Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Daniel Burstein

Communist Movement in 1970’s: Strengths and Weaknesses


First Published: The Call, January 7, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The 1970s was the decade when a new communist movement was born in this country. A new generation of communists faced their first challenges – not only gaining strength through many struggles, but also making a good share of mistakes. As we now enter the 1980s, I believe we have arrived at an important crossroads for Marxism-Leninism.

I think the 1970s, on balance, were overwhelmingly positive for the communist movement and the people’s struggles. A decade ago, there was no communist party, only the revisionist CPUSA and some Trotskyite sects. In 1970 the CPUSA was seen as a bankrupt party of betrayal by an increasing number of student radicals, activists in the nationalist movements, rank-and-file trade unionists and even a small, but significant number of the CPUSA’s own veteran cadres.

Now, 10 years later, the CPML as well as other Marxist-Leninist organizations have been organized. They have rejected the CPUSA’s reformism and slavishness to Moscow’s world view. Instead they are dedicated to fighting for a socialist revolution in the US and to building solidarity with those all over the world oppressed by imperialism of either the American or Soviet variety. The prospects for unification of these forces into a single party, moreover, are greater now than at any point in the last decade.

These events did not take place by mere proclamation. Rather, today’s Marxist-Leninist movement is the product of a great many breakthroughs achieved through 10 years of struggle. It would be impossible to list all these gains here, but a partial summation would include the following:
The training of a core of revolutionary fighters in the science of Marxism.
Solid initial attempts to elaborate a program applying Marxism to the concrete conditions in the US, including strong stands on key questions such as the leading role of the working class, the need for a party-type organization and the revolutionary potential of the national movements.
The exposure and criticism of a variety of opportunist political currents that sought to isolate our movement from the masses and deflect it in the direction of either revisionism or Trotskyism.
The unity and merger of many communist circles and the building of multinational organizations.
The gaining of rich experiences in waging the class struggle, from the trade unions to the women’s movement, including giving real leadership to some of the major mass struggles of the 1970s and the winning of activists in these struggles to the cause of communism.
The development of revolutionary literature such as The Call, and circulating it to a small but important audience of workers, minorities, progressive intellectuals and other activists.
The building up of a whole realm of organizational structures to enhance the fighting capacity of the people in factories, communities, schools and other basic social institutions.

All these were steps forward and all testify to the fact that we are in a stronger position now than we were a decade ago. Without this progress we would not have a communist movement today encompassing thousands of dedicated fighters and enjoying the respect of tens of thousands more who seek to change the oppressive set-up of US capitalism.

But even with these many positive attributes and strengths, we must still undertake, in my opinion, a serious study of our weaknesses and shortcomings. We must ask ourselves: Why is it that we have a following only in the tens of thousands, and not in the hundreds of thousands or millions? We must seek these answers, not just to understand the past, but to make the communist party of the 1980s one that is truly mass in scope and capable of powerfully affecting the political life of the country.

The need for such a party is especially urgent in light of the fact that the US and the Soviet Union are headed for a world war. This conflict holds tremendous destructive dangers for the world’s peoples, but it will also open up many new possibilities for making revolutions all over the world.

There are a multitude of reasons why communism is not more of a force than it is today, and I cannot hope in a short space to make a full analysis of them. We must understand, first of all, that revolution is not a simple process of raising the bright red banner and rallying everyone who is oppressed to rise up and follow.

Capitalism is a very sophisticated enemy. This is particularly true of an advanced industrial superpower like the US, which has 200 years of experience in maintaining its rule through bourgeois democracy as well as through naked terror when necessary. It is a system which knows how to bribe and buy off, as well as how to shoot down and jail, those who challenge it. It knows how to absorb reforms and innovations that offer a pretense of solving the people’s problems. It even knows how to create a culture that makes it appear there are no bitterly simmering class antagonisms under the surface of society. And it is also very good at discrediting and slandering the ideas of revolution and socialism in the minds of the people.

In trying to change this system, we should never forget that these factors constitute an important part of the objective conditions under which we work. There are no get-rich-quick schemes to alter them, only painstaking, prolonged, and difficult revolutionary work.

But aside from these factors, I believe there are also problems with our political understanding that have kept us from advancing further than we have. These include the questions of “rightism” and ultra-“leftism,” a subject on which The Call has been printing study articles for several months.

