This is an edited version of a text, by the Antagonism group, sent in 2001 to Left Communist email list as part of a discussion on intervention, the ideology of intervention, and the supposed separation between revolutionaries and the proletariat in low periods of class struggle.
The precondition for any intervention is the separation of those carrying out the intervention from those who the intervention is directed toward. Intervention takes us back again to the situation of the enlightened minority bringing revolutionary ideas.
The belief that revolutionary ideas originate outside of the proletariat and are introduced from the outside has become associated with Leninism. “Leninists” (at least the archetypical kind) accept this view and act accordingly to introduce or inject their ideas into the hapless proletarians. But if the notion that ideas must be injected from outside is, at least in principal, rejected by many, the notion that communist consciousness originates outside of the proletariat is still alive in the negative Leninism (the “anti-bolshevik communism”) of “councilism”. “Councilists” (again in archtype) take an opposite position to “Leninists”, opposing the introduction of revolutionary ideas, and favour spontaneity. Both tendencies, accept the same fundamental separation between the enlightened minority and the ignorant mass.
The tenacity of this notion owes to its nature as bourgeois ideology. The whole dialogue of outsiders introducing subversive ideas may be common amongst “Leninists” and “Councilists”, but the real home of this notion is in the bourgeois press, the bourgeois media and bourgeois sociology. How many times have we read in the papers that a demonstration turned into a riot, or a grievance turned into a wildcat strike, because of “outside agitators” or “outside extremists”?
But this notion of the separation of communism and proletariat is not just a product of bourgeois media. It is also bourgeois ideology in the sense that it is a reflection of the appearance of bourgeois society. Communists do find themselves isolated from most of the proletariat, just as non-communist proletarians find themselves isolated from most other proletarians. Furthermore, the notion that the “outsiders”, the “subversives”, the “revolutionaries”, are sociologically different from the mass of workers, and especially the archetypical factory worker, is in most cases true. Why shouldn’t it be? Being a communist in a non-revolutionary period means above all living in a period of defeat and knowing it, of desiring community of struggle, but often being isolated. Much of the activity of communists in the present period revolves around reading and writing. It’s obvious that such activity attracts some and repels others. So what? Who says we have to be sociologically typical? (It’s also worth adding that the proletarians, those separated from the means of production, are less likely to be factory workers than in the past.)
Communism is not a product of an educated minority, even if part of the reproduction of communism is through the writing and reading of texts. Communism originates in the antagonistic nature of modern society - the contradiction of simultaneous increasing wealth and increasing poverty, precariousness, dispossession, the increasing subjugation of life to the vagaries of the market. Communism and communists are a spontaneous product of this society.
If communism originates in the proletarian condition, and struggle then this has implications for the notion of “intervention”. Whereas “intervention” implies the monologue of the radical minority, communism develops through multidirectional communication and through a partisan participation.
What is usually meant by “intervention”: – hand out a leaflet at a demonstration or speak at a meeting, where you regard the majority of your potential audience as imbeciles.
All communication is to a greater or lesser extent alienated, not just leaflets. If what underpins the ideology of intervention needs to be criticised, that does not mean that every activity that might be called an “intervention” has to be thrown out. Sadly, a leaflet is still in many cases the best method there is to attempt communication, despite its inherently unidirectional focus. Communists are not heroes who bring the revolution, or dangerous intellectuals who will lead astray the “simple minded proles”. Mostly we are proletarians, but not ordinary ones, or no more ordinary than all the others. We don’t have a historical role, but like many others we have the need to live differently, and the recognition that this is a possibility.
Pannekoek made the point somewhere that ‘The proletariat is not weak because it is divided, it is divided because it is weak’. It would be a mistake to think that if a decent communist organisation intervened in the class then that would make the difference, would create the proletariat as a force for communism. Communism is then an act of will of the minority. On the contrary, it is only when the proletariat is a fighting force with some degree of communist consciousness that any communist class organisation really worthy of the name will be formed. Then organisations will be formed by communists rooted in the struggle of the proletariat, that is, by proletarians who see communism as a practical task. In the meantime, we do what we can and what we must, but it’s the action and situation of the class that will be central, not of the present minorities.
Taken from the Antagonism website.