Revolutionary organisations struggle against provocation and slander

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Since its origins, the workers’ movement has had to face up to repression from the bourgeoisie. However, it would be a serious error, a real expression of naivety, to think that such repression only takes the form of physical repression directed against workers’ strikes or uprisings.

The proletarian revolution is the first in history whose success fundamentally depends on a revolutionary class consciousness about its own goals, about the final aims of its combat against capitalism: communist society. Inevitably, in capitalist society, this historical consciousness develops in the proletariat in an uneven way; and this is why revolutionary class consciousness is initially crystallised in the political organisations of the proletarian vanguard.

Police provocation within revolutionary organisations

It is an irony of history that the bourgeoisie has often shown itself to be more far-sighted than the working class masses on the crucial role of revolutionary organisations. The ruling class has always paid particular attention to the political organisations that defend the need for a communist revolution, even in periods in which they are an extreme minority, even completely unknown to the vast majority of the working class. This remains true whatever the political regime of the day. To give just two examples that concern ourselves directly:

  • an important part of our book on the Italian Communist Left is drawn from the archives of Mussolini’s secret police, who maintained a spy within the very small group that published Bilan in the 1930s;
  • right at the beginning of the group which became our section in France, we learned through a repentant police agent that our group was already being watched by the police.

Only once in history have the methods of the political police been examined in an exhaustive manner by revolutionaries: after the October revolution in Russia, when the archives of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. It was on the basis of these archives that Victor Serge wrote his book What Every Revolutionary Should Know About Repression, which to this day remains a very valuable expose of police methods. As Serge put it, the Okhrana was “the prototype of the modern political police”. However, as we shall see, spying and police provocation weren’t born with the Okhrana, and revolutionaries didn’t wait until Serge’s book before understanding that they were the subject of police interest.

What is the aim of this police interest? It’s not simply to spy on, repress and destroy revolutionary organisations. The bourgeoisie and its political police know very well that the political organisations of the proletariat are not generated in the heads of the individuals who compose them, but by the very conditions of the class struggle, the permanent opposition between the working class and capitalist society.

It’s therefore no accident if the figure of the agent provocateur has always been so abhorred in the workers’ movement, both in its political organisations and the organs the class gives rise to during the course of its struggles (general assemblies, factory committees, etc). From their beginnings the political organisations of the working class have tried to protect themselves against the activities of agents provocateurs. Thus in the 1795 statutes of the London Corresponding Society, one of the first working class political organisations, we have the following rule: “Persons attempting to trespass on order, under pretence of showing zeal, courage, or any other motive, are to be suspected. A noisy disposition is seldom a sign of courage, and extreme zeal is often a cloak of treachery” (cited in Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1968 Pelican edition, p 539). In the same way, the Communist League (for which Marx wrote the famous Communist Manifesto in 1848) stated in its article 42: “individuals who have been kept at arms length or excluded, as well as suspicious elements in general, must be watched by the League and placed beyond the pale” However, the effectiveness of police provocation has its limits. As Victor Serge put it: “Provocation can only wipe out individuals or groups and is almost impotent against the revolutionary movement as a whole. We have seen how an agent provocateur became responsible (in 1912) for bringing Bolshevik propaganda into Russia; how another (Malinovski) gave speeches written by Lenin in the Duma (...) Whether a revolutionary leaflet is handed out by a secret agent or a devoted revolutionary, the results are still the same: the essential thing is that it should be read (...) When the secret agent Malinovski acted as Lenin’s voice in the Duma, the Minister of the Interior was wrong to rejoice over the success of his hired agent. Lenin’s words were far more important to the country than the mere voice of a wretch like him”.

Suspicion: a curse for the moral health of revolutionary organisations

Much worse than provocation in itself is suspicion, the distrust that can grow up in an organisation when its members feel themselves to be the target of provocation. This is all the more the case because - apart from this unique case when the Okhrana archives were seized - revolutionaries obviously aren’t in a position to find proofs in the police archives, while the police themselves do all they can to cover their tracks and protect the real spies. The worst thing is that often the police don’t actually need to do anything; they can just let suspicion and distrust take root and gather the fruits: the paralysis or even the break up of the revolutionary organisation. Thompson’s book The Making of the English Working Class gives us a striking example of this kind of paralysis: “In 1794 one Jones, of Tottenham, was accused (mistakenly) of being a spy, because of his violent resolutions which were alleged to be for the ‘purpose of entrapping the society’. Jones (the genuine informer, Groves, reported with wry relish) complained: ‘If a Citizen made a Motion which seemed anyways spirited he was set down as a Spy sent among them by the Government. If a Citizen sat in a corner and said nothing he was watching their proceedings that he might better report it (...) Citizens hardly knew how to act’” (op cit.).

