Published: The Communist, Vol. IV, No. 12, September 11, 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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What our friends on the East Coast take up in the following article are deviations by national communist organizations from the norms of Marxist-Leninist standards of criticism, self-criticism. It is an excellent example of the contribution a local collective can make to the nationwide development of our movement. National organizations sometimes suppose that errors made in work go unnoticed or encourage the passivity of comrades engaged in local work in the face of errors or think that the views of local collectives are unimportant. But Mao says this attitude is bound to fail:
Shirking responsibility, fearing to shoulder it and forbidding people to speak out as if one were a tiger whose backside no one dares touch–ten out of ten who adopt this attitude will fail. People always speak out sooner or later. You think that people really won’t dare to touch the backsides of tigers like you? They bloody well will!
We have fought to make THE COMMUNIST a newspaper modeled after Lenin’s ISKRA which local collectives can use in order to participate actively in the affairs of the national communist movement. Through the pages of such a newspaper a local collective in the Southwest, for example, shares common experience, views and activity with a local collective on the Eastern Seaboard. In one instance, local or national events are the subject of political exposure; in another, like this one, burning questions in the communist movement are taken up. Common activity can unfold and common tasks and goals be developed in a step by step way. In so doing we foster mutual links, gather resources around a common center and provide a framework for our struggle to unite.
The criticisms raised of the WORKERS CONGRESS (MARXIST-LENINIST) in the article are justified; it is over 18 months since our retraction of the criticism of the October League’s views on regional autonomy for the Southwest, yet we have not spoken again to the question as we had promised We have not explained our errors or said what was correct or incorrect in our discussion. This was caused by our failure to plan in an effective way to carry out the task or to take the necessary organizational steps to ensure that it was carried out. It was an example of amateurishness in the organization of work. We took on publicly the responsibility to speak to this question, and then took no steps to follow through. Regardless of our intentions, this reflects a tendency to belittle the national question in the Southwest.
What was correct in our discussion of regional autonomy in the December 26, 1976 issue of THE COMMUNIST was to show that regional autonomy can be applied to a nation. What was incorrect was to conclude that regional autonomy could only apply to a nation. We said:
They (OL) say that regional autonomy is a solution for the national question for national minorities. But according to the principles developed by the Bolshevik Party, regional autonomy, like political secession, is the political choice of a definite people on a definite territory which constitutes a nation. It is a solution for the national question for a nation that does not want to secede but chooses to remain within the framework of a multinational state. It is not the solution for the national question for a national minority. In other words, in order to call for regional autonomy, OL must adopt the position that Chicano people in the Southwest constitute a nation. This however they refuse to do.
A more thorough study of Marxism-Leninism showed us that this position was dogmatic. Regional autonomy, according to Lenin and Stalin, can apply whenever a region is distinct because of its economic and social conditions and the national composition of its population. It is not necessary that the criteria for the existence of a nation be met.
For example, throughout the Southwest there are areas where a majority of the population is of Mexican background. Even if these areas do not fall within the boundaries of territory which would constitute a nation, regional autonomy could apply where the region is economically and socially distinct. The San Joaquin Valley in California, including the cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, for example, might constitute such a region, or the Imperial Valley in Southern California.
Because of the way we had presented the question, we could not have applied regional autonomy in such situations.
Unfortunately, in order to respond fully to the criticism of our retraction and to fully develop our views of CPML’s and other communist organizations’ position on regional autonomy for the Southwest, we need to complete our view of the National Question in the Southwest and speak to this matter publicly. Our full rectification will have to wait until we are able to put forward clearly our position on this question.
Our columns are open to other communist organizations named in the criticism here to respond to the criticism made of their work.
* * *
The use of criticism-self-criticism is widely recognized in the Marxist-Leninist movement as a tool that is vital to improving our work. Two and a half years ago THE COMMUNIST published an excellent article on Communist Criticism (Vol.II no.6, Feb.23, 1976), explaining its importance, its use and misuse, and calling attention to Lenin’s words: The attitude of a political party to its mistakes is one of the most important and surest criteria of the seriousness of the party and of its fulfillment in practice of its obligations to its class and the masses of working people. Openly to admit error, to reveal its causes, to analyse the situation that gave rise to it, attentively to discuss the means of correcting the error – this is the sign of a serious Party, this is the fulfillment by it of its obligations, this is training and educating the class and then the masses.
While many groups in theory extol the process of criticism-self-criticism, in practice our movement has been plagued by serious misuse of this process. It is essential to improve our practice of criticism, to seriously take up this obligation to the class and to the masses of working people. In the interest of improving our use of the method of criticism, we would like to point out several deviations from correct practice.
