Winning the battle of ideas: methods of contact work in Lutte Ouvriere

Submitted by martin on 7 April, 2010 - 5:14 Author: Martin Thomas

These notes were written for an Internal Bulletin in 1977. Many passages make me wince on re-reading: they are "very 1970s", sometimes downright ponderous and pompous.

I should also record that LO people who read the account of their contact work methods given at the end winced at the time. They thought it made far too much of the formalities and buried the essentials under that.

A lot of the references to the Labour Party Young Socialists and the Labour Party are out of date today - referring to a political world very different from today's.

There are still, I think, some useful points to be extracted from the document:

  • That contacts are made, not given to us.
  • That proper contacts are people who are willing to discuss politics with us regularly, and with whom we discuss political ideas regularly. They are defined by activity, not by observation. They are not defined as the people on a list whom we judge by observation to be "close to us" or "promising".
  • That the important thing with contacts is to discuss political ideas with them, not to "offer" them something. It is not to get them to be active, but to get them to want to be active.
  • "To convince and educate contacts we must educate ourselves".
  • "To do contact work seriously, it must be done intensively".

"Once again, it is important... to find the key to an individual, who in a general discussion may not even be sympathetic, but who, from a particular point of view, can be 'reconstructed' politically".
('Notes on the Fusion of Education and Organisation')

There is a spontaneous drive towards communism in the working class. But the instinctive anti-capitalist militancy which emerges at times of heated class struggle is unclear, and easily diverted, mis-led or dissipated. To equip itself to win power, the working class needs a permanently-organised vanguard which, in its own ranks, has transformed that instinctive communism into educated scientific consciousness, and which can intervene in class struggles to give practical and ideological leadership.

The I-CL is engaged in building that vanguard - in a working class movement which has been dominated for decades by reformism and Stalinism, and where the revolutionary tradition has suffered five decades of being pushed onto the margins by the Stalinists and three decades of serious ideological disorientation and fragmentation.

The spontaneous militancy of the working class can still quite often see the left Labourites as representing the politics it needs; and even where spontaneity reaches the level of clearly counterposing revolutionary socialism to left reformism, it confronts a situation of confusion on the revolutionary left. We do not yet have the possibility of “proving our ideas in practice” - except occasionally, locally, and partially. Our chief task and responsibility is thus fighting the battle of ideas, as a battle of ideas — though, of course, within and in relation to the class struggle.

Ideology on a mass scale is determined by social conditions, by class struggles, and by collective experiences. But the development of people's political ideas at the level of systematic study, comparison of theories, etc. (it is at that level that we have to win people is very largely an individual development, despite what our libertarian and feminist friends say. It is linked, of course, to the social and class-struggle experience of the individual: but to become a revolutionary guided by conscious theoretical ideas he or she must make an individual effort to rise above the influences of his or her environment.

It is for that reason that individual contact work must be central to our activities at the present stage. It is the means by which we have to bring people from various starting points to the level of being conscious revolutionary Marxist militants. It is, in particular, crucial to our work of recruitment.

We will not be pursuing this uphill path for ever. If we manage to create a cohesive proletarian cadre organisation of a certain minimum weight, we can look forward to mating qualitative leaps in
strength through the 'splits and fusions' which arise when the level of working class struggle throws the traditional organisations into crisis. The step from 100 to 1,000 is easier than the step from
10 to 100, and the step from 1,000 to 10,000 is easier still — provided that the basic groundwork has been done well. At present we are still at the stage of doing the groundwork, assembling a cadre
organisation one by one.


The starting point of contact work, and the element for which we have to rely on the collective experience of the class struggle, is a spark of interest in our revolutionary ideas, on the part of the
contact-to-be. At this stage the contact will quite possibly disagree with us, or not have definite ideas, on many issues. It is not his or her extent of agreement with us that makes him or her a contact it is the fact that he or she is willing to talk to us, and listen to us.

Our job, then, is to turn that spark of interest into a flame of revolutionary commitment. It is not an easy job, and for a long while yet we will have many more failures than successes. It is, above all, an ideological and political job, not an organisational one. The essence of it is about convincing people, discussing with them, getting them to read - not about "getting-people along to things" or “having something to offer them”.

