On Illegal Organisations

In the July issue reasons were given for our opposition to the Communist Party. Among other things, the opinions were expressed that “it is impossible to organise the working class secretly,” and that, with the possible exception of politically and economically backward countries, no necessity for illegal methods of propaganda exists, and no useful purpose is served by devoting energy to them.


America provides interesting confirmation of the inevitable failure of the illegal organisation. In that country a serious attempt was made to apply the Moscow policy, and it was in fact the, boast of the American Communists that “the United States is the only country in the world where the Communist movement, as such, is an underground movement.”


In the October Liberator (New York), Max Eastman, himself a supporter of the Third International, examines the present deplorable condition of the American Communist Party, and endeavours to explain it. His appreciation of the result of their work is this: “Two years have passed (since the secession from the Socialist Party), and except for the deepening and confirming of that split, nothing of appreciable value to the cause of Communism has been done by the Revolutionists. A good deal has been done to the detriment of the cause.” This is all the more striking because the conditions considered, favourable to Communist propaganda have been present to a degree perhaps never previously known. “In spite of an ‘increasing misery’ that surpasses the demands of any theory, the workers in America seem to be less friendly to Communism than they were two years ago.”


The mistake lay in the acceptance of the fallacy that capitalism had broken down beyond hope of recovery, and the supposition that the form of activity dictated by the semi-Feudal Russian autocracy must have application to the capitalist democracies. The first simply is not true, and the experience has again proved the falseness of the second.


There never was any necessity for propaganda to be illegal in America, any more than in this country. “It is not so much the ruthlessness of the American capitalists as the romanticism of the American Communists which accounts for their being underground. The majority of the leaders want to be underground. They enjoy disciplining the devotees of a rebellion, but educating the workers for the revolution is a less interesting task, and they are not fulfilling it.”


The Communists “formed an elaborate conspiratorial organisation excellently adapted to promote treasonable and seditious enterprises, although they have no such enterprises on foot”; yet when subjected to police persecution for their activities they, like the Communists over here, are forced into the position of using the ordinary legal machinery for their protection. “The folly of this policy becomes tragically apparent when members of this underground organisation defend themselves in Court with the eloquent and perfectly truthful assertion that the propaganda they are conducting is not in violation of the laws.” It becomes still more tragically apparent when they resort to the distribution of circulars advocating methods of terrorism—for the mere purpose, so far as we can judge, of sustaining and justifying the illegality of their organisation.” This degeneration into the futility of sabotage has always been the fate of those who have never been nearer to an appreciation of the class struggle than that of throwing broken bottles at policemen.


Their failure is that they will not recognise the realities of the present situation, and the attitude of the workers towards capitalist institutions.


The capitalist class is, and will remain, in power until such time as the class conscious organised workers are strong enough to wrest that power from them. That power depends on the support of the great mass of the workers, unthinking though that support may be. Capitalist domination will not be overthrown because some relatively weak organisation declares its preparedness to defy constitutionalism, and to damn the consequences. It is a question not of intention, but of effectiveness, and the object of the revolutionary organisation is to strengthen itself until it is a force which cannot be ignored or suppressed. This means neither more nor less than the spreading of the knowledge of Socialism— the unexciting task of making Socialists. The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia because, for the objects they had in view, they had the mass of workers, peasants, and soldiers behind them. Those supporters were not Socialists, and those objects were not Socialism; but the position elsewhere with regard to the needs of the Socialist revolution is the same. The workers of America and Britain have not yet the requisite knowledge of, and sympathy with, Socialism ; in short they do not want it.


The Communist Party therefore, in its insurrectionary attitude to the American Government, alienates those very people for whose ears its propaganda is intended. In the eyes of the average worker the Government which he elects represents his interests, as its proclamations do actually mirror his opinions. It is a fact, and not a surprising one, that the average unthinking worker believes that the existing machinery of Government does give expression to the will of the people. What, then, is he to think of those who deliberately set themselves against what appears to him as the forces of law and order?


It would not matter so much if the Communists bore the burden of their own mistakes ; but the harm they do is much wider than that. They provide the Government with the excuse it desires for repressive legislation such as at ordinary times it would be difficult to introduce; and this legislation is used against every revolutionary propaganda body. They provide the openly capitalist political parties, and more particularly the reactionary “Labour” parties, with easy material for their attempts to discredit Socialism. They confuse, without educating, those workers who are reached by their propaganda, and antagonise the much larger number who hear only the misrepresentation to which it so readily lends itself.


It is a slow and difficult task to remove from the mind of the typical wage earner the pathetic belief in the inevitability of his sufferings, and in the permanency of political institutions and economic forms of society; but there is only one way, the educational way, and to think of challenging those who are now in control, before this educational work has been accomplished, is mere foolishness.


Knowledge of the evolution of human society, and of the origin and development of existing political institutions on the one hand, and knowledge of the present economic structures which makes possible the exploitation of the workers, an exploitation not superficially observable, are the necessary forerunners of successful organisation for the emancipation of the workers. Spectacular defiance of the powers that be has no place in this scheme of things.


P. J. L.