Old Left Orthodoxy – Impediment to Revolutionary Progress?


First Published: Ad Hoc Bulletin (Marxist-Leninist), Vol. 7, No. 1, February 1969
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Ad Hoc Bulletin (Marxist-Leninist) Introduction: In December, two members affiliated with the youth section of the Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party, USA attended the SDS National Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They gave their views of the Conference in the form of a report to the Executive Committee which was later incorporated into the article below.

The Ad Hoc Committee For a Marxist-Leninist Party, USA, in printing the article without critical comment, is not to be construed as having given full endorsement to the positions taken and the issues raised in the paper. Sharp debate continues within the Executive Committee and between the Exec and the Youth Section. We have found many areas of agreement and discussions continue on many knotty problems. Agreement and disagreement, however, are not the important issues here. The important thing is that discussion and debate on these issues which have been long overdue are now underway.


“The Student Movement is part of the whole people’s movement. The Movement will inevitably promote an upsurge of the whole people’s movement.”
MAO TSE-TUNG.

The New Left in general and the SDS in particular are at present undergoing the process of politicalization. The SDS is moving away from a program which embraced obscure and ill-defined objectives toward more concrete programs and policies which lie beyond the narrow confines of student politics and campus confrontations. Increasing numbers, both leadership and membership, are coming to the realization that campus political actions without regard to overall class relationships will fall short of transforming the system of monopoly-capitalism to a more humane system which serves the interests of all the people.

The source of this awakening lies primarily in the heightening of actions across the country in the last two years. Actions which were not without success in involving thousands of new adherents to the Movement in the fight against war, racism and the oppressiveness of the system. But the war goes on, racism has not diminished, the state apparatus remains in the control of monopoly, the military, big Labor, the universities, the courts and the police. The people are still oppressed.

Monopoly is still in command. The people are still apathetic, unawakened and collectively weak. Out of our actions, with the attendant frustrations and awareness of limitations, arose the need for a reassessment – the need to take a hard look at our aims, our directions, the scope of activities of the student struggles, a concern with ideology and correct methods to put theories to practice. With this new level of development there has arisen sharp internal struggles in SDS which are moving away from the healthy atmosphere of ideological debate toward a crippling factionalism which threatens to paralyze the organization. This was the setting at the December conference of SDS.

In this joint essay, an attempt is made to address ourselves to some problems of the Student Movement as it relates to the politics of the New Left and the Old Left. Because we do not have answers to the problems facing revolutionary youth, this essay will raise questions, perhaps provide no solution, although, we will add our comments. It is hoped that this paper will stimulate discussions within the left, New or Old, and will lead to positive ideological discussions and away from irrational factionalism which has already disrupted many SDS chapters around the country. While the roots of the factional dispute pre-date the latest Ann Arbor Conference, for the purpose of this paper we will present some of the problems there as a starting point.

The Hang-up at the Ann Arbor (December) National Conference

The factional struggle which left the SDS divided at Ann Arbor was centered on a number of issues which find roots in a central question: Is the organized working class a revolutionary force in contemporary American society? To be sure this root question was not met head-on, but it remained the basis for the divisions around the discussions of other issues, i.e., 1) the strategy of SDS in forming a Student-Worker alliance; 2) the revolutionary potential of black nationalism; 3) the lessons of the Cuban revolution and their relevancy to the struggles in this country; 4) the value of coalition politics on specific issues.

The opposing groups in the continuing factional tight are two: on the one side are forces aligned with the Klonsky-Dohrn national leadership; on the other are the PLP forces and their allies. In terms of Old Left ideology and political perspective, the PL forces are by far the most advanced. In fact, revolutionary political understanding is not widely understood among the general membership in SDS and the inability of many to articulate a political point of view in opposition to PLP’s forces added a pathetic atmosphere to the ”debates” and is a reason for political discussion degenerating into factionalism based too often on pure subjectivism. This fact points up a basic weakness in SDS – the lack of political education to counter the pressures to move out into struggles beyond the campus without political preparation.

On Student-Worker Alliance

Under pressures of the PL forces, Klonsky submitted a resolution, “Toward a Revolutionary Youth Movement” which sets forth a program for building a new youth movement as well as a program for action. This resolution carried by a slim majority over the counter-resolution proposed by PL forces called SLAP (Student-Labor Action Project).