To operate through "having something to offer" people belongs more to the centrists of the SWP, IMG, etc. They have their organisational recipes, their projects and their gimmicks to "offer" because they see revolutionary consciousness as merely spontaneous militancy plus their own technical devices to channel that militancy; they see the question of the revolutionary party primarily in abstract organisational terms.

We need to avoid all sectarianism towards our contacts. Our principle must be that our comrades go after the contacts, rather than that we wait for the contacts to come after us. But our job then is to convince them to "offer" us their commitment.

To convince and educate contacts we must educate ourselves. It is here that the real motor force of our education is found, It was a mistake when, on introducing the idea of individual, one-to-one education, in 1972, we said that the "concentric circles" of those educationals had to be established first in the organisation before being extended outside. As long as the "concentric circles" of individual education remain purely within the organisation, they have little motive force other than the idea that education is a "good thing"; and that motive force is often not powerful enough
to keep them moving.

It is also in relation to contact work that the real need for individual educationals arises. Inside the organisation small—group education (one-to-two, or one-to-three) is not only more economical, but often positively.better. But even when contacts are involved in general contact educational meetings (which they should be) they must be seen and discussed with, in a systematic way, individually too, because you will never have all the members of a contact educational group progressing at the same speed and in the same way.


There is no way that we can artificially create the initial spark of interest in revolutionary politics. It is generated by the class struggle. But an effort on our part is needed to identify that spark and to begin to develop it.

It is very noticeable that some comrades can find contacts everywhere they work, in every area where they are active, and among their personal friends — while others always seem to find barrenness everywhere. In truth there are few workplaces, union branches, YSs, Labour Parties, personal circles of friends, etc. where no-one can be found who can be made a contact. It is a matter of training ourselves to be patient and open without cancelling ourselves out politically, and to put across our ideas without giving people the impression of being harangued.

In relating to young people in the YS we have to be specially careful not to 'preach'. We have to avoid the situation where Militant appear as the realistic, level-headed people, and our comrades as the people who insist on 'ultra-revolutionary' theoretical purity or frantic activity - that appearance has lost us too many potential sympathisers in the YS. Indeed, in the YS one necessary initial step is to get friendly with the young people there — including even rank and file Militant supporters.

As many people as possible who can be made contacts should be made contacts; But we must be wary of pseudo-contacts. When comrades have a passive approach to contact work, waiting for contacts to come to us, and defining contacts as people who agree with us, more or less, then their list of contacts is liable to be made up mostly of these pseudo-contacts: people who have been around the revolutionary left for some time, who will agree with much of our criticisms of the SWP and the IMG, but who actually have no intention at all of breaking out of their routine of trade union activity, campaign activity, or inactivity, as the case may be.

There are a lot of people like that in the colleges, in various campaigns, and in some unions like NALGO and NUT. In fact they stand much lower, not higher, than the average member of the SWP or IMG. They are not people who have not vet arrived at the point of revolutionary commitment, but people who have more or less consciously decided to avoid or abandon revolutionary commitment while retaining the label of being revolutionaries. For them to try to appear a bit to the left of the SWP or IMG expresses evasion (and, sometimes, the most wretched sectarian pedantry), not a higher level of revolutionary consciousness.

Some of these dilettantes can be useful as contacts, as long as we define clearly for ourselves what our objectives are with them. Sometimes they may be salvageable and transformable as recruits; quite often they can be developed as useful contacts and allies in trade union work (and thus may serve as a 'bridge' for us to better contacts); sometimes we can get them to give us money (though very often revolutionaries of this sort would - like the Church of England - rather give up 38 out of 39 Principles than one part in 39 of their income!) What we must avoid, above all, is the wistful habit of defining people as contacts on the basis of nothing more than make-believe and the occasional friendly chat — and the defeatist habit of defining people as non—contacts because they disagree with us


Contact work is a problem of ideologically convincing and educating people. It does also involve - as Lutte Ouvriere says – a moral transformation of the contact; but for us, if not for LO, the moral transformation is a consequence of the ideological work.

Because contact work is essentially ideological work, it is important that a contact, once s/he has reached the point of being willing to meet us regularly, is assigned to a comrade different from the comrade who made the contact in the first place, and that the comrade assigned to the contact,is changed thereafter at regular intervals. Otherwise, it is very difficult to know whether the contact has a social and personal connection with one of our comrades, or a political connection with the organisation.

