More than words: Formulating slogans for the struggle

Aug 10, 2019


Slogans play a key role in all political activities, whether they be local demonstrations, pickets, strikes, or mass movements. While the fact that slogans are short might make it seem as though they’re of minor importance or a mere matter of semantics, the fact is that slogans can be decisive factors in individual and more protracted political struggles, for movements for reform and revolution.

Slogans aren’t just words that we put on banners and placards. They are tools to orient and guide political activity–including mass outreach–to unite different sectors of the movement, to educate people by helping them reach their own conclusions, and to educate the Party by revealing the consciousness of the people.

As crystallizations of complex situations and ideas, slogans distill political theory and strategy into concise formulas; they can’t say everything. Because struggles are dynamic, they have to be re-evaluated constantly. A slogan could be correct one day and incorrect the next.

All of this means that slogans can have real, material consequences. They can advance a struggle or move it backwards, alienate people or draw them in, communicate the truth or deceive.

Whether a slogan is correct or not isn’t an abstract question, but a concrete one. A slogan can be theoretically correct, in that it communicates a political truth, yet still be practically incorrect because it doesn’t relate this truth to the specific conditions of struggle at that time.

Slogans have to be accessible to the broad masses of people, not only in terms of wording but in terms of the content establishing a point of contact with people’s consciousness. This doesn’t mean that they cater to the “lowest common denominator,” but that they speak to the broadest possible segments of the movement. In other words, Marxists don’t create slogans for ourselves and other Marxists, but for the masses. They’re teaching tools.

Like all propaganda, slogans have different scales. They might be specific to one struggle in one town or city at one moment, or they might have national and international relevance. Some slogans take the form of demands, while others take the form of statements.

The purpose of this article is to flesh out the above elements and functions of slogans, and to illustrate the critical roles they assume during concrete struggles. This is illustrated most clearly in the twists and turns of the revolutionary struggle in Russia as it unfolded in 1917. In the final sections, we give some more contemporary examples and then walk through some guiding questions to aid in the formulation of slogans.

Lenin on slogans: All power to the Soviets!

In the middle of July 1917, Lenin published a short pamphlet “On Slogans” (note: in this section we use the Julian calendar dates). In it, he reflected on the recent drastic shift in dynamics and the corresponding need for new slogans:

“Too often has it happened that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning–lost it as ‘suddenly’ as the sharp turn in history was ‘sudden.’
Something of the sort seems likely to recur in connection with the slogan calling for the transfer of all state power to the Soviets. That slogan was correct during a period of our revolution–say, from February 27 to July 4–that has now passed irrevocably. It has patently ceased to be correct now. Unless this is understood, it is impossible to understand anything of the urgent questions of the day. Every particular slogan must be deduced from the totality of specific features of a definite political situation.”

The slogan, “All power to the Soviets,” which Lenin first proposed in his April Theses, was at this moment no longer correct because it no longer corresponded to the balance of forces. It could no longer lead the movement forward. On the contrary, it would actually lead the movement into the hands of counter-revolution. As of mid-July, it was a deceitful slogan.

The last sentence quoted above bears repeating: “Every particular slogan must be deduced from the totality of specific features of a definite political situation.”

Only by soberly assessing the current political dynamics can the Party form a correct slogan. As these dynamics unfold, the Party must re-evaluate and, when necessary, withdraw, modify, or create new slogans.

To better appreciate Lenin’s writing on slogans, it’s helpful to review the evolution of the Bolshevik’s slogans during the earlier months.

The February 1917 revolution overthrew Czarist rule and instituted a situation of dual power, a totally unique situation in which power rested both in the new Provisional Government and the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies. The real power rested in the Soviets, a grassroots democracy that derived its authority from the workers, peasants, sailors, and soldiers. They were composed of various political parties, and in the early days of 1917 the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks, both of whom were social democrats of one stripe or another, were the dominating forces. The Provisional Government–charged with organizing democratic elections–was dominated by the Constitutional Democratic Party, or Cadets, which favored a constitutional monarchy with workers’ rights. While it’s composition changed throughout the year, it also had representatives of other parties, including the SRs (beginning in March) and the Mensheviks (beginning in April).

