricades in Derry or Belfast. Would they fire on the troops now, and encourage others to do the same? If so, they would merely add their bullets to those of the Paisleyites and provoke an immediate clash in a situation which would lead to a massacre. But if they would not take this responsibility on themselves they would presumably be reduced to getting the troops out by persuasion — a difficult task!

To combine a demand for withdrawal with a demand for the arming of Catholic workers is to solve the problem only at the level of the mounting of slogans. In real life, the two demands are in contradiction if both raised at the present time, for the arming of the Catholics is dependent on the precarious breathing space the presence of the troops provides. But if the demand for withdrawal in the present situation does not flow from a false evaluation of the relation of forces, it can only mean one of two things:

• either the conscious advocacy of a massacre now, presumably as a means of raising the level of struggle (a demand we would invite the supporters to raise behind the barricades);

• or else it could be justified with the excuse that raising the slogan will not lead to the departure of the troops and therefore we need not reckon with the consequences. On this we need only say those who do not take their own slogans seriously cannot expect others to do so.

2. The aim is education

Trotskyist Tendency pamphlet, IS and Ireland

Marks on behalf of the EC made the following case: In the long term the troops and the Paisleyites serve the same interests; in the short term there was a contradiction between them, which could be exploited by socialists to avoid the losses and blows which might have been dealt the Catholics and their leaders had the clash — between Stormont and its helpers, and the Catholics — been allowed to take its course without British intervention. The troops hid the effect of “freezing” the conflict, “buying time”, providing a “breathing space” for the Catholics. Self-defence was not being abandoned, merely “postponed” while arming would take place. The contradiction between the troops and the Paisleyites was immediately the main contradiction — the contradiction between the troops (and the state and ruling class they represented) and the barricades and workers’ self-defence would only become acute “at some future turn”. Therefore in the “short term” the troops should stay, but in the long run they should go.

To fit this, a formula was worked out whereby in slogans and headlines the troops shouldn’t be mentioned, but in the text we should “warn” about their future role. In subsequent arguments the headlines and slogans were labelled “agitation”, the small type was the “propaganda”. We were told that one must “understand the difference between propaganda and agitation”...

Underlying these arguments... was an absolute lack of clarity on the basic question. Why do we make demands? What are they for? Who are they addressed to? Throughout the discussions on the troops, the political effects (as opposed to the alleged physical effects) on the people of Belfast and Derry of either having or not having the “Withdraw Troops” demand was never considered. The role of demands, of agitation and propaganda, in raising and developing consciousness and self-confidence among the workers, never came into it. The only people we were talking to, according to the conceptions of Marks and the EC, were the British authorities.

Unless we have a clear conception that the reason for putting demands, for making agitation and propaganda, is directly to try to raise the level of consciousness, to show the necessary direction of the struggle, to sharpen that struggle so that the masses, or at least those of the vanguard that we reach, learn the best political lessons from it, we are hamstrung from the start, we are tied down to a reformist conception — to a stance of petitioning the powers that be, looking to their actions and decisions for alleviation, rather than to the direct action of the working class. If that were the case, we would never make a demand that wasn’t likely to be realised immediately.

Moreover, if we do not see the various forms of “communication” (demands, slogans, agitation, propaganda, headlines and small print) as necessarily bound together by a single aim and programme, with the single purpose of raising consciousness (whether this be “purely” literary or whether it be linked with immediate action) then what is there to link them, to prevent them flying apart into contradictions and inconsistencies?


For revolutionaries, there can be no contradiction between the content of agitation, propaganda and theory. The difference is one of form, of style and technique, and of scale.

The content and meaning does not differ according to whether action might or might not follow, or whether that action might be on mass scale or on a tiny scale. This is the essential meaning of the well known definition of Plekhanov: “A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator present only one or a few ideas, but he presents them to a mass of people”.

Marks, having no conception of the purpose of demands, departed quite explicitly from this formula: “Of course, this very situation” (of contradictions, with the troops’ presence being approved) “increases the need to expose on every occasion in propaganda and discussion [our emphasis] the role the British troops are playing; and the side on which they must ultimately come down. But those who conclude that raising the demand for withdrawal in the present situation [emphasis Marks] must therefore follow, do not understand the difference between propaganda and agitation.”

We say one thing in “discussion and propaganda” and another “in the present situation”.

He continued: “Marxism is not an alternative description of the world but a guide to action. And slogans are not just an expression of the fine feelings of those who utter them, or even a stylistic device for the summing up of a political argument. For those involved in a struggle they are calls to action”.

Marks might have been paraphrasing Martynov, in that passage which Lenin (in What is to be Done?) sarcastically described as rendering Plekhanov more profound. “By agitation, in the strict sense of the word, we would understand calling the masses to certain concrete actions...” In reply, Lenin demonstrated that all types of political writing were more or less directly connected with “action”. One couldn’t make that a criterion for separating out one type of work.

“To single out a third sphere, or third function, of practical activity [as well as propaganda and agitation] and to include in this third function ‘calling the masses to certain concrete actions’ is sheer nonsense, because the ‘call’, as a single act, either naturally and inevitably supplements the theoretical tract, propagandist pamphlet, and agitational speech or represents a purely executive function”.

Lenin gave an example of a “concrete action”, the signing of petitions: “The call for this action comes directly from the theoreticians, the propagandists and the agitators, and, indirectly, from those workers who carry the petition lists to the factories and to private houses to get signatures.” (See Chapter III section B for the rest of the argument.)

