First Published: Class Struggle, Nos. 4-5, Spring-Summer 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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How do communists sum up the role of “local, independent collectives” when the present task of the communist movement is to break with the “local circle mentality” and move forward to the actual construction of a new communist party? The following article by Clay Claiborne, a Black communist working in St. Louis, sums up his experience on this question as a former member of the St. Louis Worker Unity Organization.
While each local group of this type has its own particularities, the political line of the general trend that many of them are part of has many common features: economism, primitiveness, centrism in the struggle against the two superpowers, feminism and the inability to take a correct stand on the Afro-American question. Some individuals and groups are breaking with the line of this trend and uniting with the effort to build the party. Others are fighting to maintain these local circles, and thus are developing as an anti-party opposition bloc. Claiborne exposes the bankruptcy of this latter position and how it leads to revisionism and counter-revolution.
In February I returned to work at the boxcar factory after a month on sick leave, and I immediately had a question of a most interesting nature posed to me. A militant worker who was just starting to develop an interest in Marxism-Leninism demanded that I and my organization arrive at the utmost clarity on the party-building question, and do so with the greatest urgency.
The question was posed in this way: After receiving his first issue of The Call, he returned to me with much excitement. He described the paper in glowing terms. He said it was the real news behind the news. It told all about what was happening around the world and what was really happening in the U.S., how people were struggling against these capitalist conditions and how workers were struggling in other factories the way we were.
This newspaper, he said, was giving him a clear understanding of what communism was all about and how our struggle was part of a world-wide struggle. Gregg talked very excitedly. He thought that if we could get about a thousand of these papers, and sell them all over the plant, we could maybe wake some of these people up and get something started.
During lunch Gregg showed the paper to another worker in our department and he too thought that the paper should receive the widest distribution. Word spread about the newspaper I had, and by quitting time my half dozen copies of The Call were gone. The next day a number of people asked me for copies of the paper they’d seen in a nearby tavern or in the locker room, and had heard they could get from me.
Workers thirst for Marxism-Leninism. It is Marxism-Leninism that speaks to their needs, and it is the communist perspective that can show them a way out of the contradictions of life under capitalism. For years I worked at this factory and called myself a communist without ever really grasping that fact. Even though I approached the work with the “best of intentions” I was unable either to develop the most advanced workers into communists or involve the mass of workers in the fightback. Neither I nor my St. Louis “communist organization,” Worker Unity Organization (WUO), have been able to provide the political guidance necessary for this work to develop, and our local newspaper, On The Line, has been unable to evoke the response that even a single issue of The Call received.
That first experience with The Call showed me that the fundamental principles of Iskra still hold true today. To build a communist party, and a revolutionary workers’ movement, a tool of propaganda and agitation is needed. A newspaper that is lively, topical, and that brings communist politics to the workers is needed. A newspaper that is not merely sold to the workers, but organizes them as well. The question which Gregg put before me that day was whether my concern for the welfare of the masses would mean that my work as an “independent” Marxist-Leninist would come to an end.
The time has come for all Marxist-Leninists to unite. This present period requires us to begin the actual organizational construction of a communist party. The pre-conditions for the building of this party presently exist, and it is necessary for us to seize this excellent situation, and consolidate all Marxist-Leninists into a multinational communist party that can lead the class struggle through the coming period and on to a revolutionary victory.
The present state of the “independent” communist movement is characterized by amateurishness and primitiveness. Many communist forces have generalized their own backwardness and concluded that ”while party building is an immediate task, it is also a protracted one”. These forces have taken few positive steps towards uniting communists, and have contributed little to the party building movement. The Federation of Marxist-Leninist Organizations, of which Worker Unity Organization is a member, is a part of this backwards trend.
In four years WUO has developed from a small collective beginning to develop revolutionary work in the factories and neighborhoods of St. Louis, to a small collective that is solidifying as part of the centrist trend and headed straight for objective unity with the revisionists. Today its mass work can best be described as economist, and its political line as opportunist. After a long period of marking time, it has begun to engage in “party building” by seeking unity with the trend represented by the Hard Times Conference and adopting the “proletarian internationalism” of the CPUSA.