Lenin described this situation as dual power, as power was divided between these two forces–which he called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (the Provisional Government) and the nascent dictatorship of the workers (the Soviets)–and there was a more or less stable agreement between them. There was an unprecedented level of political freedom at that time, as communists were able to openly agitate, organize, and protest.

When he returned to Russia from exile in April, Lenin put forward the slogan “All power to the Soviets.” He was initially rebuffed within the Party for this slogan (and for the April Theses), but through political explanation won Party members over. The Bolsheviks also withdrew their previous slogan, “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war” at that time.

To understand the significance of this slogan and the work it did, there are a few things to note. Most obviously, the slogan advocated that power should be transferred from the Provisional Government to the Soviets, not that the Soviets should overthrow the government. The Provisional Government was weak and required the consent of the Soviets to rule. The slogan meant that the Bolsheviks should direct all of their energy to building up the power of the Soviets and their influence within them. Further, the slogan was a message to the masses who made up the Soviets: you, the working people and the oppressed, have power and can take it! You don’t need the Provisional Government!

“All power to the Soviets” also expressed total opposition to the Provisional Government. This contrasted with the SRs and Mensheviks, who called for confidence in the Provisional Government.

What is particularly interesting is that, at this time, not only were the Bolsheviks the minority of the Soviets, but the Executive Commission of the Soviet of Soldiers’ Deputies was actually passing resolutions denouncing Lenin and the Bolsheviks at that time, equating their propaganda with that of the Monarchists. Why would the Bolshevik’s call for all power to be transferred to an institution they have no real power in?

The slogan anticipated the inevitability of an open struggle between the government and the Soviets. The Bolsheviks knew that, due to their political orientation, the SRs and Mensheviks wouldn’t be able to straddle both forms of power forever. They would have to make choices–through actions and words–and these choices would expose them before the masses. The slogan anticipated certain developments.

Through one crisis after another, the incompatibility of dual power sharpened, and each time the SRs and Mensheviks sided with the imperialist bourgeoisie in the Provisional Government rather than the workers and oppressed in the Soviets. In this way, the slogan was meant to educate the movement, not by lecturing the people with one viewpoint over and over, but by helping them come to their own conclusions based on their own experiences.

During the first crisis in late April–when the streets erupted in protests and meetings, and reactionary elements led by military officers and The Black Hundreds attacked workers–one section of the Bolsheviks marched under the slogan “Down with the provisional government,” until the local central committee intervened and ordered them to retract it.

At first, the slogan might appear similar to or compatible with “All power to the Soviets.” After all, if there are two powers, calling for all power to one implies zero power to the other, which would result in that power’s downfall. But the slogans are different in crucial ways. In a resolution adopted immediately after the protests ended, the Central Committee wrote that the slogan, “Down with the provisional government” was “an incorrect one at the present moment because, in the absence of a solid (i.e., a class-conscious and organised) majority of the people on the side of the revolutionary proletariat, such a slogan is either an empty phrase, or objectively, amounts to attempts of an adventurist character.”

It’s not that the slogan was wrong in the abstract or for all time, but that it was inappropriate and premature relative to the existing political situation. It didn’t do anything to educate or advance the struggle and it unnecessarily left the Party vulnerable to accusations that it wanted to mount a violent insurrection (accusations that appeared in rival newspapers in the following days).

That the Party issued contrasting slogans revealed a weakness in its internal organization and unity, which in turn resulted in a lack of organization and unity in the movement.

The crisis ended when the SRs and Mensheviks cracked under pressure, and got the Soviets to vote confidence in the government. As part of the deal, six SRs and Mensheviks joined the government as ministers. While “All power to the Soviets” remained in effect, they advanced new slogans, including “Down with the 10 capitalist ministers.” By framing it this way, the Bolsheviks still weren’t calling for an overthrow of the government, nor were they concentrating their agitation against the six “socialist” ministers collaborating with the imperialists. Instead, the slogan called on the SRs and Mensheviks to break with the imperialists in the government. In so doing, the slogan continued to expose the vacillation of the SRs and Mensheviks and their inability to provide the peace, land, and bread that the masses needed and demanded.

