First Published: Theoretical Review Vol. 1, No. 5, May-June 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In previous issues we have put forward a position on party building which we have called “primacy of theory.” Since then, questions have been raised as to what this position means in terms of dogmatism, left sectarianism, and the relationship between theory and other communist activity. This article is the beginning of our answer to these questions.
At any given stage in the party building process it is necessary to identify the central task or activity of communists in that period. Determining this task is a result of theoretical practice, an analysis of the conjuncture and the demands it places before communists. In response to these demands, and as a result of the analyses made, one task is then determined to be key to enabling the party building movement to advance on all fronts.
Our analysis of the present conjuncture for party building shows a weak and divided communist movement, organized in small and isolated groups. Our movement, though having broken from the revisionist and the dogmatist sects, has not been able to clearly demarcate itself as a separate trend. We see the principal tasks of our movement as: (1) the organizational consolidation of local groups into a national movement, (2) the political consolidation of our movement around a genuinely revolutionary communist program, and (3) the consolidation of our intervention in the national class struggles of the workers on the basis of that program.
What then is the key task necessary to overcome localism and build a national organization, to develop a revolutionary program and to organize its implementation? The first goal will be achieved only with the replacement of local perspectives by a national perspective which correctly posits the relationship between local and national conditions. Localism is the inability to distinguish the particular (local) from the general (national). A national perspective will be embodied in a national political line, both programmatic and organizational.
The second goal, the organized national intervention of communists in the workers movement on the basis of a communist program and a communist style of work, directed by advanced cadre, likewise presupposes a national political line. These facts have led many in our movement (as in the dogmatist movement before us) to conclude that the key task in party building at this time is the development of political line. We disagree with this view. Understanding political line means understanding that it does not arise directly from the political activity of communists. Instead, political line is determined by the general and particular social practices of society, grasped and transformed by theoretical practice and returned to the party in the form of a strategy and tactics to guide communist activity.
If the leading communist organizations in this country could show, by their own development and training of cadre, by their creative use of Marxist science and philosophy, by their conjunctural analyses that they have mastered theoretical practice, then we too would unite with the position that our key task is developing a political line. Unfortunately however, our meetings with communist groups and individuals around the country, our study of their conferences and publications convinces us that this is not the case. It is for this reason, the absence of a theoretically advanced communist movement and the recognition of a need for a theoretical basis for all our practices, that we put forward the position that theory is primary in this period of party building. In other words, theoretical practice, as defined in the last issue of Theoretical Review, is the key task of communists at present if we are to lay the foundation for eventual organizational consolidation, political unification and a national political practice.
To characterize the main task is simultaneously to define the main obstacle in the way of undertaking that task. When the break with the dogmatist sects over questions of international line (Angola, China) was initiated, many groups called themselves anti-dogmatist and characterized “dogmatism” as the main danger within the party building movement. Of late, however, a new position has come into vogue which argues that “left” opportunism or “left” sectarianism is the main danger.
Our disagreements with both of these positions fall into two general areas: first, on the issue of defining left opportunism as the main danger, and second, on the definition and characterization of dogmatism as the main danger. To define the main danger as left opportunism is to locate the problem at the level of the relationship between communists and the working class, the separation of the former from the latter as a result of left errors. To define the danger as left sectarianism is to locate the problem at the political-organizational level, as the maintenance of numerous sects again due to left errors.
We do not deny that communists are separated from the workers movement. We do not underestimate the strength of sectarianism; nor do we ignore the fact that left errors on a host of questions are being made. Nor do we underestimate or deny the strength and danger posed by right errors, by economism and spontaneism. The important fact for us is that these errors are not simple “mistakes” but deviations from Marxism-Leninism, derivatives of a particular political-organizational line which in turn is related to a particular conception and practice of theory. It is the absence of genuine communist theory and its practice, the absence of its correct guiding role in political practice, which enables many groups to replace communist work in the trade unions with left posturing, to place the interests of their own sect above that of the national movement.