WUO has refused to recognize that while it is wandering thusly, the October League and other Marxist-Leninist forces have taken the lead in party building, the revolutionary mass movement, and in developing the correct application of Marxism-Leninism to the U.S. today. Now the October League has put out a call to all Marxist-Leninists to join in the actual organizational formation of a party. WUO and other collectives like it must make a decision either to join in this effort or they will join a trend objectively opposed to party building.
For my own part, I have made my decision. With a view towards WUO’s past history and its current direction, I have decided to resign from the organization and its executive committee, so that I may do my part both in strengthening the revolutionary movement in St. Louis, and building a new communist party. I am writing this because those I left behind face a similar decision.
WUO was born out of a collective that came together by putting out the St. Louis “working people’s newspaper,” On The Line. In 1971 a number of people who had formerly been involved in a left counter-culture newspaper together with some ex-Vista volunteers decided that if they were really revolutionary (most considered themselves Marxists) they had better start relating to the working class. The way they chose to do this was to produce a newspaper that covered working-class struggles in the city and gave a left perspective to any number of things that interested them. For radicals out of the student and antiwar movement this was certainly a giant step in the right direction but owing to our newness to the struggle, our lack of roots in the working class, and our generally confused understanding of revolutionary theory, OTL, from the beginning, suffered from some very serious problems.
First, OTL’s methods of intervening in the mass struggle was to go to a strike line, demonstration, or whatever, and report on what the workers were doing, and in fact, to glorify the spontaneous nature of the struggle. Due to the staffs practical and theoretical primitiveness we were in no position to give guidance to the struggle and did not try to do so. OTL purported to be a revolutionary newspaper, but in reality it styled itself in the image of its most available example, the bourgeois press. Since in those early days we knew nothing of a newspaper as a revolutionary organizer, our contribution was to “support” workers struggles, and to editorialize on the bankruptcy of capitalism and the need for socialism. For graphics we relied on Liberation News Service, and for news beyond St. Louis, and international news in general, we relied on the “left” press, in particular, the Guardian. Typically OTL would take some local struggle, report on what was happening, give petty and meaningless advice like “more unity” and “more democracy is needed,” and at the end of the article issue a “call.” This “call” whether it be for a “mass anti-repression campaign” or for “workers to take control” was supposed to take the place of giving concrete guidance to the particular struggle. The other thing OTL would do was take an article from the Guardian and “water it down” to the mass level and end by calling for socialism. Needless to say, both of these approaches were a cause for frustrating long articles which revealed a thorough lack of understanding of the nature of propaganda and agitation and the relationship between them.
The paper has never been sold in any significant numbers. At first it was argued that it should be given away so that people would become familiar with it. Now little is said on that question. The real reason why it has not been sold, to speak bluntly, is that it could not be sold because workers find it of little value to them. So instead, 6 to 10 thousand copies of a total of 28 issues, published inconsistently every two months or so, have been given away at factory gates or wherever. (And considerable numbers of them have been left to collect dust in the office. Since very few workers have ever come forward to help distribute the paper, it has been a real chore for a dozen or so people.) From its innocent beginnings about five years ago, OTL has consolidated as the organ of a “communist” organization and reflects that organization’s economist line.
WUO developed directly out of the work around OTL. In the first year of the paper some of us started a study group, and then we decided to get factory jobs. When we felt we had a sufficient understanding of Marxism, we formed an organization and proceeded to develop “the correct line.” Over the years we met other collectives that we felt were very close to “our line,” and with these groups (Sojourner Truth Organization, Harper’s Ferry Organization, Workforce, Overtime, etc.) we formed the Federation. The Federation is WUO’s kind of party building. (Federation of Marxist-Leninist Organizations–the very concept of a “federation” of “Marxist-Leninists” who want to build a party is laughable. Even its name reveals its bankruptcy.) It allows us to pretend at “party building” while maintaining our “independence” from it.
