Noel Ignatin

The POC: A Personal Memoir


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 12, September-October 1979
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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When the Communist Party, USA, entered its period of crisis following the Khrushchev report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on the crimes of Stalin, there arose within the Party in the U.S. at least four different factions. The first of these was the right wing, led by Daily Worker editor John Gates, Fred Fine, and others. The second was the center grouping, led by Eugene Dennis, the Party’s general secretary. The third was the “left,” led by William Z. Foster, Bob Thompson, and Ben Davis. The fourth was the so-called “ultra-Left,” which called itself the Marxist-Leninist Caucus. [1] It was this grouping, out of which grew the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC), with which I was associated.

I joined the CP in Philadelphia in January 1958 (I was seventeen) after about a year of working with Party people in youth activities. At the time, I considered myself in sympathy with Foster’s “left” faction. I knew of the existence of the “ultra-left” through personal contacts with some of its leaders and was in general agreement with its criticisms of the current line and leadership, but felt that its illegal, factional approach was wrong and harmful.

Immediately after I joined the Party, there was a realignment of factional forces on the national level. The center-right alliance, which had been in command of the Party for over a year, broke up and in its place there arose a center-left coalition. The rights began to leave the Party, and the new shift was hailed as a victory by the official “left.”

The “ultra-left” refused to join in the grand realignment. Thus, in place of the four groupings which existed earlier, there were now two: the merged center-“left,” and the extreme left. The extreme left caucus in Philadelphia counted in its ranks virtually the entire South Philadelphia section (mainly white working class) and a number of people from the North Philadelphia (black) section, mostly those who had been part of the black caucus which had formed a few years earlier and maintained a precarious existence in a weakened party. The strength of the caucus in Philadelphia (20-25 people) was roughly equal to that of the dominant group, particularly if only activists were counted and not every card-carrying member.

There were several events which won me over from the legal “left” to the ultra-left caucus. The first was a forum on the Negro question, at which James Jackson of the center-“left” faction spoke. The caucus had earlier sponsored a talk by Harry Haywood and Jackson was the official leadership’s response. When he spoke, it was obvious that he had an integrationist, gradualist approach in contrast to Haywood’s revolutionary defense of the right of self-determination. The second event was the crisis that broke out in the summer of 1958 after the Iraqi revolution, in which U.S. marines were sent to Lebanon. The Party as a whole reacted lethargically. The “ultra-left” caucus came forward with an energetic program which called for leaflets and statements in the Party’s own name (a rarity at the time) as well as the usual resolutions in union meetings, churches, etc. The district leadership called a special meeting of Party activists. At that meeting, the caucus proposals carried. There was one hitch, however: for some months, the South Philadelphia section had been withholding its dues from the Party. A proposal was made that, in view of this situation, a special fund be established to carry out the agreed upon activities. This, of course, was unacceptable to the leadership and so the program of energetic struggle was undermined.

The third event was the official reaction to a proposal I made to the youth branch, of which I was a member. My proposal, very modest in terms, recommended that we do more in our own name instead of functioning simply as conscientious members of the Union, the NAACP, or whatever. It was met with extreme hostility, led by the branch secretary, Daniel Rubin (who is today the National Organizational Secretary of the Party).These three events propelled me into the “ultra-left” caucus, and it was only a couple of months from my first meetings with the caucus that I found myself at its national convention, held on August 16-17, 1958, in a dingy hall on the lower east side of Manhattan. There were sixty-three delegates at the conference, comprising the caucus hard-core membership [2] minus a few who for one reason or another could not be there. They came from the two sections in Philadelphia I have already mentioned, from the waterfront [3] and Lower Harlem sections of New York (both largely Puerto Rican in composition), from Cleveland’s Cedar Central district, from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a steel town, and from the South Side of Chicago. Most of the delegates were working class; a high proportion were black or Puerto Rican. The most prominent individuals present were Harry Haywood; Ted Allen, author of one of the main caucus documents, Two Roads; Joe Dougher, coal miner and Spanish Civil War veteran; Lucille Bethencourt, Smith Act defendant; A. Marino, former maritime activist and New York state committee member; Admiral Kilpatrick, Spanish War veteran; and Armando Roman, Puerto Rican section leader and New York state committee member. Reports were heard on the crisis of the Party, and there was discussion, most of it consisting of recounting of the Party leadership’s capitulation to the ruling class and stressing the impossibility of continuing the struggle from the inside.