The Bolsheviks advanced these slogans during the next large protest on June 18, which Lenin said at the time marked at “turning point” in the movement because of the political maturity of the demonstrators. It was a short but mass demonstration during which the Bolsheviks’ slogans clearly prevailed. Putting the slogans into the streets allowed the Bolsheviks to take the temperature of the movement, to evaluate the level of consciousness amongst the masses.

Slogans are thus a two-way street that not only educate the masses, but also educate the Party. 

Just a few weeks later, in what’s known as the “July Days,” workers staged the most militant demonstrations yet, almost to the point of insurrection. Many workers called on the Bolsheviks to take power at that moment, but they refused because the actions were too concentrated in Petrograd and the Bolsheviks were still in the minority in the Soviets. Pro-government forces opened fire on the workers and burned the Bolshevik’s printing press and headquarters.

While there wasn’t a large-scale massacre, the events were another turning point in the struggle. The relative peace and freedom ushered in by the February Revolution was broken. There was no more dual power, and no other alternative than to prepare for an armed uprising. This was the moment that Lenin penned his short article “On Slogans” quoted from above.

Later, when the contours of power changed again, the Bolsheviks reintroduced the slogan. In late August, Lavr Kornilov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, attempted a coup against the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government. To defeat the coup, the Soviets and the government actually armed the Bolsheviks, who created red guards. They didn’t want to, but they knew the Bolsheviks had the most militant workers on their side. In the face of the red guards, Kornilov’s troops backed down. No blood was shed, but a new period began. The Bolsheviks now had the majority in the Soviets of Petrograd, Moscow, and elsewhere.

Under these new conditions, “All power to the Soviets” indicated a preparation for the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks.

The role of slogans in the US anti-war movement

Again, slogans are critical for the development of any movement or struggle under any conditions, including non-revolutionary times. They should speak to people, drawing them into the struggle and moving their consciousness forward.

Whenever struggles unfold, so too do contradictions. Different political forces and ideologies fight to win people over and to push the movement in particular directions. In general, whichever ideologies are dominant in society will also be dominant in mass movements, as those forces have the most resources at their disposal. The ruling class in the United States today has the most refined and extensive ideological apparatus of any ruling class in history.

They have a sophisticated ability to absorb and channel discontent. The bourgeoisie, through its liberal wing, proposes their own slogans that funnel outrage and prevent revolutionary consciousness from taking hold.

During the first war against Iraq, the liberal slogan in the anti-war movement was “Economic sanctions, not war.” This was a smart slogan because it was accessible for people who were opposed to war, and then moved them into supporting economic sanctions by presenting it as an alternative to war. It worked to prevent the development of principled opposition to war by latching onto a tactical split within the ruling class and trying to draw people into one side of this split. 

The opposing slogan was “No war against Iraq.” It was honest and straightforward. It was principled yet appealed to the broadest number of people. It encompassed an opposition to economic sanctions, allowing us to show that they were merely another form of warfare. This, in turn, showed the class character of the conflict.

Another key difference concerns the longevity of each slogan. When the actual bombing campaign ended, the slogan “Economic sanctions, not war” was realized. Everyone who was mobilized under that slogan could, as a result, leave the struggle and stop organizing. For those who mobilized under the slogan “No war against Iraq,” however, the struggle continued because the war continued by other means. This latter slogan was oriented toward building a sustained anti-war movement, while the former slogan was oriented toward preventing such a movement. Because it flowed from a Leninist analysis of imperialism, it anticipated the continuation of war.

History confirmed that we needed this long-term orientation. The sanctions regime devastated Iraq and its people throughout the 1990s. Contrasted with the pro-sanctions slogan, the “No war against Iraq” slogan allowed people to see exactly how economic sanctions are a war tactic. In the early 2000s the imperialist tactics shifted again. 

