Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Neil Eriksen-Schmidt

Theoretical Aspects of Political Practice


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 8, January-February 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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For groups in the anti-dogmatist anti-revisionist communist forces, internal political practice is first and foremost the practice necessary to build a genuine communist party in the USA. This requires cadre who understand, produce and act upon scientific political analyses in a revolutionary manner. The political unity of a communist organization is dependent on the common theoretical unity of its cadre. Without a common basis of theoretical knowledge, any political unity will be superficial and easily shaken. It is with this in mind that communist organizations must address the theoretical and political development of their cadre.

Internal political practice can be seen to have three major elements: theoretical, organizational and ideological. In this article we will address the theoretical aspects, while future articles will address organizational and ideological questions.

In previous articles[1] we have articulated the two aspects of theoretical practice: developing the tools for scientific analyses, and the application of these tools to produce concrete analyses. But, what does this mean for a communist collective or study group? Theoretical practice is a concrete reality that has political validity for the groups that make up the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces. We intend to show how it can and must be a part of the day to day political activity of a communist organization in this period.

The two aspects of theoretical practice are present in internal political practice. Cadre and organizations must first develop the theoretical tools necessary, before engaging in a true scientific analysis that will provide the basis for a strategy for effective political intervention in the class struggle in the USA. There are two aspects of this development within a communist organization: raising the level of theoretical and political competence of all comrades, and resolving the differences between advanced and less developed cadre.

CADRE DEVELOPMENT

Cadre development is a key aspect of political practice in this period. Anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces can generally agree to this. The major disagreement in our movement is over what this means, and how much emphasis should be placed on it. If the party building movement is to advance on the level of theoretical/political unity, we must begin to chart out the terrain on which we will debate theoretical/political questions. This requires cadre who can make and argue proposals and counter proposals.

The theoretical/political development of cadre must begin by breaking with bourgeois forms of study (teacher-pupil, uncritical reading, anti-theory attitudes, pragmatism. We must not just read books and pamphlets, but develop the ability to articulate what is read, and translate it into political action that will advance the struggle for socialism. We must be conscious of how the reading of a text changes our own thinking, which includes the need to learn to read critically and to avoid empiricism and theoreticism. We must especially be aware of the contradictions in a text, its weaknesses and its strengths; recognizing the absence of certain necessary discussions of important aspects of the argument. And, we must develop the ability to apply what we read to our conjuncture.

For the productive development of cadre, collective discussion of Marxist-Leninist theoretical, ideological, political and historical texts must be undertaken regularly, systematically, in an organized fashion, and take place weekly, or at least biweekly. Any less than this at this time leaves us far short of a realistic approach to developing good study habits and overcoming our theoretical backwardness. Contrary to the line often advanced in the party building movement, U.S. workers arc capable of handling relatively complex questions when the complex ideas reflect their lives and struggles. Advanced workers recognize the need to go beyond immediate questions to a long term analysis and study, with the primary limitation being on the amount of time available given the length of the work day, physical exhaustion and personal obligations, especially to ones family. An aspect of this that is usually overlooked is that once the recognition of the need for regular study is made, the primary aspect is what is studied and how it is studied, including the questions one looks to answer when one is reading, and not so much the quantity of time spent; though, of course, it is a factor.

If conclusions are reached before one starts to read, then there is little new to be learned; just information to bolster the conclusions one already has in mind. The dogmatists are the most blatant, but not the only, example of this: Peking Review says that we are in a severe economic and political crisis, thus the dogmatists read the same conclusion into all that is read or observed, even though concrete reality currently belies such an analysis. Looking to the classics of Marxism-Leninism, any dogmatist can regurgitate the conclusions reached by Marx, Lenin and Mao. We must begin the difficult task of recognizing how those conclusions were reached; this is the true legacy of the classics.

But what questions should be asked when we read the classics and contemporary theoretical, political and historical texts? First, we must ask, what were the existing conditions that prompted such a text? This cannot be limited to an understanding of the objective conditions of the conjuncture, but must include an understanding of the subjective conditions, as well. This means that we must ask what was the state of Marxist theory at the time? Was it a living science? Did the text advance Marxist science or consolidate previous gains? How is the text relevant for us: how can it intervene in the present state of our movement? Is the multiplicity of contradictions clear, and do we understand which is primary? How were the contradictions of the conjuncture exploited to a revolutionary advantage? We must ask if the various practices are expressed dialectically, or if they are separated from each other, or if one aspect is incorrectly emphasized? Finally, and most importantly we must ask what role is afforded the class struggle in the text.