One common problem is that groups and individuals commit serious errors in their work, but do not criticize themselves publicly for these errors. This amounts basically to a coverup, in that often the original mistake is known to a relatively small number of people, not to the movement as a whole. The attitude seems to be “Let’s hope nobody finds out”. For example, several years ago the October League made two very serious mistakes in security matters, but never said anything about them in its newspaper, THE CALL. In June, 1975, Congressman Larry MacDonald of Georgia, a member of the John Birch Society, published in the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD parts of a strictly internal OL document called “October League Manual on Open and Secret Work, May 1975”. Then in March, 1976, the same reactionary published in the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD a long list of the names of people who attended the National Fight Back Conference, held in Chicago in December 1975. People are entitled to ask: How did the state get these documents? Are measures being taken to prevent similar mistakes? What are the lessons to be learned from these experiences? People should further ask: How does covering up such mistakes help prevent such errors in the future? Should we encourage gathering lists of names at public meetings? A thorough self-criticism, summing up the attitudes which led to errors and stressing the importance of correct security would have been, and still would be, a great help to our movement.
A second type of error is that of ignoring criticism from other Marxist-Leninists and from the masses. Many groups are guilty of this, the thinking apparently being “Why bother replying, they’re just opportunists anyway.” In this way, legitimate criticisms are not accepted, incorrect criticisms are not refuted, and the ideological and political struggle is not advanced in the proper way. The pitiful manner in which most polemics are carried out in our movement is partly the result of this tendency.
Another error stems from raising criticisms before making a thorough investigation. The results of this error are demonstrated in THE COMMUNIST in December 1976 when the paper carried a polemic criticizing OL’s Party Congress. One criticism the Workers Congress raised in attacking OL’s opportunism at that time was OL’s line on the Chicano national question. In particular, WC pointed out that since the OL does not consider the Chicanos in the Southwest US a nation, it is incorrect to raise the slogan of regional autonomy for Chicanos. WC emphasized that the correct slogan for a national minority is the demand for equal rights. However in the following issue (Vol.III,no.2, Jan 27,1977), THE COMMUNIST carried a brief retraction of that discussion. The retraction read:
The WC(ML) withdraws the discussion of regional autonomy in the last issue of THE COMMUNIST and our criticism of OL on that point. While some aspects of this discussion are correct, others seem to us to be wrong, misleading and based on inadequate study. The question of regional autonomy has not been satisfactorily discussed or explained in our movement. We intend to make a contribution to that discussion shortly.
Such criticism and retraction can only create confusion. Which aspects of the discussion were correct? Which need clarification? Should we conclude from the retraction that CPML’s position may be correct? Should we further conclude that CPML’s line is not chauvinist? Moreover, WC has not to our knowledge produced the promised contribution, nor has it produced a criticism of its own discussion, nor the reasons for retracting it. This not only creates confusion on the Chicano national question, it also raises questions about the nature of WC’s original criticism. Attacking a line but demonstrating no principled basis for disagreements is a serious misuse of criticism, and in no way advances the ideological struggle on this point. The damage this sort of deviation causes is in no way diminished by a vague retraction.
A fourth type of deviation from the correct use of criticism-self-criticism is the suppression of criticism. With in our movement, refusing to hear criticism demonstrates extreme arrogance and a rejection of democratic centralism. It opens the door for serious errors. If our line is wrong and this is proven to us during the course of discussion, the positive effects of exposing the line to criticism are obvious. On the other hand, if indeed our line is correct and withstands challenges from others, we still have gained from the experience: first, the errors of those questioning the line are exposed and second, our understanding of and ability to put forth the line has been increased.
The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) demonstrated the dangers of suppressing criticism several years ago when it still wore the label of the Revolutionary Union (RU). Within the organization disagreement arose over the line on the Black national question. Those spearheading the criticism of the RU line questioned not only the substance of the line, but also challenged the claim of the RU leadership that the line represented the position of rank and file cadres, as according to the critics, no ideological struggle had ever taken place within the organization.
In order to voice its criticisms, a group prepared a rebuttal to the RU’s National Bulletin 13. The RU leadership prevented distribution of the document, characterized the reasons for its preparation as groundless, and in general, suppressed criticism of its own line. Not until the adversary group was driven from the RU and subsequently able to publish and distribute its criticisms did a genuine polemic over the issue ensue.
In this instance, the criticisms of RU’s line have proven to be well founded. For several years, however, the RU continued to put forward a wrong line on the national question and continued to suppress the correct line which had been raised from within its own ranks. Instead of engaging in a polemic and thereby consolidating a correct line through struggle, the RU suppressed criticism, a step which can only lead to splits and divisiveness, obviously a step backward in the critical task of party building facing our movement.
Opening ourselves to eclectic criticism is not without its own dangers. As Lenin warned us in WHAT IS TO BE DONE? we must be vigilant against those who, under the guise of “freedom of criticism” would seize the opportunity to “introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism”. Nevertheless, refusing to allow or even hear criticism is also incorrect as this example demonstrates. Using vigilance against opportunism as a reason to avoid or suppress principled debate is itself opportunism.