The main weakness of the Klonsky resolution is that it attempts to touch too many bases at once without really answering a question of vital importance to most members of SDS. Will SDS remain a student organization oriented toward a future alliance with labor, or is it to become an increasingly working class dominated youth organization and lose its student character? It also fails to define the new class forces in United States society.

The SLAP proposal of PL places the main emphasis on a mechanical approach to building student-labor alliances by calling for direct actions by students in support of workers struggles, mainly for narrow economic gains in a condescending and patronizing manner. To many serious SDSers, the SLAP proposal would have the effect of subjugating the Student Movement to the economic battles of particular trade unions without consideration to the broad interests of the workers or the people in general who also feel the oppression of the system. Many also feel that organized labor is a part of the System which in many areas has become an oppressor of its own class. (More on this later.)

On the Question of Black Nationalism

The PL line on Black Liberation is to throw the Black workers and students into the same bag with the White workers. To view the oppression of the Blacks in the same context as that of the whites poses an obstacle to the building of future alliances with Black Students and other Black revolutionaries and blunts the revolutionary nationalism of the Black people. Those opposed to PL on Black nationalism see the fight for Black liberation as a very special struggle, quite different and apart, at this stage, from the struggles of White America. It is a special question and must of necessity take on special forms of struggle. While PL sees a danger in the nationalist aspects of the Black Movement, those opposing the PL position see in Black nationalism very positive aspects in the revolutionary process. PL fails to see the distinction between positive and negative nationalism which was long ago clarified by both Lenin and Stalin and which we believe holds true today.

In spite of the fact that the Black population is almost a total working class population their movement identities more with Third World nationalism than with the workers struggles of White America. Their struggle at this stage is an anti-colonial struggle. Why? Because Black oppression in US society is not merely economic, it is total oppression. One of the main props of capitalism is racism which is sanctified by law and custom of capitalist society. To fully understand the de-humanizing aspects of capitalist spawned racism which strives to keep every Black man in the status of -boy” requires more than a little effort and soul searching on the part of Whites. This type of oppression is understood by far too few in the Old Left and the New, and to ignore the differences in the nature of Black and White oppression can inflict great harm to the revolutionary movement in this country.

A starting place for the White student in the struggle for Black liberation is to fight racism on campus and in the white communities. To be a part of the light for Black liberation does not demand, at this stage, organizational unity. Let us dispel the confusion generated by Old Left concepts that unity of purpose demands organization and ideological unity in all instances and at every stage of struggle.

On Coalition Politics

The question of coalition politics was debated around the proposal of SDS joining the National Mobilization Committee’s demonstration around the Nixon inaugural in Washington, January 19-20th. PL opposed this plan for a number of reasons: MOBE was basically an arm of the Democratic Party; SDS should not join MOBE on the specific actions around the Vietnam war, but do their own thing at Washington which would be a broader, anti-imperialist action to raise issues not merely to end the war but to expose its imperialist character; they also raised criticism against MOBE’s confrontation tactics. PL was able to muster enough votes to defeat the proposal to join MOBE. When another proposal was offered for SDS to organize a separate action at the inaugural to reinforce MOBE’s planned action. PL maneuvered a Black Caucus group into opposing this proposal on the flimsy grounds that it would touch off repressive police actions against the Black population in Washington. This proposal was also defeated.

A basic weakness of the PL position was exposed by their opposition to SDS action at the inaugural. They were opposed to a unity of action with MOBE, and they opposed an independent action by SDS. They are hung up on the syndrome of “no union, no participation.” They adhere to an ideological “purity” which weakens their ability to deal with broad multi-class groups. They are the carriers of Old Left methods and ideology into the mainstream of the radical student movement, and they are polluting the stream with a narrow, dogmatic approach which has a history of almost total failure during the past twenty-five years. We can agree with PL of the need for a working-class ideology to guide revolutionary actions, but this becomes a necessity during advanced stages of struggle when proletarian ideology and revolutionary methods which have been tested must take command to protect revolutionary gains. We are a long way from that stage at the present time. This is a time of building, a time to expose the oppressive features of the system, a time to arouse the youth and, yes, the adults, too, a time to awaken the masses to get them in motion ” and involved in struggle.

Many students, even those opposed to PL on many issues believe that PL’s political astuteness brings a plus factor to the Student Movement, but, at the same time, their dogmatic approach cancels out and negates much of the politicalization which they inject into the Movement.