This changing-round is also important because not all comrades have the same skills in contact work. Some are good at the first stage of making contacts, some are good at developing contacts further, some have difficulty with both tasks; We have to allocate our resources so as to be sure of winning the best contacts, and also so as to give all our comrades a basic minimum-training and competence in contact work.

The contact who is willing to discuss with us should not simply be given the organised sympathiser's minimum reading list. Comrades must consult the individual needs and problems of the contact, and choose reading accordingly. For people new to revolutionary politics, for example, books like Deutscher's biography of Trotsky or Serge's “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” are better introductions than anything on the sympathiser's reading list. For people who already know the revolutionary left, polemical texts are often most useful at the beginning.

To do contact work seriously, it must be done intensively. "Contact work" which consists of seeing or discussing with the “contact” once every couple of weeks or so is a useless gesture. Each week, we must define the immediate problems and objectives with each contact, work out what has to be done - and do it!

Contact work, as we have already said, imposes the need for serious internal education. But it does not follow that our less-educated comrades are to be considered incapable of contact work. A serious contact will understand and respect a comrade who says that s/he doesn't know the answer to a question - provided that the comrade then makes the effort to get to know the answer. A contact who deliberately sets out to score points off the inexperience or inarticulateness of a comrade is unlikely to be a worthwhile contact. Given sufficient drive and commitment, our less-educated comrades can learn with their contacts.


If the contact work is done properly, then at some point the contact must be convinced of the need of giving himself/herself a basic grounding in Marxist theory. It is more difficult to convince students and ex-students of this idea, especially if they have been around the revolutionary left for a while, because they are inclined to think – usually quite falsely — that they already have that grounding: but even they must be convinced.

It is at this point that the sympathisers' reading list becomes important, If the contact work has been done properly, the contact will already have covered some of the texts on the list. But the checklist
must be used to ensure that the contact has at least a formal minimum of education on a few principal questions.

The formal requirements for sympathisers' activity also become important at this stage, particularly the financial requirement.

The need for these formal requirements, this vetting and this verification, can be made most clear by an example. At a particular college in London WF and I-CL have, over the years, recruited eight comrades. (Other comrades who have been at the college but were not recruited there, are left out of this total). Of those 8, 7 have since dropped out of revolutionary activity. In every case, a collapse could be observed when they were required to do something more than they had been used to in the comfortable, sheltered world of student politics; In some cases, it was the elementary demand for regular activity that proved too much; some collapsed at the approach of exams; others gave way when faced with the prospect of entering industry after leaving college.

In addition, three comrades who were close contacts at college and scheduled to join ended up simply running away from us at the end of the academic year.

Were all those ten people hopeless, incorrigible dilettantes? No. Given adequate contact-processing, which would include drafting them into industrial and MP activity outside the college, some of them — undoubtedly not all — could have been made into serious militants who would keep going in difficult times. By letting them into the organisation without adequate prior work, we helped neither their political development, nor ours.

In order to make ourselves more inclusive - to equip ourselves with serious, intensive, outward-going contact work — we must also make ourselves more exclusive — that is, impose stricter preconditions for membership. An organisation cannot have regular contact work unless its comrades are reliable and disciplined in their activity and serious about educating themselves; contact work, unlike some other sorts of work, simply cannot be done by an organisation without a certain minimum of strictness.

"On the contrary, the stronger our Party organisations, consisting of real Social-Democrats are, and the less wavering and instability there is within the Party the broader, the more varied, the richer and more fertile will be the influence of the Party on the elements of the working class masses surrounding it and guided by it". (Lenin: 'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back')

Methods of Contact Work in Lutte Ouvriere

The outlines of LO's contact work have been recounted in the documents 'Fusion of Education and Organisation' (first published in WF IB, summon: 1972, and since re-published twice: in 1974, with the WF constitution, and in 1976, in I-CL IB no.2) and the 'Organisational Methods of Lutte Ouvriere'. However, the first of these documents docs not go much into the detailed mechanics of the work, and the second presents the affair rather too much as a. series of obstacles which the contacts must cross.