“Rightism” is a term generally used to denote a deviation from Marxism in the direction of overestimating the enemy and capitulating to him, while underestimating the masses and tailing behind their revolutionary aspirations and level of struggle. Ultra-“leftism” has generally meant the tendency to underestimate the enemy’s strength and engage in reckless adventures against him, failing to take into account the willingness or ability of the masses to fight, failing to make use of splits and contradictions and flexible tactics to secure strategic aims.

Our Party is for a two-sided fight against both of these tendencies. Much of this struggle in the last decade has been directed at rightism. Forces that represented the rightist tendency – the revisionists, centrists and even some people inside the CPML and its forerunner organizations – sought in one way or another to keep a Marxist-Leninist party from being founded and a revolutionary political line from being elaborated and put into practice.

Of course many mistakes were made in these ideological battles. Sometimes we rushed to label something “rightist” that may only have been an honest idea at odds with our own view. At other times, we failed to grasp the distinction between a rightist deviation from a generally Marxist approach, and out-and-out counter-revolution which is not Marxist at all. And at times, we even confused “rightist” deviations with “leftist” ones, having not made sufficient study of them.

But on the whole, most of these struggles against rightism were useful and correct. In fact, I would say they were indispensible to the successful growth of our Party. Today, however, rightism has by no means disappeared as a problem. Although it has been dealt some blows, it is still very much around and exceedingly dangerous.

But while guarding against such dangers, I believe it is imperative to pay more attention to the problem of ultra-“leftism.” Quite a few ultra-“left” ideas and methods have been allowed to develop inside our Party and in the communist movement, isolating us from the masses rather than integrating us more closely with their struggles.

Certain forms of ultra-“leftism” are fairly obvious and we have written about some of them self-critically in The Call this year. For example, we have criticized the approach of relying chiefly on demonstrations, strikes and other forms of direct action in our mass work, rather than utilizing a more flexible arsenal of tactics. Or there are cases where we made a shallow analysis of different movements and struggles so that we misread their character and ended up abstaining from battles important to the workers’ needs and interests. We have also been critical in the last period of the sectarian, small-circle approach that keeps us from working with those with whom we disagree.

We have discussed these kinds of problems for about two years now. Out of this discussion has come some progress, and I think even the casual reader of The Call can notice these gains in the newspaper itself.

But now other forms of ultra-“leftism” are becoming more apparent. Here I would especially underscore the problems of dogmatism and doctrinairism. These terms basically mean trying to mechanically apply revolutionary ideas learned from books or from other times and countries, to the complex problems we face in the US today.

In the past, I think we have tended to rely too heavily on dogma and doctrines, whether it be Lenin’s essays written under czarist repression in Russia, or Chairman Mao Zedong’s Red Book of quotations assembled at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution. If you read Lenin or Mao, or any other great Marxist, they will all tell you not to take their words as gospel truth. They all advocate using Marxism as a guide to action, not a substitute for formulating tactics, policies and approaches that are relevant to your situation. In fact, in China today, there is a big struggle against the gang of four mentality of doing things simply because they were written down at one point in Marxist books to be done that way. The Chinese have contrasted this to the method of testing in practice what is the best way to achieve a certain result, and then summing it up and deepening Marxist theory with it.

In our movement, I’m afraid we haven’t always listened to the advice of Marx, Lenin and Mao telling us to make the concrete conditions in our times and in our country the starting point for our work. For example, even though elections and legislation play an important role in American political life, we have very little understanding of how to make use of these bourgeois institutions to serve revolutionary aims.

Or take another example: Even though we are aware of the strategic importance of building a united front against imperialism, we have developed a far too superficial analysis of what forces can be brought into such a front, let alone developed specific ways of working with different strata.

On quite a few major issues confronting the masses today – the energy crisis, education, inflation, unemployment, discrimination, crime, to name only a few – our program and understanding of how to wage the struggle is far too superficial. If communists can only talk abstractly about how these problems will be solved in the future under socialism, or can only propose a march on the unemployment office to fight for jobs or a march on the nuclear power plant to fight the energy crisis, we will not be able to win the masses to the side of socialism.

Even where workers agree with our ideas, such as building “class struggle trade unions,” the recurring demand is for us to particularize what a class struggle union would really look like and a specific plan for building one in a given shop or industry.