The issue remains to locate the key task that will enable us to overcome these deviations. It cannot be located at the same level as the problems themselves (separation from the masses, lack of communist unity). For, what is to distinguish the correct approach from the incorrect in confronting these problems? Only theory and the theoretical analysis of these levels can do that. The theoretical practice necessary to define and develop the correct relationship between communists and the workers movement and between various communist organizations in this period is an integral part of theoretical practice in general. As long as we continue to lack it, putting an end to the present deviations cannot proceed in a scientific manner, but only haphazardly.
As noted above, to define the central task is simultaneously to define the main obstacle to its successful completion. If theoretical practice is the central task then the main obstacle at this time is what passes for theory in the communist movement, what occupies the place that should be occupied by Marxist-Leninist theory.
Before characterizing this obstacle itself, it is useful to recall the function of Marxist-Leninist theory for a genuine communist organization. Marxist-Leninist theory is a specific problematic—a conceptual system held together by an organic methodology. In the case of Marxism-Leninism the conceptual system and methodology together constitute a science, historical materialism. At the same time Marxist-Leninist theory is a practice, both as a science and inasmuch it is linked to the conjuncture, on the one hand, and to communist political practice on the other. A philosophy, dialectical materialism constitutes these links. By means of these links theory scientifically analyses the conjuncture and guides political practice on the basis of such analysis. Equally these links direct the work of the theory to the class struggle present in the conjuncture and in our political practice. For this reason dialectical materialism can be said to represent proletarian class positions in the class struggle which takes place within the realm of theory.
For a host of historical reasons relating to both the history of the United States and its workers movement and the history of the Marxist and Marxist-Leninist organizations in the U.S., a different problematic occupies the place which should be occupied by the Marxist-Leninist problematic. Posed in this way the conception of dogmatism as the main danger shows itself to be an inadequate theoretical response to the problem. Dogmatism is certainly a part of the problem, but only a part. We would say that the main obstacle must be defined as a revisionist-dogmatist problematic.
In its conceptual system this problematic closely resembles Marxism-Leninism, containing many of the same concepts (dictatorship of the proletariat, capitalist model of production, etc.) while also containing many non-Marxist concepts (superpower, third world, Black nation, etc.). It is its links to the conjuncture and to political practice and in particular its methodology which most sharply distinguish the dogmatist-revisionist problematic from Marxism-Leninism. This is why we call the problematic dogmatist-revisionist, because such a conception stresses the methodological divergence from Marxism-Leninism.
In the Marxist-Leninist problematic concepts are linked together and function together in practice by means of a scientific methodology, which is rigorous and dialectical. As in any living science old concepts are constantly being either further developed or else proven inadequate and new concepts produced, always on the basis of the working of the conceptual system and methodology on other ideas and analyses. This is the case with Marx’s replacement of the previous notions of the proletarian state with the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and with Lenin’s further enrichment of the meaning and scientificity of the same concept.
Methodologically dogmatism and revisionism together constitute a problematic in that they combine together with a conceptual system superficially resembling Marxism-Leninism a methodology which is basically static and artificial, in other words non-scientific, drawn from the methodological systems of bourgeois ideological theory. In such a problematic concepts are associated with one another for external reasons, reasons outside the domain of theoretical practice.
While Marxism-Leninism holds that theory must guide political practice, for the dogmatist-revisionist problematic theory is subordinate to the requirements of political practice, it serves as a “theoretical” cover for practice. Freed from genuine theoretical guidance such practice is free to serve opportunist considerations. While Marxism-Leninism holds that theory must analyze all aspects of the conjuncture to be truly scientific, the dogmatist-revisionist problematic restricts theory’s range to the finding of conjunctural justification for opportunist political practice.