We take the position that SDS must reach other youth – students, workers, professionals – and to be overly selective in our approach will harm the movement. It is true as PL argues that to be anti-war is not the same as being committed to revolutionary struggle. It is necessary to look beyond the war and analyze its underlying class cause. To be anti-war is not necessarily to be anti-system, but opposition to the war cannot be construed as pro-system. If SDS misses opportunities to rap with other groups then we miss opportunities to win youth outside SDS to an anti-imperialist position.

The opposition to the confrontation tactics of MOBE by PL is an issue which needs to be studied and explored as to its relevancy in the immediate struggles ahead. During the past year some lessons have been learned from involvement in confrontation politics which have been staged without serious regard to political aims, relative strength of forces, the question of allies, or even immediate objectives. PL opposition to the Washington action either with MOBE or independent of MOBE left many at the conference disappointed. They see the Vietnam war as an imperialist war, therefore a highly political question which affects the vast majority of people in this country. They believe confrontation tactics around the war issue, if planned properly, could involve many people and win them to higher, anti-imperialist struggles.

Cuba and the Klonsky Crowd

Before leaving the subject of the Ann Arbor hang-up, a few words on Cuba and Klonsky. Klonsky and some of his followers pay lip-service to the concept that the working class (in the narrow old left definition of that class) is a potential revolutionary force in this country, but they also see in the Cuban revolutionary experience important lessons for revolution at home. While the PL line on the working class is much too narrow, Klonsky and his group are hung-up on the “student as a class concept” an elitism which places students and intellectuals in the special role of vanguard in making the revolution while belittling the role of the broad masses. This concept stems from Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution which was not offered as a blueprint for revolution in the advanced industrial society, but for the peculiar conditions in Latin America. But Klonsky is afflicted with a touch of bourgeois romanticism and his defense of Cuba even goes to the absurd extreme of upholding the Castro position of support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In his view there is no difference between the Hungarian and Czech invasions!!!

The PL position on Cuba is that the whole thing is bad. They claim that Cuba is taking a revisionist line, away from socialism and toward capitalism, because Cuba accepts financial aid from the Soviets. This is in line with their position on the North Vietnamese in their struggle against US imperialism. They claim that the Vietnamese revolution has been corrupted because of Soviet military aid. They fail to understand the stuff of which a Third World revolution is made – a blending of nationalism and proletarian ideology – and it seems to us that to PL, anti-imperialist revolution which did not have its origins in a union business meeting is not worthy of consideration.

Much of the debate on the above issues, as we mentioned earlier, never touched on the main issue, i.e., ”The relevancy of the organized working class in contemporary American society as a revolutionary force.” The discussions only touched on the periphery of this basic gut issue, the reasons being that the majority of those present lacks the political development to discuss this vital question which is the main source of allienation between the New Left and the Old Left. This condition calls for a massive educational program in SDS on revolutionary theory and practice.

Along this line we offer some comments.

Class and Society

The society of advance capitalism is complex and does not lend itself to simple analysis. The education and scientific explosions of the last half-century have drastically altered social and productive relationships of the old capitalist society.

Marxian theory holds that the class structure of society is reflective of the productive relationships of that society. We believe this to be true today as it was in the time of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. However, capitalism in the United States has advanced beyond the primitive capitalism of Marx and the intermediate capitalism of Lenin.

The application of science to technology has placed science into the direct productive process and has created conditions whereby the intelligencia has become involved directly in a productive capacity. At the same time, labor at the point of production has been greatly reduced and increasing number of workers find themselves serving an economic function which is indirectly related to production in the fields of distribution, administration and services. Social conditions and class relationships cannot and have not escaped this change in the fundamental productive relationships in the modern capitalist society.

Let us take a look at the changes in the area of education. In 1000 about 5% of the youth of this country entered college. Today this figure stands at about half or a little more. Fifty years ago (or even twenty-five) the college student was ruling class oriented by birth and by his future role and position in society. Today the vast majority of the nearly 7 million college students are from non-ruling class backgrounds. The force of history has produced a new setting and new conditions for the revolutionary processes to unfold. What is lacking is new interpretation, new analyses, to liberate the new social forces from the crippling effects of dogmatism. But the sad fact is that the left forces in the advanced capitalist countries have not produced revolutionary theories, tactics and strategy to halt the advances of monopoly. The Old Left concept, policies and programs will not suffice, and neither will New Left emphasis on ”action” without political consideration which in the past has been the main bag of the Movement. The Old Left has been co-opted by the system by it almost total immersion into the “politics” of trade unionism without consideration of the differences of the narrow, self-interest motivated trade unionism of today and the progressive unionism of the 1930’s which fought for the broad interests of the workers. Has anyone heard George Meany call for doubling social security benefits across the board? Has anyone heard him call for free medical care for workers across the board? Does he or any among the big labor tycoons give a damn for the welfare of the vegetable picker of the Southwest or the millions of workers in menial jobs who are existing on a starvation wage? Have they ever called a strike in opposition to US war, exploitation and plunder against people overseas? Any honest person would have to answer these questions in the negative. Yet the Old Left – the CPUSA and the PLP – would have you believe that to join in struggles of trade unions – struggles which are for the interest of the particular trade union without regard to the interests of other workers or the people, is the proper place to begin the revolutionary process.