There are hurdles which the contacts must surmount. But from the point of view of the contact, the contact—processing is rather more an effort to draw them into activity than a sieve to exclude them; from the point of view of the organisation's militants, the contact-processing activity is designed to turn them outwards towards winning new people rather than to preserve their purity in isolation. These notes try to describe the contact-processing methods rather more from that angle.

1. The process starts with the simple contact: someone whom a militant meets at work, in the union, at college (or in the LP) who shows some interest, buys the paper, enters into discussion. This is a Stage 1 contact.

Evidently there are many varieties of Stage 1 contact. It may be someone who is interested enough to buy the paper and discuss, but has his/her own quite definite political ideas, different from ours. Or it may be someone not particularly politicised who is with us on a trade union level in the factory. Or it may be a personal acquaintance. who wants to find out what the revolutionaries say.

Several routine things must be done with Stage 1 contacts:
- sell our publications to them regularly;
- discuss politics with them;
- try to get their support in particular battles in the workplace, in the unions, etc;
- try to get them to distribute the factory bulletin, if there is one at their workplace.

The main objective with Stage 1 contacts, however, is to get them to progress beyond Stage 1. This is done through trying to persuade them to agree to pre-arranged political discussions with us (“à être vu”).

2. A Stage 1 contact who agrees to pre-arranged political discussions becomes Stage 2. Obviously, also, it is possible for contacts to be "Stage 2" immediately, skipping Stage 1.

The comrade assigned to see a Stage 2 contact must be different from the comrade who contacted him/her at Stage 1. This is vital to ensure that the contact has a political relation with the organisation, rather than just a personal relation with one comrade. (Which is not to say that it is not vital that each comrade, in his/her workplace, should try to gain a periphery of people who support him/her 'personally’ without identifying politically in any clear way).

The comrade seeing a Stage 2 contact sets him(her)self a series of objectives, more or less in this order:

a) to discuss politics - generally in an unstructured way, in line with what is in the news, what the contact has read, etc.

b) to get the contact to read – or, more important, to want to read ("lui donner l'envie de lire"). To lend him/her books systematically, starting with novels. And not one book a month, but 2 or 3 each week. It is not a matter of forcing the contact to read, but of finding books he/she wants to read.

c) to get the contact to find new contacts — at his or her place of work, among his or her friends, etc. ("rayonner”). To sell the paper.

d) to involve him (her) in activities with the organisation, In the first place, the comrade should bring the contact with him (her) on his(her) own activities, explaining the while the nature and purpose of the activity. With LO, the activities in question are generally bulletin distributions or paper sales (estates, markets, metro stations, factory gates).

e) to get the contact to make a financial contribution to the organisation. The important thing is not so much that the contribution should be large as that it should be regular.

f) where relevant, to bring the contact into the regular meetings which prepare the bulletin issued at his/her workplace. Only contacts who are seen regularly outside the workplace and who contribute financially on a regular basis are allowed to attend these meetings. This is a way of making sure that contacts have a responsible attitude to the bulletin. Less solid contacts may, of course, contribute items to the bulletin from time to time without coming to the meetings.

If all these things are implemented successfully, then the task is to get the contact to progress beyond Stage 2. The comrade asks the contact: “Do you want to become a militant of the organisation?", explaining to him/her that this is a choice for life, not something casual.

3. The contact may well reply "No". If so, he/she becomes Stage 2 bis. That is, he/she sells the paper, contributes financially, undertakes activities, but is not subordinate to the discipline of the organisation.

Stage 2 bis contacts vary widely. Some have only a minimal activity; some are well-developed politically and no less active than the members of the organisation. What distinguishes them from members, however, is that they reserve the right to say "No, I don't want to do such-and-such". They do as much or as little as they like, on condition, always, that they do what they promise to do.

From time to time, as is judged appropriate, the question "Do you want to become a militant" may be re-posed to Stage 2bis contacts. Sometimes they will answer ”Yes".

There are special circumstances for Stage 2bis contacts as regards who sees them. Normally contacts are "seen" either by a militant of the organisation or (more usually) by a contact on a higher "stage" or a more advanced contact at the same "stage". Stage 2bis contacts, however, are seen only by militants of the organisation or by other (more advanced) Stage 2bis contacts. Equally, Stage 2bis contacts are not used to see Stage 2 contacts, but only other Stage 2bis contacts. This is to avoid the 2bis contacts being a drag on people who might otherwise become organised militants.