Their are many examples of the function of the dogmatist-revisionist problematic in our movement. One of the most famous is the Revolutionary Union’s juggling of a dogmatist concept (Black nation) with a revisionist one (proletarian nation). Another is the coupling of the revisionist notion, drawn from bourgeois ideology, of “superpowers” with the dogmatist notion of “social fascism”. In both cases not only are the concepts non-scientific, but they are associated together mechanically and non-dialectically. They could never function or be produced in Marxist-Leninist theoretical practice. That such concepts do function and are constantly being reproduced in our movement points to the need to make theoretical practice, the practice of Marxist-Leninist theory, the central task of party building in this period.
Today the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces around the country constitute only a small handful of cadre and resources. Relatively isolated from the working class movement and other communist groups they mostly engage in limited theoretical study, and depending on the local situation, are more or less involved with workers and mass struggles.
Getting our movement clear on the central task at this time is particularly important, before we become too deeply involved with the workers movement, too deeply mired in local economist activity, an unavoidable situation given the absence of a communist program and a national perspective.
Understanding theoretical practice means organizing theoretical work within local collectives and study groups and coordinating such work on a national scale. This can be accomplished through the exchange of documents and the development of working ties between different organizations.
It means working toward a national theoretical and discussion journal with real links to organizations around the country. It means broadening our theoretical horizons by the translation, publication and dissemination of foreign works of theory and their discussion and criticism. It means bringing valuable but difficult works within the reach of broader sections of our movement by reworking them into more popular forms.
It also means the beginning of national, regional and local conjunctural analyses by groups and the effort to coordinate and expand these efforts toward a national perspective. Theoretical knowledge and expertise grow by practicing theory; the weakness of our movement and of its theoretical practice is reflected in the absence of a conjunctural analysis.
Finally, making theory the central task means developing communist cadre, particularly among the advanced workers. The distinction between theoreticians and mass leaders, between party intellectuals and trade union militants, within communist organizations is an anti-Marxist dichotomy which impedes the development of communist relations within the party building movement. The historical development of the communist and workers movements and particularly the example of the Second International, exposes the dangers inherent in this dichotomy.
Communist theory is not something which is too difficult for workers if they have a communist collective in which to function and a clear understanding of theory and its importance. The primacy of theory is not limited to party theoreticians; it applies to communists whose primary activity is in the day to day economic class struggles as well. This does not mean that these comrades abandon their shop work but that they give primacy, not to the day to day routine, but to their own theoretical development and the development of their contacts among advanced workers on the basis of a theoretical understanding of the daily struggle, its place in a broader social context and that social context itself.
Orienting our communist movement on the road toward the party means, in this period, orienting our movement on theoretical practice, producing a conjunctural analysis and producing communist cadre. As Lenin argued in What is to be Done?:
Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This point cannot be emphasized too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism is coupled with an infatuation with the narrowest forms of practical activity.
 Note that we, unlike groups such as the Proletarian Unity League (PUL), define our movement to the exclusion of the dogmatist sects. We consider it a futile and dangerous attempt to try to reunite the healthy forces, who have broken from the grip of these sects, with the dwindling and degenerating dogmatist forces.
 PUL artificially separates the organizational aspects of the party from the party itself in an entirely non-Marxist way. Leninism demonstrates the indissoluble links between political line and organizational practice. PUL’s reduction of party building in this period to an organizational question fundamentally avoids the problem of the political-organizational unity of the party and its theoretical prerequisites.
 PUL claims to oppose the “political line is key” position, but an examination of its proposal for the unification of our movement shows that it is a proposal which consists of a number of political positions on the nature of the party, the character of the Soviet Union, and questions of strategy.
 See “An Introduction to Theoretical Practice,” Theoretical Review, Vol. 1, no. 4.
 By this we do not mean to imply that the U.S. and its communist and workers movements are unique. For the sake of brevity we are restricting our discussion to the U.S. The vulgarization of Marxist theory, in particular the rise of what has been called an economist problematic in the world communist movement is discussed in Bettelhiem’s introduction to his Class Struggles in the USSR (Monthly Review, 1976), and in Althusser’s Essays in Self-criticism (New Left Books, 1977).