But even this is not enough. For the primary aspect of reading the classics and important theoretical texts of today is to extract, the method and concepts with which the great Marxist theoreticians address their questions. How do they pose their questions? How does the text use the methodology and conceptual system? How can we use what is present explicitly and implicitly; and how do we correct theories that have been proven to be incorrect or inadequate? It is only by answering these questions that we will be able to put Marxist science into motion to analyze the current conjuncture to help lead the class struggle against capital.

We have briefly discussed the need to be aware of what is studied. But, what determines the texts we study? Political necessity dictates everything we do theoretically. When we study it must be to build the theoretical/political knowledge to critique the past and present political practice of the various classes and their representatives, and to be able to draw the political lessons for our conjuncture. Just as the history of our movement is the history of the struggle between opposing political lines, including the theoretical underpinnings of those lines; the present struggle between the primacy of theory line and the fusion line is a crucial one for our movement. The historical readings we take up must focus on the political aspects of communist practice; and theoretical texts must always be studied from working class positions.

Further, we cannot rely exclusively on the Marxist-Leninist classics for theoretical and political guidance. To do so extremely limits the work that we can do. Marxist-Leninist theory is not a holy writ but should be an expanding body of scientific knowledge. Marx, Lenin and Mao all emphasized this; and since they did not address the problems that we face today, we must be willing to read those who are struggling to do so. Of course, not all Marxist theoreticians are of use to us; but a healthy skepticism does not mean that we avoid contemporary theoreticians all together. On this we must remember Lenin’s call to not fear making mistakes.

We must build a respect for theory that does not expect all that is written to be perfect, or even correct. Much theoretical work is being done by U.S. and European Marxists. What is needed is to critically read what is being written and provide the political context of the U.S. situation, extracting what is useful and disregarding or critiquing what is not correct or useful. Lenin did not independently formulate all of the theoretical concepts he used in Imperialism; but he did provide the correct theoretical framework in which to develop a political critique of the conjuncture existing when he wrote, providing a key text in advancing the proletarian position in the international class struggle.

COMMUNIST HISTORY

But emphasizing the need to grasp the concepts and method of scientific socialism, though crucial, is not enough. Even including the key role of dialectical materialism in waging class struggle in theory is not enough. The development of truly revolutionary cadre must include the study of communist history, as free as possible from falsification and distortion. Without a sense of where the communist movement as a whole has been, the repetition of past errors is unavoidable. This is especially clear in the very real similarities between the opportunists of the Second International who defended the capitalists of their own countries rather than opposing the first World War, and the “China flunkies” of today who ally with the right wing of the U.S. bourgeoisie to “defeat ’Soviet social imperialism’”. Without a grasp of the struggles of the working class and communist movements over the past 150 years, without a grasp of the successes and failures of these movements, we are lost in a complex society that is today what it is only because of the class struggles of the past.

A crucial example of the failure to learn the lessons of the past is also present in the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces. Certain elements claim that the primacy of theory is leading us down the path of the dogmatist sectarians. In fact, the rectified primacy of theory line is an important Marxist-Leninist weapon that will help us avoid the fate of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) (CP M-L).

The history of the anti-revisionist communist movement is full of examples of the defense of “fusing” revolutionaries with the masses to provide the basis for building a genuine communist party. The general political line of the Revolutionary Union (RU), long before it announced the formation of the RCP, emphasized over and over again the necessity of forging the party “from the mass struggles.” Their emphasis in their polemics against “arm chair” revolutionaries, who supposedly planned to build a party in the “abstract”, was to “engage in more mass struggles.” The line of the RU unquestionably held that the only guarantee to building a genuine communist party, and the precondition for its formation, was to “have really begun to sink deep roots among the, masses..., develop day-to-day struggles in the plant and in the streets.”[2]

The line of the October League (OL) was almost identical. And the similarities of the struggles in the party building movement in the early 70’s to the party building struggles of today are quite startling. In 1973, Michael Klonsky (then leader of the 0L and now the head of the CP(M-L)), speaking of the struggles in the new communist movement, said that while revisionism was the main ideological enemy overall; within the ranks of the anti-revisionist movement the main danger was ultra-leftism. He said that the anti-revisionist forces “haven’t got the stabilizing effects of mass struggle among the workers... and so they are very susceptible to...ultra-leftism.” For Klonsky the only real way to combat ultra-leftism was “to develop those close ties with the masses, to integrate ourselves in mass struggle.”[3]

Almost all of the documents of these organizations develop the theory that building a base in the working class was the major precondition to forming their parties.