4. The Stage 2 contact who replies that he/she does want to become a militant proceeds to Stage 3. A new comrade is allocated to see him/her.

At Stage 3 the contact continues the activity undertaken in Stage 2. It is particularly important for the contact to gain new contacts, especially if he/she has not been very successful in this during Stage 2 (e.g. he/she is timid, uncommunicative, unsure of him/herself, etc.) The comrade seeing the contact will try to explain that being a revolutionary militant is not just having ideas inside your head and doing various technical tasks, but convincing other people of your ideas. In addition, the comrade seeing the Stage 3 contact sets him/herself a series of further objectives:

(a) to sort out the problems presented by the contact's job and family situation in terms of revolutionary militant activity

The contact may be required to move to a bigger factory, more suitable for political work (employment situation permitting). If it is a contact who is destined to become an "exterior" militant, he/she will be required to find a part-time job so that he/she has sufficient free time for political activity.

Current problems raised by clashes between family/domestic commitments and political commitments — and also, in the case of young comrades, future such problems - are discussed. LO instructs those who are not yet married not to marry, and those who do not yet have children, not to have them. In any case; the problems are approached from the viewpoint that political commitments come first. If there is a clash, a choice must be made, hard though it may be. If a comrade feels that family commitments come first, then that is fine — but he/she must be a Stage 2bis contact, not a member. (LO stresses that comrades should operate so that Stage 2bis contacts do not feel harassed or guilty).

(b) to make the reading more intensive;

(c) to get the contact to undertake contact work with other contacts (Stage 2 or less advanced Stage 3). In the comrade's meetings with the Stage 3 contact, a major part of the discussions will be given over to the contact's progress with his (her) contacts. This is the most difficult part of Stage 3.

(d) For contacts from a petty bourgeois background there are two additional tasks. First, the "exceptional contribution" ( "cotisation exceptionelle"). The contact from a prosperous family is asked to get some money — on one pretext or another - from his family which he can than donate to the organisation.

Secondly, technical training. The comrade is asked to learn to type and operate a duplicator, and for a period of some months is assigned to do the technical work for a particular factory bulletin, under the supervision of a militant of the organisation.

It should be stressed that these tasks are not presented to the contact as a formal list of requirements. On each point, the comrade seeing the contact explains the necessity of that particular activity for the organisation, and indeed tries to get the contact to want to do the task.

At the end of Stage 3 the contact passes to Stage 4.

5. By the beginning of Stage 4, the contact will already have a fair bulk of reading behind him/her. But, at this point, to complete the contact's education on a systematic basis, he/she is relieved of all activities and set to read. If he/she is a worker, he/she will be required to go off sick from work for a week to enable him/her to give time to reading. This period, again, is supervised by a comrade, different from the one allocated to the previous stage.

6. After Stage 4, Stage 5 is a final period of verification and checking. The contact attends an organisers' school and is seen by a leading comrade for a period.

7. Worker comrades are integrated directly into the cells. For petty bourgeois comrades there is a period of probationary membership, during which they are organised, not in a cell, but in a "circle", comprising probationary members plus one more or less leading comrade. The circle meetings discuss the comrades' contact work much more intensively than do the cell meetings. The objective is that when the “exterior” militants enter the cell they are sufficiently developed not just to sell papers and type leaflets, but to argue politically with the worker comrades (including on factory problems) and to counteract any tendency to economistic narrow-mindedness. It should be noted that it is only after they have been integrated that “exterior” comrades are allowed to attend the meetings at which the bulletins are prepared.

Integration into the organisation — it should be noted – does not necessarily mean an increased political work-load. Perhaps even the contrary.

Some notes on applying these methods in the I-CL, and a few other points

1. Frequency of seeing contacts.

To be strictly avoided is token contact work, seeing the contacts once every so often without any real perspectives or progress.

Once a week is not often enough to see a contact. LO insists on 2 or 3 times a week, and it is not at all unknown for comrades to see contacts, for example, every day directly after work. Evidently the meetings with the contacts can be relatively short.