As to the composition of this group, from OTL’s “Who We Are” column we get “Worker Unity Organization’s membership includes industrial, hospital, and clerical workers...” More accurately, it is a group of ex-students and intellectuals of socialist leanings. I point this out because the class background of the people in WUO, with a few exceptions, can quite accurately be characterized as petty-bourgeois. This is important because the character and development of WUO can only be understood by understanding the particular nature of the petty-bourgeois intellectual. (I wish to explain in advance to those I left in WUO this is not a slander. This is not someone, who, having left the organization, now chooses to gloss over political questions and instead engage in name calling, and so has called you petty-bourgeois.) One’s class origins need not be an absolute barrier to revolutionary work. The petty-bourgeois intellectual can certainly become a communist vanguard fighter, but he or she can only do so by recognizing the nature of his or her original class stance and then overcoming it.
Our very first decision, the decision to put out a local newspaper ourselves, reveals the mentality of the handicraftsman, the petty artisan, the small commodity producer. No consideration was given to the idea of distributing or selling any nationally established revolutionary newspapers. The formation of a local Marxist-Leninist collective was a continuation of these same handicraft methods. Again no consideration was seriously-given to joining any of the national communist organizations then in existence. It was assumed, a priori, that we must build our own.
Thus a dozen or so people in St. Louis strived to create, on a strictly local level, all the aspects of a communist organization. We learned all the various skills necessary for putting out a newspaper, built up our own little print shop, developed our own little network of national contacts and connections. And we attempted to develop “our own” political line. This last item, “our own line,” is most important because a local paper, print shop, and office, can be very useful to any communist organization if they are used properly, but there is absolutely no use for a “local” political line of the type engendered by a small organization like WUO.
The place where this “small circle spirit” has been most apparent and most consistently practiced is around the question of party building. One of the founders and a member of the present leadership posed the question this way in one of his early position papers: “My personal opinion is that there is no objective alternative to the active formation by Marxist-Leninists of a vanguard party to provide organizational and ideological leadership for the struggle to come. I also know that this personal commitment I have does not affect my practice on the job or in my community to any great degree.” I assume that the economist nature of this statement is clear now even to its author. What I wish to point out is that for a long time WUO did relegate party building to a question of “personal commitment.” Now that some Marxist-Leninists have begun the actual organizational construction of the party, and party building is all the rage with everyone in the “left,” WUO says that “party building is the central task.” This should not be taken to mean, however, that they are now ready to unite with anyone outside of their own narrow Federation in the building of a party. Quite the contrary, it means that “we must develop a concrete program for party building.” In other words, “party building is the central task” roughly translates to “party building is the new central topic of debate and discussion.” In four years it has gone from a “personal commitment” to a “paper commitment.”
I know many small shop owners that abhor the idea of working for a large corporation, even if they can make more money. They revel in the idea that in their small shop they can “be their own boss.” WUO shares this same outlook. The people in it want to remain in a small group so that they can “be their own boss,” “print their own paper,” “develop their own line” and so-on-and-so-forth.
The attitude of the proletariat to the question of organization is quite different. Their whole life experience under capitalism teaches them that they can only be strong–can only have an effect–as part of a large organization. For the workers, there is no question of remaining long in a small organization; of trying to maintain and build “their own organization,” while chanting “party building is the central task.”
The conclusion that a petty-bourgeois class stand brings one to when applied to mass work is sad indeed. For a number of years I tried to apply “our line” on “building mass independent organizations in the workplace.” (“Our line” is really one of a number of versions of the same old opportunist line that keeps occurring and reoccurring in the working-class movement, which we had particularized and called our own.) This line rejected work within the trade unions and counterposed that with “building dual power on the shop floor.” This strategy sounded quite “revolutionary” but, in reality, it was nothing more than “left” childishness of the dual union approach.