Study of this history shows us that being against “arm chair revolutionaries” and loudly proclaiming the primacy of day-to-day work in the factories and communities was no guarantee against sectarian isolation from the masses, which the past, and continuing stale of the practice of the RCP and CP(M-L) has clearly shown. Being “anti-left” was no guarantee against making ultra-left errors. Being anti-dogmatist was no guarantee against dogmatism either, since most of the documents of these groups in this period at least mention dogmatism as an error in the movement. What is, in fact, missing from all the documents of these groups at the time, is any more than lip service being paid towards theory of any kind.

It was the recognition that the “fusion line” has historically been ineffectively advanced in the U.S. communist movement, essentially blocking the development of the solid Marxist-Leninist theoretical/political unity necessary to build a genuine communist party, that was the primary aspect of the consolidation of the Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective around the primacy of theory line. By studying our past we were able to see that political lines adopted on the basis of simple fusion, without the benefit of theoretical intervention, were erroneous and could only be overcome through a radical departure from the tradition in the U.S. communist movement. We saw that the “fusion” strategy was not simply an erroneous political line of the present, but was, indeed, an old and recurring error.

Knowledge of the history of our movement is one of the most powerful weapons that we have to forge a genuine communist party in the USA. That is why the TMLC has developed a study plan on the world communist movement, and is working on a study plan of the U.S. communist movement. That is why we plan to take up the issue of the history of the U.S. anti-revisionist communist movement in the Theoretical Review. It is the very lack of historical background, second only to the lack of theory, that is the most easily exploited weakness of the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist forces in the current struggle to overcome bourgeois ideology and forge genuine Marxist-Leninist unity.

RESOLVING UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT

Though it is vital to provide a challenge for all members of a communist organization to develop theoretically, politically and historically, very real disparities between the levels of development of various cadre are manifestations of uneven development as the organization grows. The most serious aspect of this contradiction is that it is only through common theoretical and political development that an organization can function as a living organism. If cadre are not developed to a sufficient degree, the unity of the organization can be seriously jeopardized. If some comrades are more developed, more of the work will fall on their shoulders. Other comrades may find that there are severe limitations to what they can do to advance the organization, including simple participation in discussions. This contradiction must be addressed head on. On the individual level, if a comrade is overworked, resentment can build even in the most dedicated of revolutionaries, and feelings of inadequacy can further hinder the participation of lesser developed cadre.

Cadre development does not mean concentrating on building one or two advanced cadre with many followers. It means developing many cadre of a high degree of development. At this time we must take up the slogan: every comrade a theoretical/political militant; especially if we are to avoid the development of barriers of non-communication between leaders and the general membership. We will not all be present day Lenins: some comrades will be more developed due to their past or having more time to study and struggle. But it is only if all cadre have a strong grasp of Marxist-Leninist theory, the ability to draw political conclusions therefore, and the ability to act, on those conclusions, that a revolutionary party can be built that can lead socialist revolution in the USA and avoid degeneration into revisionism and dogmatism.

Leaders are bound to make mistakes. The general membership needs scientific political knowledge to be able to analyze things for themselves and challenge the leadership on incorrect political lines, and begin the process of rectification. This undeniable fact is extremely clear from the examples of the RCP, CPUSA, the Communist Party of France and a host of others.

There are two ways to overcome the contradiction of uneven development, both necessary in their own way. Most importantly, for new and less developed comrades in an organization, specific organizational forms can be developed to provide an accelerated study, addressing critical needs in certain comrades to bolster their knowledge in the areas where they are weakest. The importance of collective study cannot be overemphasized. By working with others, individual weaknesses become a part of the whole, and a group resolution results as each comrade participates to make the group and themselves stronger. The group process provides a give and take that is vital to communist development, especially in supplemental or accelerated study. Collective study provides an organizational form that is the beginnings of the political alternative to capitalist individual expression. It is a political statement that individuality is secondary to collectivity.