I have indicated above that the comrade assigned to see a contact is changed at each stage. They may very well be changed during stages, too. At the earlier stages, the choice of allocation will be determined in terms of personal characteristics (e.g. most obviously, don't send an 18-year old comrade to see a 55-year old contact); at the later stages, strictly political criteria become more

2. Documentation.

Detailed records are kept of all contacts: their background, their problems, what they have read, what they have done.... not, of course, under their real names, but under pseudonyms

3. Inside and outside.

It should be stressed again that the detailed classification of "stages" is strictly for internal use. For a contact it is not a series of hurdles to leap, but a series of progressively more advanced proposals for activity, which he can either follow all the way through or refuse beyond a certain point.

4. Outings.

A major feature of LO's contact work, not mentioned in the outline, is outings ("sorties"): to the cinema, to exhibitions, to museums, to concerts, to the countryside.... There are two sorts of outings. The first is outings with fellow workers or students from workplaces or colleges ("sorties rayonnement”). The object is to enable comrades to have a certain periphery even when they are isolated on the strictly political plane. The second sort of outings are designed for militants and organised sympathisers only ("sorties culturelles"). The motive is to give the comrades a broader culture; also, presumably, to tie the organisation together socially to a certain extent, and to stop the comrades becoming people who do nothing but political activity and thus are scarcely able to relate to non-political people.

5. Numbers and times.
Some rough figures can give comrades some qualitative idea of the contact-processing work.
A "section" in LO (in Paris, at least) comprises half-a-dozen or so cells plus a circle. It thus has about 50 members. It will have about 150-500 Stage 1 contacts; 50-75 Stage 2; 40-50 Stage 2bis; 50-75 in Stages 3, 4, or 5; and about 5 comrades in the circle.
From the beginning of Stage 2 to integration should be about 1 year, but it can be much longer. Most. Stage 1 contacts, of course, never become anything else, but, it is not unknown for people who have been Stage 1 for years eventually to decide to progress to Stage 2 and beyond.

6. Circles.

The system of the"'circles" would seem to be inapplicable to us, because of our smaller size and because the LP work cuts across any neat exterior/interior classification of comrades.

7. LP&YS work

Much of the contact-processing system, however, would seem to be even more valuable for us than for LO, because of the way it can integrate with YS work especially. To take contacts along to paper sales is not very politically stimulating (except sometimes with estate sales, when you get more of a chance to discuss). Taking contacts at Stage 2 along to the YS (with us - not just telling them to find
their local YS), can however be very valuable politically, if linked with systematic individual discussion.

The system of outings, too, makes a lot of sense in the context of YS work.

The needs of LP/YS work also require, that at the beginning of Stage 3 the question of what contacts will do about this work (which branch to join, whether they can get delegated from their TU branch, whether to move address to another constituency etc.) be clarified.

8. Discussion

One of LO's objectives is to get their contacts to 'trust’ ("faire confiance à") the organisation. In a certain sense that must be our objective too. But only up to a point. It is vital that comrades do not simply take their ideas on trust.

Thus regular local open meetings (readers' meetings), with all the contacts, are necessary; and contacts of Stage 3 and above should be invited (usually, but not automatically) to the various day schools we organise nationally and regionally.

9. Inside the organisation

We want not only 'devoted and competent' comrades (though those qualities are necessary), but also comrades who can, in the measure of their abilities and opportunities, play a positive role in the political development of the organisation. LO does organise a number of schools for militants inside the organisation, but generally they give much less attention to internal-education than to the
preliminary education of contacts. For us, to extend the 'concentric circles’ in to the organisation is not only necessary in the first place in order to establish them outside the organisation, but also a permanent necessity for comrades' development.

10. Categories of contacts

It seems to me that we would need two extra 'categories' of contacts along-side 2bis: say 2a: contacts in or around other revolutionary organisations who are nevertheless willing to discuss with us seriously and regularly. (If we are not to waste our time, these must be distinguished from who are always ready to discuss with anyone about anything, but never to lift a finger).
2b: well-established LP or TU activists who are too thoroughly left-reformist ever to be possible recruits for us, but who will talk to us, may help us on particular issues, and can give us useful information.
LO does not have these categories: perhaps because their 'profile’ is, more or less deliberately, not sufficiently attractive to the other left groups to acquire people in 2a, and because those people who in Britain will fall into category 2b in France would be in the CP and unwilling to talk to LO.

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