Explicit though he is about “calls to action”, Marks is still not clear what it’s all about. In discussions, when challenged to define agitation and propaganda, he and other EC members have trotted out the Plekhanov definition, not realising where they had departed from it. The practice, however, shows clearly just which method and definition they do adhere to.

The point about the Plekhanov formulation is, of course that the “single idea” put over in agitation is not just any old idea but a correct idea; not in antagonism to the larger complex of ideas that is propaganda, but flowing out of it and, again, leading back to it. Taking this definition together with IS’s practice, the only thing it can mean is that you tell most of your audience (if only by your failure to tell them otherwise, not to mention polemics such as Marks’ — in which he repeatedly emphasises that the troops are indispensable to the Catholic workers) that the troops “for the moment” and “in the present situation” are doing a good job; while you tell an initiated few, who probably don’t really need to be told anyway, that things aren’t so simple.

The justification for having a different line for agitation and propaganda was that given by Marks and Martynov: that agitation must lead to action, but propaganda is about the general, overall picture, about the future. Only propaganda is seen as educational. Martynov, the Russian “Economist”, counterposed agitation leading to action to Plekhanov’s propaganda and agitation, because he wanted to fight for reformism and to “free” his reformist tactics from a too rigorous connection with revolutionary Marxist propaganda and the agitation spun from it. Marks and IS use the very same distinction, for the reason that they want to free themselves to react impressionistically with regard to the long-term interests of the class. They want to free themselves from theory, programme and basic principles.


To say that agitation and propaganda are both essentially educational is not to say that they don’t lead to action.

It is to say that education and action must be integrated, must interact, that the most important and chief reason for anything to be said and done is that it educates the masses and raises their consciousness, preferably in action. The distinction between agitation and propaganda being a matter of scale, the immediate effect often varies in scale.

The agitation of a mass party, counting among its members hundreds or thousands of the grassroots leaders of the working class, might lead more directly to mass action — because it is directed immediately to the masses — than would its propaganda, or the propaganda and agitation of a much smaller group.

Even if one accepted the view of Marks and Martynov, that there is a fundamental difference in aims between agitation and propaganda, it is yet another question whether this can be applied to IS. If it is not big enough for its agitation to be a “call to action” in any practical sense, then even if one wants to follow Martynov, one is nevertheless bound by the Plekhanov conception.

On the level of a factory, or maybe in certain conditions in an industry, IS can agitate and can aspire to have mass influence which can at times either lead to action or affect action being taken. On the level of national and international politics, however, IS is confined to a propaganda role. On Ireland, propaganda and agitation converge for a group like IS. IS could only agitate in the Plekhanov sense, seizing on illuminating facts to illustrate and highlight propaganda, summing up and underlining an argument in a slogan or demand. We could not make “calls to action” to the masses in Derry and Belfast, or even “to the masses” in Britain — except in the spirit of propaganda and education. Any other estimation of IS’s influence is illusory.

3. The greater threat

Reply to the Trotskyist Tendency pamphlet by John Palmer and Stephen Marks on behalf of the IS/SWP leadership

“How Martynov, having rendered Plekhanov more profound, was reborn in IS - as a member of Workers’ Fight” [i.e. the Trotskyist Tendency]...

The first proposition, the correct one, is that there must be no contradiction between strategy and tactics, propaganda and agitation, headlines and text, or between any of the forms of communication of a socialist organisation. The second proposition, confounded with the first, is that there must be no difference in the slogans etc. advanced in different situations, whatever the objective situation, relation of forces, contradictions in the enemy camp etc. Thus they confound opposition to a stages theory with the denial that stages exist at all.

In Ireland IS conceded that the immediate threat from the Paisleyite armed gangs was greater than it was from the British troops, but argued against any demobilisation politically or militarily, called for no confidence in concessions to the troops, constantly warned that once they had contained Paisleyism they would turn on the Catholic workers and the Left, and called for the extension of the struggle to the South.

4. When were the stages?

Trotskyist Tendency reply to Palmer and Marks

In his article Fine Slogans and Grim Reality (Socialist Worker 18 September 1969) Comrade Marks identifies agitation (slogans) with calls to action, and propaganda (small print) with education. This is the mistake Martynov made in “rendering Plekhanov more profound”.

Lenin showed that agitation and propaganda are both educational and could both lead to action, and that they both came from a common source — our programme and analysis of reality. Martynov made this artificial distinction between agitation and propaganda because he wanted to be a Marxist in “discussion and propaganda” but not in his “calls to action”.

Comrades Marks and Palmer don’t bother to defend the article. Instead they decide that attack is the best form of defence. Instead of them having an opportunist conception of the difference between agitation and propaganda,we have apparently a sectarian conception of the difference — i.e. we don’t relate our tactics to reality, we are abstract propagandists. Unfortunately they don’t try to substantiate this assertion.

If it was sectarian to say that the troops were not there with parallel interests to the Catholic workers, but to attack them (and not in the distant future but here and now, even if not physically) and crystallise this with the slogan British Troops Out — then we plead guilty. But who was it who ignored reality?

In his article Marks talked about “a future turn in the situation when the demolition of the barricades may be needed in the interests of British capital itself”. Now according to his logic, when the troops did start taking down the barricades (that very same week) then the first stage — troops plus Catholics v. Paisleyites — had finished. Shouldn’t IS then have re-incorporated the demand for troops to go?

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