Secondarily, though not to be ignored, is individual study. By studying on ones own, a comrade can address specific questions that may not be addressed in the collective arena for quite some time. This is especially important in on-going organizations where someone misses a particular topic in the overall plan, but the organization cannot halt its study to go back for one or two people. Individual study is no substitute for collective study; but it is a necessary supplement, especially if comrades discuss what they have read with others, or write summations or reports on the material.

PRODUCING ANALYSES

At this time, all of our study can be seen as the necessary preparatory work to producing concrete analyses of the conjunctural situation which will lead to communist political lines and practice. For this reason we must not see our tasks as simply absorbing the work of others, but of eventually producing the necessary new elements of theory to address the everchanging situation, and utilizing this body of knowledge to produce strategy from political analyses. We can see the significance of Harnecker’s work (being serialized in the Theoretical Review) in doing much of the extraction at the theoretical level. We must work at the political level, and remember that as the class struggle intensifies there will be situations that arise that will be completely new. Lenin was aware of this and stressed the need to not fear making mistakes when confronted with radically new tasks. He also made it clear that recognizing and working to rectify mistakes is a Marxist-Leninist principle.

The second major aspect of theory in internal political practice is utilizing the theoretical/political tools that we develop to produce concrete analyses of the “current moment”, to be able to effectively intervene politically in a revolutionary manner. Further, this must be done in a collective rather than an individual manner. The need for such analyses is quite clear if we return to the political lines of the OL and the RU in the early 70’s.

What is glaringly absent from the statements of the organizations that devolved into the RCP and the CP(M-L), is the lack of any concrete analysis based on scientific theory. Of course these groups recognized the need for analyses. One would be hard pressed to raise the banner of Marxism-Leninism and refuse to engage in analysis. But it is precisely the tools we spoke of earlier, the methodology and concepts that permit a scientific analysis as the basis for political line, opposed to Utopian analysis, that are vital if we are to realistically assess the conjunctural situation and politically intervene. Again, without the scientific basis, one is doomed to read ones own conclusions (or those of previous revolutionaries) into the “facts” one confronts. This leads us to address the practice of summing up past experience, a practice vital to Marxist-Leninists if practiced correctly with scientific theory, but which produces a caricature of a concrete analysis if it is engaged in haphazardly.

The primary aspect of any summation must be the broader scientific and political framework in which our practice must be seen. Isolated communist groups, working on their own, can easily fall into a trap if this broader theoretical and political context is not recognized. The trap that can plague summations includes localism, economism and empiricism.

Concerning localism, if we are summing up our own experiences as local groups, we can easily become mired in the problems that arise in isolated factory or community struggles. This is not to say that summing up our own experiences as local groups is not necessary. As a political evaluation of our development as revolutionaries, it is vital. But those who see summations as the primary aspect of theoretical practice fail to grasp the scientificity of Marxism-Leninism. Local political summations do not necessarily provide us an understanding of the national political context. The national is not simply the sum of many locals. The national is a distinct totality that encompasses all localities, and is therefore different in key ways from all local experiences. Localist spirit led people to believe that the world was flat for ages; and some people even today forget that the world does not revolve around them in their local work. We are only small parts of a complex totality.

Economism is a part of the summation trap because, given the lack of a clear political line for communist intervention in work in labor unions and other mass work, the majority of this work is economist. For groups in which this work is primary, there is a general inability to even see the economist nature of the work being summed up. Summations in this case, end up reading into the “facts” of a situation the political conclusions that were reached before the work began. There follows a reinforcement of these conclusions in a circular self-justification. Again, this work must be summed up if the organization involved, and the rest of the movement, is to learn from the experience. But to do so is not to produce a scientific analysis, but rather, to gather and collate personal experiences. The broader, general political and theoretical context must be present before, or outside of the summation for the “facts” to really be of use to Marxist-Leninists.

Finally, it is necessary to address the empiricist aspect of the summation trap. The empiricist deviation contains two errors. First, it fails to adequately understand the legacy of the Marxist-Leninist classics. Empiricists are well versed in the results of the theoretical and political practice of the great Marxist theoreticians, clinging to the conclusions of this practice, but remaining oblivious to the method that was utilized in combining the concepts and raw data that went together to produce the text. The most blatant form of this aspect of empiricism is dogmatism; but it is not the only form. Empiricism is present in all texts that do not utilize a broader theoretical and political context to embrace the science of Marxism-Leninism in all of a communist’s activity.