For two years I claimed to be “learning from the workers,” while at the same time trying to build some nebulous independent organization that nobody else had built either. I took this opportunist line to its extreme in a position I held against any communists becoming shop stewards, and my own refusal to become one. This was truly tailing after the workers in a grand manner. Here the workers wanted me, a communist, to be a shop steward. They recognized the leading role that should be played by the conscious element, and here I refused to take that leading role.
My “revolutionary” work was reduced to agitation against individual foremen and supervisors. So narrow was my work that I rarely organized around things that were outside my department, let alone, outside my plant, or in society as a whole. I used the excuse of starting “where people are at” to justify my tailist approach. Needless to say this approach led to no workers’ organization being formed, or even the consolidation of a stable core of militants. I went month-on-month at times “wishing” something would happen that I could organize around, when everyday there were thousands of things happening both inside and outside the plant that were material for effective propaganda and agitation.
Now that I’ve broadened the scope of my work I find that the workers are interested in all political questions. Now that I am confident enough to put forward concrete plans of organizing activity, I find workers who are interested in taking up those ideas; improving them through collective discussion, and implementing them. I’ve found that the workers aren’t interested only, or even mainly, in organizing around shop problems. And on the shop steward question? Now that I wear the badge I’ve discovered that it doesn’t affect the content of my politics, but it does give me more freedom to disseminate them.
My original approach to factory workers was that of an ex-student who gazed in awe at the working class. I would latch on to any progressive sounding thing that a worker might say and immediately agree with it. I would try to say something similar, and maybe tie it up to the whole question of the overthrow of capitalism. I would most certainly respond to any situation that came down in the shop, but could never quite succeed at producing new situations, or even new solutions to old situations.
This approach to the working-class movement is not new. It was not an invention of mine, or of WUO. It is as old as the working-class movement itself. It is known as “bowing to spontaneity.” It is economism. This economism in our mass work necessarily leads to a situation where we are “all in a hurry and going no place.” It meant that we judged our work to be mainly lacking in quantity when it was mainly lacking in quality. As a result we pushed ourselves to go to more meetings, write more leaflets and plan more actions. We relied on increasing our own energies because we failed to understand the incredible energies the masses can unleash when we carry out the work in a revolutionary manner.
Economism leads to failure to combat all forms of opportunism. For the men in WUO it meant a pretty thorough failure to struggle against male chauvinism. Any man who tails after the men he is working with will find the “easier path” that of collaboration with locker room jokes and Monday morning stories, and he will thus not avail himself of the opportunity to criticize bourgeois ideology in one of the places where it is most insidious and closest to home. Tailing after the workers also leads to white chauvinist errors, and in the case of the WUO these errors have been raised to the level of political line.
This “white skin privilege line” is what ties the different groups in the Federation together. They hold to it dearly because it is the one thing that makes them “unique” enough to be a “tendency” and it is the main thing they are talking about when they refer to “our line,” “our tendency,” etc.
For most of the four years of the WUO’s existence, I was the only Black member of the organization. I developed my understanding of Marxism-Leninism in the struggle against its racist line and chauvinist practices. The struggle against white chauvinism and national oppression both within and outside of WUO forced me to go deeper into the masses of Black people and the masses of workers, both Black and white, so that I might have strength to “go against the tide.”
This, in summary, is why I was able to break with WUO, its opportunism and its small circle mentality. The Federation I left is now lily-white, and yet it manages to go on thinking that it has something to offer the workers’ movement in the struggle against white supremacy only because of its complacency with regards to the two line struggle and because of its petty-bourgeois self-importance.
(Partly as a result of the struggle I waged within WUO, it now maintains that it has a different version of the “white skin privilege line.” This “new” “improved” model is in fact the same old chauvinist line in a new dressing.)