While distrust within a revolutionary organisation can bring about paralysis and disintegration, suspicion is a burden which often proves unbearable for the individual militant (Serge cites examples of militants who committed suicide, or carried out desperate acts, because they were unable to clear themselves of an unjustified suspicion). A communist militant sets himself in opposition to the whole of bourgeois society; he is placed outside the normal order of things, accused by the bourgeois propaganda machine of being a fanatic or a bloody criminal. He can be hunted down like a wild beast. To keep his head held high, a communist militant must not only maintain an unquenchable conviction in the historic cause of the proletariat, in the future of humanity, in the necessity and possibility of a communist revolution; he must also preserve his honour as a militant, the respect and confidence of his comrades in arms. There is no worse shame for a communist militant than to be designated a traitor. Suspicion is terribly easy to sow, and very hard to wipe out. This is why communist militants have the duty to defend their dignity faced with suspicion and slander, just as the organisation has the responsibility not to tolerate these poisons, which can only destroy its unity and solidarity between comrades.

It was not for nothing that in 1860, Karl Marx published his denunciation of Karl Vogt, a spy in the service of Napoleon III, who himself accused Marx of being a police agent. ‘Well-meaning’ bourgeois commentators often see this text as a weakness of Marx’s, a distraction from his ‘philosophical’ work, a futile attack on a pathetic individual. It has also been claimed that the text, with its minute attention to Vogt’s most lamentable activities, is an example of Marx’s ‘authoritarianism’, his inability to take criticism. This is to understand nothing of Marx’s motives. Marx hated talking about himself or his personal affairs in public, but he felt obliged to devote a year to this indispensable work in order to defend both his personal honour as a revolutionary, and also and above all the movement of which he was a part.

Victor Serge was quite correct to write: “There is a tradition of it: the enemies of action, the cowards, the well-entrenched ones, the opportunists, are happy to assemble their arsenal... in the sewers! Suspicion and slander are their weapons for discrediting revolutionaries”.

The danger of uncontrolled suspicion within the organisation was well understood by revolutionaries of the past, as we can see from the statutes of the League of the Just, the predecessor of the Communist League (these draft statutes are from 1843): “If someone wants to complain about someone or some question connected to the League, they must do so openly in the (section) meeting. Denigrators will be excluded” (point 9).

Towards the end of the 19th century, this basic position was further refined. It was not enough to expel the denigrator; it was necessary to deal with unfounded accusations so that they wouldn’t undermine the organisation. This method of the workers’ movement was formulated in the statutes of the Berlin section of the German social democratic party, which in 1882 (when the party was working in illegality) declared: “Every militant - even when it’s a well-known comrade - has the duty to maintain discretion about the subjects discussed in the organisation, whatever the issue. If a comrade hears an accusation about another comrade, he has the duty in the first place to deal with it confidentially, and he must demand the same from the comrade who informed him of the accusation; he must establish the reasons behind the accusation and know what lies behind it. He must inform the secretary (of the section), who must clarify the question in a confrontation between the accused and the accuser (...) Any other action, as for example the sowing of suspicion without definite proofs attested by the secretaries (ie those responsible to the section) can cause considerable damage. Since the police have an obvious interest in promoting divisions in our ranks by spreading denigrations, any comrade who does not stick to the procedure described above runs the risk of being considered as someone working for the police” (cited from Fricke, History of the German Workers’ Movement 1869-1917).

It is evident that in the conditions of illegality of that time, revolutionaries were preoccupied on a day to day basis by the danger of police infiltration. But suspicion within the organisation is not always the work of police action; it can arise without the slightest provocation from the state. Even when accusations are launched with the best intentions of protecting the organisation, the distrust they sow can be even more dangerous to the health of the organisation, and to the security of its militants, than real provocation. This is what Serge again draws attention to: “Accusations are murmured about, then said out loud, and usually they cannot be checked out. This causes enormous damage, worse in some ways than that caused by provocation itself (...)This evil of suspicion and mistrust among us can only be reduced and isolated by a great effort of will. It is necessary, as the condition of any real struggle against provocation - and slanderous accusation of members is playing the game of provocation - that no-one should be accused lightly, and it should also be impossible for an accusation against a revolutionary to be accepted without being investigated. Every time anyone is touched by suspicion, a jury formed of comrades should determine whether it is a well-founded accusation or a slander. These are simple rules which should be observed with inflexible rigour if one wishes to preserve the moral health of revolutionary organisations”.

In the first part of this article, we have tried to show:

  • first, that police provocation has existed since the beginning of the workers’ movement, and that its goal has often been to destroy the revolutionary organisation by sowing distrust in its ranks;
  • secondly, that revolutionaries have always considered such accusations as being just as dangerous for the health of their organisations as if they had been the work of the police;
  • finally, that revolutionary organisations have had a method for dealing with these accusations. This method consists above all of placing them in an appropriate organisational framework, in order to prevent distrust from spreading in an uncontrolled way in the organisation, like a virus. It is this method, inherited from the workers’ movement, that the ICC has always sought to adopt when faced with accusations or suspicions towards its militants.