We believe that such concepts are completely out of step with today’s realities, as are the concepts of the “Youth Cult”, the “do your own thing” bit and the prevailing hostility toward a scientific approach to society among many young activists.

In consideration of any serious approach to defeat the system, the new revolutionary must understand that the United States of 1970 is not the Russia of 1917, nor China of the 1940’s, nor Cuba of the 1950’s nor Vietnam of the 1960’s. But we must keep in mind that every country in the world has its own particular history, its own development. To attempt to bind a particular country, to revolutionary theories, tactics and strategy which served the needs of another country in another historical setting is to abort the revolution before it gets off the ground. While we must be on guard against all tendencies which would place our fight into rigid patterns of past experience, we must learn from past experiences and modify them to fit our particular conditions.

There is the need for new definitions which corresponds with new conditions. Many questions need to be raised: Are there class antagonisms in our society? What constitutes the working class? Are there sub-working classes which are oppressed by other workers? Is there a new capitalism which is able to nullify its own inherent contradictions? Has the age of advanced imperialism moved the class struggle away from the national setting into an international arena? What part does habit and custom play as mollifiers which soften or negate class contradictions? What is the role of the Black Americans in the revolutionary process? What is the role of students? Are the Leninist forms of organization, democratic centralism, criticism and pelf-criticism the vanguard party, etc., valid for the revolutionary party in this country at this stage?

The question of organizational discipline needs to be raised as it relates to tactics. In SDS the PL forces would place every chapter under a uniform and rigid organizational structure which would serve Old Left ideology and tactics. This country is a large country. Its people are numerous and heterogeneous. Its territory vast and varying. At this stage of struggle, how could a Central Committee devise tactics with sufficient flexibility to meet the special conditions of Harlem, Appalachia, the Mexican-American communities of the South-west and the large city, the campuses, the Army, rural communities, the White ghettos? A common sense approach to these varying conditions would dictate the development of a whole array of tactics to meet the special conditions of a particular area. Areas with differences in geography, as well as cultural, class, ethnic and racial differences are subjected to varying degrees of oppression which directly affect the militancy and commitment to struggle of the people involved.

Because of these differences the task of building a national unified Party under the strict discipline of a National Collective is extremely ambitious and monumental. We have not reached a stage at this time where such an organization can be molded into a revolutionary force. Much in the way of political awakening lies ahead.

Before considering the special role for youth, first we should touch briefly on some of the issues raised above. Modern capitalist society is a class structured society and out of its complexities new social forces are emerging. These need to be analyzed and defined. These class contradictions which exist today are not just those which exist between the boss and the worker, nor are they solely economic in character. Primitive capitalism has emerged into advanced capitalism-imperialism. It has been able to produce a superstructure which encompasses not only the owners of the productive process, but the financier, the institutions of the state, i.e. military, courts, police, and they have brought within their system non-state institutions such as the big unions and the private university. This ruling class and the institutions they control have co-opted many workers within their system with bribes wrought from super profits earned off the lower working strata at home and the colonial peoples abroad.

The technology of modern capitalism has also produced a whole new social force which does not “produce” in the classical Marxist sense. They are highly skilled production technicians, administrators, service people, teachers, social workers, etc. These people are generally well paid but unorganized and they form a part of the working class. This group usually enters the work force via the university which is designed to condition youth to fit into the capitalist norms of society. From among this strata can be found politically sensitive people who are becoming aroused and awakened to the oppressive features of monopoly-capitalism.

At the opposite end of the labor force in this country are those who are underemployed, who work for minimum wage or less, who pay a high proportionate rate of taxes, and whose sons are sent to Vietnam in the service of the ruling class. These people are unorganized and feel most keenly the economic repression of the ruling class. In this group there may be as many as thirty million.