This would be the rallying cry, the mass slogan of WUO and the whole Federation if they ever tried to put what they refer to as “our line on white supremacy” into practice. The reader may not be aware of this obscure and chauvinist line. I will supply a sampling of its latest product. From a leaflet passed out at the Hard Times Conference by Sojourner Truth Organization we have;
In the United States today it does us no good to claim that Black and white should unite because ’We’re all in the same boat.’ We are not in the same boat; if we were, then we would not have to tell white workers to unite with Black workers–they would have done so already, before the ink had dried on our leaflets. The gap exists because white workers are not willing to cast off their white skin privileges.
This quote so clearly expresses the essence of the “white skin privilege line” that little need be said to critique it. It is a line that is against the unity of Black and white workers. It is a line that blames the white worker for racism and defends the bourgeoisie. It liquidates the national question, and in fact, unites with the racism of the most backward white workers on the one hand, and the narrow nationalism of the most backward Black people on the other. This line, the Federation claims, is a Leninist position when in fact it is the most vulgar insult to Marxism-Leninism. It is simply the product of a petty-bourgeois “leftist” who, instead of combatting his or her white chauvinism, simply incorporates it into a “left” disguise.
This last point on my own development is important because it is in the struggle against opportunism that Marxist-Leninists are steeled for the struggle against the bourgeoisie. On the whole, this struggle has seen little development in WUO, and although anti-revisionism is now the vogue, and although WUO considers itself an ”anti-revisionist” organization, it has never taken up the struggle against revisionism.
From its very beginning WUO has shown a willingness to conciliate with its own petty-bourgeois tendencies. It developed its political program based on what it wanted to do and how it saw itself, rather than on the needs of the masses and the objective possibilities of the period. The leadership’s focus on their own self-importance led them to the writing of many long, but empty, papers, and the throwing of shallow polemics across the organization. The organization became well read and could quote Marx or Lenin at the drop of a phrase. But they did not know what they were saying, and more importantly they did not know how to apply what they were saying.
White chauvinism abounds in the organization, and male chauvinism runs rampant over women and encourages a feminist outlook in them. Bureaucratic methods of work became the order of the day. Democratic centralism was never practiced, but its pretender was used for manipulation and suppression of struggle, and unity became a Utopian ideal. Up until this last year the whole question of revisionism and its relationship to the working-class movement has seen little discussion in WUO (it has been consistently side-stepped), and when it was raised, many people pleaded “confusion” and “lack of information” to cover their opportunist stand. The sad legacy of all this is that there are five people who had either joined, or thought of joining WUO, that since have joined or are in the process of joining the CPUSA. This fact, which WUO is shamefaced to admit, is nothing more than a prelude to the fate of the whole organization if they continue on their present course.
Since its birth, Marxism has engaged in a fierce struggle against bourgeois ideas in “left” disguise. Marx and Engels had to develop the concept of scientific socialism in the struggle against Proudhon and Duhring, and all the Utopian socialists. The Bolsheviks were steeled through the struggle against the opportunists of the Second International, and even today the struggle against revisionism goes on within the Chinese Communist Party. The bourgeoisie has attacked, and will continue to attack Marxism, not only through the outright slander of anti-communism, but also, and this is the greater danger, by trying to peddle off its old and decadent world view as Marxism.
Therefore it is not surprising that in this age when revisionism has gained state power in the first workers’ republic, and has turned the Soviet Union into an imperialist superpower, that the struggle be raised to an even higher level, and that in the U.S., where Marxism-Leninism is just renewing itself as a material force in the working class, that the struggle with revisionism should be a question over which the honest forces divide from the opportunists.
Some on the “left” see revisionism as a contradictory phenomenon, when there is no contradiction in it at all. The difference between bourgeois doctrine and revisionism is the difference between the wolf, and the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. The struggle between Marxism-Leninism and revisionism is a struggle between revolution and counter-revolution. All of this should be very clear in light of the last hundred years of revolutionary struggle and ideological development, and I would not feel called upon to go into such fundamentals, except that a number of groups, and in fact a whole trend, has emerged that stands in the center of this dispute between the revisionists and the Marxist-Leninists and calls for unity. These “centrists” claim that the CPUSA and the Soviet Union have a dual character and cannot be totally abandoned, while they accuse the Marxist-Leninists of being “ultra-left” and “sectarian.” The true nature of centrists such as the Guardian, PSP, and Worker’s Viewpoint, as buffers and defenders of the revisionists, is becoming clearer every day.