As the second war against Iraq approached, our slogans were “No war against Iraq” and “Stop the war before it starts. When Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003, our slogans changed to “Bring the troops home now” and “Occupation is not liberation.” These slogans were principled in their opposition to war and refused to capitulate to imperialist arguments for “lesser measures” like inspections and sanctions, and to imperialist propaganda that demonized the Iraqi resistance.

Further, the “Occupation is not liberation” slogan in particular allowed people to see links between the occupation of Iraq and the occupation of Palestine. At the time this was a controversial connection to make, even in the progressive movement. The liberal section of the anti-war movement split off largely because this focus alienated them from the Democratic Party.

It’s commonplace for liberals and other left forces to advance compromising or confused slogans to prevent anti-imperialist consciousness from growing. For example, during the US/NATO war against Libya in 2011 one segment of the left advocated the slogan, “Yes to the rebels, no to the intervention.” This deceived people into thinking that the rebels were opposed to intervention, when they were actually the ones calling for intervention. They also mobilized around, “Down with Gaddafi.” This was the exact same slogan as the imperialists. By contrast, our slogan was “Stop the bombing of Libya.” Because this bombing was justified under “humanitarian” pretexts that included the demonization of Gaddafi and the Libyan government, the slogan rejected this demonization campaign.

Formulating slogans: Methods of approach and questions to consider

If carefully chosen, straightforward and simple slogans are effective because they can facilitate effective united fronts in different struggles. Slogans should be uncompromising and principled, yet formulated in a popular and accessible way that can advance mass consciousness.

To begin formulating slogans, it makes sense to first assess the different dynamics at play. When a struggle–or the possibility of one–surfaces, think: What’s the immediate issue at hand? What are the larger, or systemic causes manifesting in the issue; who and what are responsible? What are different segments of society thinking about it? What is the bourgeoisie rallying around? To learn what the bourgeoisie or its different sectors think, all you have to do is read the newspaper. Are there left-liberal groups anywhere nationally engaged in a similar struggle, and if so, what are their slogans? You can find this on social media. What are people in your area thinking? To find this out, you have to speak with the people. Beyond speaking with coworkers, family, and friends, you could do a poll or survey at a bus station about the issue.

What would it take to resolve the problem, both in the immediate and long term? What, in other words, are your demands? What do they have in common? What do you want people to learn from your slogans? What do you want people to understand, and how best can you help them understand? How can you phrase them so that they can rally the most people together?

Sometimes slogans start off basic and gain greater specificity later. In general, it’s better to start out broader. It’s common for two or three different slogans to guide a movement, and usually one of them is quite broad (“No war against Syria,” or “Justice for Trayvon”). Others that accompany it will flesh out some component of it. For example, “No to the demonization of Syrian government” is necessary for opposing war against Syria, because the demonization campaign is part of the war drive.

There are also different “levels” of slogans. One slogan might address a specific and immediate demand, while another simultaneously addresses the more systemic causes.

Let’s say you’re organizing a struggle around housing problems in your town or city. One slogan might focus on a particular component of the problem (“Zero tolerance for slumlords,” “Tenants’ rights now”) or a particular target (“No tax breaks for X developer”). At the same time, another slogan might focus on the foundational causes of the problem (“Housing is a human right”). These two different levels work together and can help people make the connections between the specific manifestation and its general cause (the only way to really eliminate slumlords is to make housing a guaranteed right), or the specific remedy and the more foundational and permanent remedy (getting rid of slumlords is part of the struggle for socialism).

Slogans aren’t comprehensive political platforms. It might be helpful to think about the slogan as a frame and the political platform as the picture within the frame. The frame encompasses the picture, allows the viewer to see it, and directs the viewer’s attention to it (in a museum, you know to look at something if it’s framed). 

In the same way, the slogan should frame the issue at hand, directing people’s attention to it and inviting them in. Within the frame, you’ll paint a more intricate and nuanced picture with leaflets, speeches, and other propaganda and agitational materials.

Exploitation and oppression are deepening, and the capitalist ideologies are increasingly unable to provide excuses for the system. As a consequence, people are taking action and looking for real explanations and alternatives. By advancing proper slogans, we can mobilize people and deepen our collective understanding of the problems and their solutions.