This is quite clear when we address the second error of empiricism. The empiricist deviation in political practice reduces the theoretical/political tasks of our movement to the gathering and collating of empirical (“concrete”, “factual”) data with the idea of using this data, along with a few political slogans, to supplement the theoretical and political conclusions of previous revolutionaries. The empiricist deviation puts forward the notion, either explicitly or implicitly that we can arrive at a political line by gathering empirical data and bolstering it with “revolutionary” slogans. In fact, the development of political line must detour through theoretical practice. We cannot go directly from empirical facts to political line; but must take the data, trans form it with theory, and then realize a Marxist-Leninist (scientific) political line. The real concrete link between empirical reality and political struggle is mediated with theoretical practice. Empirical data is necessary as the raw material for theory, but this data, no matter what form it takes, is not theory. The theory in Marx’s Capital is clearly illustrated by data; but the theory and politics of Capital cannot be reduced to that data. To attempt to do so, or to fail to conceive of I he difference between them, is a part of the empiricist deviation.

THE EMPIRICIST DEVIATION

The empiricist deviation stems from an inability to realize that there are no pure, or absolute, facts. What we cognate in our minds is an interpretation of reality. An empiricist could say that “What you see is what you get.” A scientist, on the other hand, knows that what we see and hear is only one particular aspect of a more complex whole. Marx especially recognized this when he formulated his theory of surplus value – a theory beyond the comprehension of bourgeois economists who relied on the “obvious” for their theories. Similar to the theory of surplus value in its lack of obviousness to our senses is Einstein’s theory of relativity. Scientific theories are not built simply on empirical facts.

A scientific fact can only be ascertained through theoretical practice. As Harnecker says – the raw materials are transformed. What results is either a scientific concept that replaces an ideological concept in our thinking (the earth is round), or a new scientific concept which rejects an old one – that supercedes it (time and mass are relative). Scientific labor does not act on real objects, but on abstractions (interpretations, constructions) of those objects. Although Marxism is not a physical science, we can use an example from chemistry to illustrate our point. A theory that plastic can be made from oil does not start from the greasy feeling on ones fingertips when oil is touched; but from the molecular structure abstracted in theories, and developed into formulae and plans to implement this knowledge in chemical production plants.

Starting from the abstract – we produce concrete knowledge of the complex whole, the so-called “facts” must be utilized to develop and illustrate this concrete knowledge, but they themselves must first be transformed, as with almost “natural” materials if they are to be of use to human beings.

But this knowledge of the complex whole has no meaning outside of political practice. To stop with theoretical analyses is to commit a theoreticist error. All the scientific concepts in the world are worthless if they are not translated into political line. Thus, the facts we gather and the theories we develop are dictated by political necessity. But it is theoretical practice that is the key factor in going from material reality to a scientific political line.

And so we have returned again to the only safeguard we have against the empiricist gathering of “facts” and manipulating them to bolster conclusions that have already been reached, or collected to “prove” a point. This safeguard is scientific Marxist theory, studied and produced with the class struggle and our goal of building a classless society always in mind. The rectified primacy of theory line offers the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces a political line that will eventually lead us out of many of the problems we face today – localism, economism, empiricism, pragmatism, and theoreticism. The sooner the struggle is taken up for its national implementation, the sooner we will see the fruits of our labor, realized in a genuine communist party and a socialist revolution in the USA.

Endnotes

[1] See especially “An Introduction to Theoretical Practice” in Theoretical Review #4, and “The Primacy of Theory and Political Line” in Theoretical Review 7.

[2] “Building a New Communist Party”, Don H. Wright, Guardian, April 25, 1973.

[3] “Building a New Communist Party”, Michael Klonsky, Guardian, May 2, 1973. This speech, as well as the previously quoted speech by Wright, was made at a party building forum sponsored by the Guardian on March 23, 1973, in New York. Over 1200 people attended the forum and Mike Hamlin of the Black Workers’ Congress and Irwin Silber of the Guardian also spoke. The Guardian printed the major portion of the texts of the speeches, and also has made the full text available on cassette tape.