The communist organisation does not have a ‘natural’ place in bourgeois society; on the contrary, it is a foreign body within it. The antagonism between communist principles and bourgeois ideology is played out not only outside the organisation, but inside it as well. The infiltration of ideologies alien to the proletariat can take the form of opportunist political positions being taken up by a part of the organisation, but also and much more insidiously through forms of individual behaviour which are passed on from the ruling class (or from certain social strata with no historical future) and which are diametrically opposed to what should be the comportment of a communist militant.

Slander: a weapon for discrediting revolutionary organisations

The ICC has always insisted that the question of the political behaviour of militants is a question linked to the principles of a class which is the bearer of communism. Against the poison of distrust and suspicion, we say in our platform that “the relations between the different parts of the organisation and the ties between militants necessarily bear the scars of capitalist society and therefore cannot constitute an island of communist relations within capitalism. Nevertheless, they cannot be in flagrant contradiction with the goals pursued by revolutionaries, and they must of necessity be based on that solidarity and mutual confidence which are the hallmarks of belonging to an organisation of the class which is the bearer of communism”. Similarly our statutes say that the behaviour of a militant cannot be in contradiction with the aims we are fighting for, and that debates in the organisation “are carried out with the greatest political rigour, while avoiding personal attacks which cannot take the place of coherent political argument”. To forget these rules of behaviour, to allow oneself to be carried away by the spirit of competition which is inculcated by bourgeois society, can lead one further and further away from the terrain of debate between communists; in certain circumstances (for example when militants are in a minority and are short of political arguments) it can lead them to launching campaigns of slander against their comrades, who are seen as enemies to bring down.

The use of campaigns of slander against militants within revolutionary organisations has dotted the history of the workers’ movement since its origins. We only have to recall Bakunin’s slanders against Marx within the First International, where the latter was accused of being a “dictator” (as a result of being a Jew and a German!); the calumnies spread after the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party by the Mensheviks against Lenin, who was accused of wanting to introduce a reign of terror in the party, like Robespierre. We can also cite the extreme case of the campaigns of denigration aimed against Rosa Luxemburg by the opportunist elements in German social democracy, who were to betray the principles of the working class in 1914. Thus in the corridors of the party Luxemburg was accused of having the morals of a libertine, and even of being an agent of the Okhrana, by militants who a few years later, in January 1919, would organise her murder: we refer to the ‘bloodhound’ Noske and his accomplices Ebert and Scheidemann.

To give one last example, our predecessors in the Gauche Communiste de France also had to deal with slanders inside the organisation, as we can see in this resolution adopted at the GCF conference in July 1945:

Approving the resolution of the general assembly of 16 June which registered the break from the organisation by these elements, the conference raises its voice in particular against the campaign of base slander, which has become the preferred weapon of these elements against the organisation and against its militants as individuals.

By resorting to such methods, these elements, while exposing their real policies, create a poisonous atmosphere by introducing suspicion, the threat of pogroms (to use their own expression), gangsterism, thus perpetuating the infamous tradition which up to now has been the speciality of Stalinism.

Considering it urgent to put an end to such slander, to prevent it from taking the place of political debate in the relations between revolutionary militants, the conference decides to address itself to the revolutionary groups, requesting that they institute a court of honour which will take position on the revolutionary morality of the militants who have been slandered, and to refuse entry into the proletarian movement of slander and slanderers”.

Thus our organisation, by rejecting slander and slanderers, is in full continuity with the combat of past revolutionaries for the defence of the organisation against all the efforts to destroy it. Slander not only has no place in the ranks of the proletariat, but is one of the preferred weapons of the bourgeoisie for discrediting communist organisations and sowing generalised distrust towards the positions they defend. To be convinced of this we only have to recall the campaign of slander against Lenin (accused by the Kerensky government of being an agent of the Kaiser and German imperialism) on the eve of the Russian revolution, with the aim of discrediting the Bolshevik party; and those waged against Trotsky (accused of being an agent of Hitler and of fascism) to discredit any struggle against Stalinism in the 1930s.

The fight against slander is not only a vital necessity for militants and the organisations they belong to. It concerns all the organisations of the communist movement. This is why, when faced with destructive behaviour of this kind, which can only play the game of the bourgeois state, the ICC has always alerted the whole proletarian political milieu: “When such behaviour comes to light, it is the duty of the organisation to take measures not only in defence of its own security, but also in defence of the security of other communist organisations” (‘Report on the structure and functioning of the revolutionary organisation’, International Review 33).

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Police provocation