Of course, developing a deep understanding of the concrete conditions and a program that correctly analyzes them is not an overnight process. In fact it is a very long-term effort, necessitating extensive theoretical and practical work, summations, discussion and debate. Some of this has already taken place over the last decade. But we must begin to take up these tasks in a much more thorough, comprehensive way. Relying on dogma and doctrines will only prolong the present state of affairs where the communist movement is very small and isolated from the broad masses of people and the day-to-day political life of the country.

We should also bear in mind that in deepening our program and in trying to expand the influence of the communist forces, there will inevitably be pressure from the rightists to abandon our principles completely. Even now, the rightist tendencies to liquidate the national question, to unite uncritically with the labor bureaucracy, to neglect the class struggle in seeking to build the anti-hegemonist front and to drop communist independence, pose important problems for our Party and movement. This is why is it necessary to fight on two fronts.

Rooting out the tendency towards dogmatism is not a simple matter. The class background of much of our movement still remains that of the petty-bourgeoisie, particularly the intelligentsia radicalized through the mass movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. The experiences of those years – when it was relatively easy to mobilize large-scale demonstrations and there was frequent talk of revolution in the air – have left their impact on the thinking of many of us in one way or another, and it is difficult to adapt to new conditions calling for new tactics and approaches.

I also think there is no getting around dealing with the extent to which our Party and our movement were affected by some of the erroneous political lines in the international communist movement over the last 10 years. The extent of this problem and exactly how it developed is still something that deserves study. But clearly we had a wrong understanding of some very basic questions.

Earlier in this decade, for example, many of us thought that those who came to be known later as the gang of four in China were the staunchest, most clear-cut fighters against revisionism and even that we should model our efforts on theirs to a degree. Now, all but the die-hard ultra-“leftists” in the US (like the so-called “Revolutionary Communist Party”) recognize that there were serious problems with the gang of four and the Cultural Revolution in China. Yet much of the phraseology and style typical of the gang’s way of doing things can still be seen in our movement. To a lesser degree, many Marxist-Leninists were also influenced by Enver Hoxha and the Albanian Party of Labor. But now it appears that the Albanian party leaders have degenerated into an isolated band of ultra-“left” splitters and Trotskyites of sorts. The same goes for the tiny grouplets that support them in the US and around the world.

Based on these experiences, I think our movement needs to recognize that ultra-̶leftism” is not a minor problem, or an “afterthought” beyond the danger generally thought to be posed by rightism. The ultra-“leftism” of the gang of four nearly crushed the Chinese revolution, and it turned Albania around politically. Moreover, Marxist-Leninists in a great many countries (especially the advanced capitalist countries where M-L parties were re-established in the last decade) are beginning to speak of ultra-“leftism” being a contributing factor to their relative small size and lack of political influence in their societies.

In our country, I certainly don’t think it’s a matter of just saying, “Oh, ultra-’leftism’ has been to blame for all our problems.” This would not be true, and in fact, it would be exactly the doctrinaire, mechanical method of transposing various international experiences to our own conditions that we should seek to avoid.

Those who say that Marxist principles count for nothing; that the last 10 years in the US movement have been wasted; that there is no rightist danger, only the ultra-“left” one – and similarly-worded arguments – are falling prey to a new dogma rather than making an all-sided dialectical summation of the past. We must also not join in with those who want to make opposition to “leftism” – by which they really mean opposition to the basic ideas of Marxism – the starting point for their work.

But I do think that the key to the development of communist thought and practice in the 1980s will be a careful, critical examination of the past and the creative application of Marxism-Leninism to the US revolution in a way that, at least to some degree, has been held back until now by reliance on book-knowledge and experiences of other countries rather than making primary what our own life and work teach us.

Our Party enters the 1980s aware that we are at a crossroads and aware of how difficult the building of a party with genuine mass influence will be. But this cannot cause us to shrink from the challenge or to seek the “comfort” that lies with the purism of being a small sect. In the coming years, we will be studying and discussing how best to implement this transition and unfolding new initiatives designed to serve this aim. Some undoubtedly will fail, but only through the course of relying on practice will we be able to enrich our experience and learn the best way forward.

This discussion is not one that takes place behind closed doors. It is a profound political discussion which requires not just the participation of our Party members but of all those who work with us and support our cause. I would strongly encourage Call readers to take part in this discussion and debate as we enter 1980, helping us to arrive at the correct summation of the past period and a better understanding of the road forward from here.