A more subtle distortion or criticism is that of making a superficial self-criticism when a deep one is required. This is dangerous because while it gives the appearance of being a genuine effort to correct errors, it does not go to the root of problems. We have noticed several forms of this error. One is to couch the criticism in terms that are confusing or poorly developed. For example in REVOLUTIONARY CAUSE (Vol.I no.9) ATM states that it
laid out two tactical tasks to party building and that of the two, ’Marxist-Leninists Unite and ’Win the Advanced’, the former was necessarily our primary one... This was a left sectarian error on our part. In practice it led to focusing our work almost exclusively to work with other communists on the basis of struggling for unity on line (in the general sense) without concerning ourselves about the question of common work, i.e. revolutionary practice. Although we were proceeding from an honest desire for the unity of Marxist-Leninists, this ’left’ position worked against our movement. Like it or not, it inevitably led us (and will lead others) to detach the question of Marxist-Leninist unity from the question of winning over the advanced in mass struggle, of the training of the advanced in an all-sided way, of training our own cadres for this work.
ATM explains the way in which this “left” error was manifested in actual practice. However they failed completely in stating why this manifestation is indeed a left sectarian error, and in explaining the damage done in our movement by “left” errors. The ML movement needs to know and understand sectarianism, not in a narrow sense (as is shown by ATM’s practice) but in a general sense, so we can apply this analysis to all practice. What gave rise to this error? How has ATM rectified the problems which led to this incorrect line so as to avoid mistakes of this type in the future? ATM states that “Like it or not, it inevitably led us (and will lead others)...” to make the same error. But is this true? When errors are properly summed up and criticized they cease to be inevitable.
More recently ATM(ML) joined the CP(ML) and IWK in a committee to Unite Marxist-Leninists. Previously, ATM(ML) had criticized the OL fairly severely and had certain line differences with them, especially on the Chicano national question. In the May 1978 issue of REVOLUTIONARY CAUSE ATM(ML) states:
In the past our organizations have had many disagreements, some quite sharp. In fact the ATM (ML) characterized the OL, the leading group which formed the CP(ML), as ’right opportunist’. This was a serious error. We believe that the OL did make certain rightist errors. However, these deviations did not warrant declaring CP(ML) as right opportunists. We incorrectly placed them in the camp of the enemy, when in fact they were in the camp of the people. Looking back over the 1970’s the OL (and now the CP-ML) have held consistently to a Marxist-Leninist general line. They repudiated certain incorrect lines. While certain disagreements remain, we are confident that these questions will be struggled out within the Committee to Unite Marxist-Leninists.
This self-criticism is even more vague than the first and doesn’t really tell us anything about why and how ATM(ML) changed its assessment of the OL or the CP(ML), what their differences were and are, or the difference between committing rightist errors and being right opportunist. While we support the effort to unite Marxist-Leninists, this unity must be based on principled struggle. Mistakes, and the reasons for them must be thoroughly examined and carefully summed up. Only in this way can we “turn a bad thing into a good thing” and overcome our mistakes. Setting aside old quarrels may solve immediate differences, but without studying and correcting the reasons for quarreling, we cannot build lasting unity.
Still another misuse of the process of criticism, one that our movement is unfortunately all too used to, is that of changing lines without repudiating the old one. For instance, in its early months the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee (MLOC) took these two positions: 1) They based themselves on Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, and 2) Romania is a socialist country. Nowadays, MLOC has dropped all mention of Mao Tsetung Thought and says it bases itself on Marxism-Leninism, as well as saying that Albania is the only socialist country in Europe. These are not mere oversights but manifestations of MLOC’s current line. We can’t help but ask, Whatever happened to Mao Tsetung Thought? At what point did Romania become revisionist? Instead of summing up why its old formulations are no longer correct, MLOC simply presents new ones, giving us no reason to believe that these new positions are any more correct than the previous ones.
We do not wish to imply in this article that all errors are errors of criticism-self-criticism. The examples we have chosen represent errors of many types; what they have in common is that they were not properly summed up, nor were the reasons for them exposed. This backwards attitude toward mistakes must be corrected, in order to resolve the contradictions which foster disunity in our movement. Disunity can be overcome by ”starting from a desire for unity, distinguishing right from wrong through criticism or struggle, and arriving at a new unity on a new basis...Criticism and self-criticism is a method; it is the method of resolving contradictions among the people and indeed the only method. There is no other method.” (Chairman Mao Tsetung’s Talk, Jan.30, 1962. See Peking Review #27, July 7,1978) Unity does not fall from the sky. We call upon all Marxist-Leninists who are sincere in their desire for unity to seriously examine their use of criticism and self-criticism and to respond to this article, describing their experiences. It is through correct use of this method that genuine unity will be forged and that the movement will advance.