There is another large working class force in this country – the organized worker whose income usually equals and often surpasses that of the top working class strata. He is often insensitive to anything which does not affect him materially and few among this group are politically motivated except in a blind adherence to anticommunism. They offer the least potential at this stage to the class struggle.

It is this group which is catered to by the old left as the primary force for revolutionary change. The revolutionary youth organization must take a radically different view. We must reject the old left myth that the co-opted, organized worker constitutes the main force for revolutionary change. We must pay special attention to the first two strata or subclasses referred to above. And while we are on the subject, there is the need to stress not only the present class contradictions, but the hangovers of capitalist-induced attitudes of the past – the lingering habits, customs, and rituals of two centuries of capitalism which are obstacles to class awakening. This is in line with one of the goals of the cultural revolution which met with success in advancing socialism in the People’s Republic of China.

What Role for the Radical Student Organization?

The role of a radical student organization in the class struggle can do much to expose and defeat the ruling oligarchy in this country. A place to start is in the environment of the student – the university. The Radical Student Movement with proper organization and perspectives has the potential to force the universities (and the High Schools) to break with the traditional role of serving the superstructure of monopoly-capitalism, i.e. “educating” youths to conform to the social norms and values of capitalist society.

The students have the potential to reform the educational system and in the process of the struggles our fight can be an inspiration to other oppressed sectors of American society.

This is the area where youth can make a breakthrough by arousing others to join in the struggle on different fronts and in different areas of the country, including all sectors of the working class but especially the first two sectors mentioned above.

Before the revolutionary student attempts the task of direct large-scale organizing efforts outside his own environment, it will be well to consider the unfulfilled task of organizing students on campuses throughout the country.

There are about seven million students enrolled in some two thousand institutions of higher learning in this country. The vast majority of these institutions lack at this time effective radical left student movements.

Of the total enrollment in colleges today, the vast majority come from working class families (the middle-class in America is rapidly disappearing and the working class is growing larger). The campus radical organizations is the place where large numbers of students from working class backgrounds can become educated toward a revolutionary class outlook and involved in struggle which can transform the colleges from institutions of repression into institutions which serves the people.

Struggles on campus can be initiated around a number of issues which can be broadened as the straggles unfolds and the Movement grows stronger both in numbers and in political awareness. Organized radical students can fight against racism, against war and exploitation of the people of the old colonial world, against exploitation and oppression of the peoples at home. It can transform the university into an institution which serves the total community. It can demand and fight for unlimited admissions of youth, both Black and White, from the lower income and poverty families for full educational benefits at no cost to the student.

It can also reach beyond the campus into the communities to fight for better jobs and living conditions, and welfare programs of the poverty stricken. It can make alliances with other radical groups and fight around issues which affect the broad masses – tax reforms to benefit the masses; against the crippling military budgets, against the deployment of the ABM system, and others.

But the struggle does not end at the university. Millions of students can become educated toward a revolutionary class outlook while involved in struggles in and around the campus. And when they leave, they will become the carriers of revolutionary experiences into their places of work and the communities in which they live. Students can become a powerful force for revolutionary change after graduation when they are thrust into the guts of the system. SDS should not overlook this potential for the radical student movement.

The impact of the Student Movement has already been felt in American Society. The combined struggle of the Black Liberation Forces and the Student Movement has posed problems for the ruling class and it is becoming less potent to deal with its internal contradictions in some areas, and is losing respect among increasing numbers of people. What is also important is that these struggles have served to support and reinforce the armed struggles of the Vietnamese people in their fight against the U.S. imperialist domination of their homeland. In these struggles it can be said that the radical student served not the narrow interest of the students but the interest of the broad masses at home and the revolutionary peoples abroad.

The Student Movement is one of the two most important things to hit the American scene in a quarter of a century. The other being the Black Liberation Movement. We have stimulated discussions on and actions against the sham values of American society. We have prodded and we are beginning to awaken a drowsy, smug, bourgeois consciousness which permeated the entire society. The New Left and the Black Liberation Forces have done more in 5 years to arouse America than the Old Left has done in twenty-five years.

We do not believe that it would serve the interest of the students or the broad masses to tie the studentís movement today to the struggles of organized labor as the SLAP proposal of PLP would do. We repeat the quotation from Chairman Mao found in the beginning of this paper: “The Students Movement is part of the whole People’s Movement. The upsurge of the Student Movement will inevitably promote an upsurge of the whole People’s Movement.” This is the challenge for SDS.