But not to WUO. They still plead “confusion” and a “need to study the question.” Yet without any study of the question, without any understanding of the international split in the communist movement, they have arrived at a “unique” position on the nature of the Soviet Union. They have declared that in the Soviet Union the working class no longer holds state power, but that it is not capitalist, and is, in fact, practising “proletarian internationalism” in places like Angola.
How did they come to this conclusion? It is really quite simple–they read it in the Guardian. This is certainly a “confused” position. When they are asked just what sort of state exists in the Soviet Union that neither the working class nor the bourgeoisie holds power, they have no answer. “We are still studying the question.”
Here again they mimic the Guardian, which published 28 articles by Martin Nicolaus proving that the Soviet Union is capitalist, yet above each article they placed a note stating that they did not believe capitalism had been restored. Nor did they, nor could they, show how the Guardian had arrived at its conclusion.
This is the true nature of WUO’s much vaunted “independence.” They imagine themselves to be independent of other organizations in the working-class movement, much as the petty bourgeoisie imagines itself to be independent of the struggle between the two great classes of capitalism. But like the petty bourgeoisie, WUO cannot forever remain a vacillating and “confused” element in the middle of the dispute between the proletarian and bourgeois line–it must serve one or the other.
Already WUO has taken a stand in their position on the Soviet Union. That this position was ill-developed, without much thought or consideration, does not excuse it. WUO thinks lightly of the matter because they believe that the position a group takes on, say, Angola, is a matter for parlor discussion and posturing, and quite removed from the present realities of the class struggle. If they persist in this sad aspect of their narrow outlook, it will soon land them in deep trouble.
The struggle between the two imperialist superpowers is one of the main contradictions in the world today. It is maturing at a rapid pace and will give birth to a new world war. Those who beg “confusion” on the question, along with those who support the Soviet Union, will find themselves playing a most reactionary role.
WUO has been in an outrage that the OL has even called for unity of Marxist-Leninists and concrete steps towards building a new communist party. Not only have several members stated categorically that they disagree with almost every aspect of the OL’s line, but they also have taken the position, as an organization, that the OL is “consolidated around an incorrect line.” As to the call to build a party itself, they have found it to be “sectarian,” and the seven points around which to build unity “wholly inadequate.”
WUO is extremely troubled that anyone should take party building seriously enough to try to form one. They assure themselves that this call to build a party, this talk of unity conferences and program drafts, merely means that the October League is changing its name like the RCP and CLP before it. WUO “knows” that it’s not time to form a party because it’s not ready yet.
They are willing to ignore the needs of the masses. They like to pretend that a world war will never happen again and that this present stage of U.S. bourgeois democracy is an unending one. And they wish to ignore the fact that the broad outlines of a revolutionary line have already been developed for this period. They are unwilling to quit their small-circle ways, and join the Marxist-Leninists in the construction of a new communist party.
The task which the October League puts before the WUO is, in fact, a task which history now puts before it. It is necessary for all Marxist-Leninists to unite to build a new communist party. A firm line of demarcation has already been drawn between the Marxist-Leninists and the opportunists. WUO, and everyone in it, must decide which side of that line he or she is on.
I have left WUO because I saw that it no longer fit my role as a revolutionary to remain in an all-white group characterized by economism, opportunism, white chauvinism, and the “narrow-circle spirit.”
As this party building period draws to a close, certain tendencies turn into their opposite. Groups that were, in general, progressive in character, turn reactionary. Primitiveness that was once a necessary step in organizational development becomes a positive barrier to that development. Tendencies that support the need for a party, but in words only, become objectively anti-party. WUO stands at the crossroads.