The conference adopted a Declaration which stressed several points: uncompromising defense of the Soviet Union and a rejection of the critical stance which the Party had begun to take toward the USSR at the time of Hungary; rejection of the line of peaceful transition to socialism and an affirmation of the proletarian revolution and proletarian dictatorship; defense of the revolutionary right of self-determination of black people in the deep south as the cornerstone of policy on the black question; and a commitment to transforming the Party thoroughly instead of making a few personnel changes at the top as a way to overcome the Party crisis.

National officers were chosen for the new organization: Roman as general secretary, the highest post, Haywood as chairman, and Dougher as organizational secretary. A national committee of nineteen was elected, and it was decided to publish a monthly newspaper, the Vanguard. The Provisional Organizing Committee was officially launched. The first few months following the Conference were taken up mainly with establishing an apparatus, dues structure, etc. and with defining the actual membership. There were two important defections in this period, Haywood and Marino, each charging sectarianism and each taking a small group with him.

One of the first questions the new organization faced was whether to regard itself as a faction of the existing communist movement and therefore aim its efforts at those already in that movement, or see itself as a new organization aiming to elaborate a general program and win over the working class. Typically, it was decided to do both. Thus, alongside of Conference reports and declarations of support from various Party units, there appeared in the third issue of Vanguard (November, 1958) an article about 300 Puerto Rican workers in the Bronx who went on strike against the Company and the Union.

As has been mentioned, a number of the POC leaders in New York were Puerto Rican. Shortly after the POC was founded, the Revolution came to power in Cuba, and this acted as a stimulus to the range of Latin movements which existed in NewYork. POC began having public forums together with the Movimiento Libertador de Puerto Rico, a group led by Pelegrin Garcia, one of the generation of revolutionaries spawned in the 1948 student strike in Puerto Rico.

Just at this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) decided to investigate Communist influence in the Puerto Rican movement. At the public hearings, the CP members who were called adopted a legal defense of pleading the fifth amendment. The POC members, on the other hand, used the hearings as a forum to denounce U.S. imperialism and call for independence for Puerto Rico. Although the existence of POC never came up during the hearings (all the questions concerned membership in the Party), when the hearings were published all those who had defied the Committee were identified as members of the POC, “ a hard-core, extremist group, etc.“ Those so identified included one CP member who had deviated from the Party line and acted in a militant fashion before the Committee! [4] The willingness of HUAC to distinguish so clearly between the CP and the POC helped to expand POC’ s influence among Latin American revolutionary circles in New York.

At about the same time that the POC was splitting from the CP, largely over the issue of defense of the Soviet role in Hungary in 1956, the Marcyites were leaving the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over the same issue, to constitute themselves as the Workers World Party. (This parallel should demonstrate the near uselessness of the labels, “Trotskyism” and “Stalinism.” ) They addressed a letter to the POC, suggesting talks and joint work. The response of the POC was to denounce them, in terms reminiscent of 1938, as counterrevolutionaries, wreckers, saboteurs, etc. Thus, the classic view of Trotskyism was affirmed for the POC. This attitude would be a factor later on in determining POC’s attitude toward the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, in which the SWP played a significant role.

Events themselves began to push the POC to reach out. This was especially so outside of New York, in areas where there was no large CP and former CP circle to aim at. In Philadelphia, between 1960 and 1962, the POC was involved in three areas of mass work. The first, and by far the most important, was the struggle against policy brutality in the North Philadelphia ghetto. POC members took the initiative in forming the North Philadelphia Committee for Equal Justice. Committee members would hear of an incident of police brutality, either through personal contact or through the independent black press. They would visit the family, write and pass out leaflets, hold street corner rallies and pack the courtroom, demanding acquittal for the victim and punishment for the offending cops. After a while, the Committee was able to establish a real presence in the community, to secure a church in which to hold meetings, to discover a couple of lawyers who would work with the Committee, and to develop relations with various black reporters. On one occasion – I think it was 1962 – the Committee actually had an important impact in the city for a short time. The cops had shot and killed a black youth who was an epileptic, and there was a tremendous protest from the black community which forced the city to bring the cop to trial. During the trial, the Committee passed out a leaflet calling for a march on the police station and demanding the death penalty for the copy. A copy of the leaflet found its way into courtroom. When the cop saw it, he fainted. It nearly brought about a mistrial and made all the major papers. Out of this work, the POC was able to recruit three or four individuals who had no previous experience with communism or the left. Most of this work was done by the black comrades, but not all of it; I remember speaking on street corners in the black community.

POC realized correctly that the greatest well of support for the Cuban Revolution was among the Puerto Rican population rather than the liberals and intellectuals being targeted by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. In Philadelphia, the POC founded, together with a few pro-Castro Cubans who had not yet returned to the island, the North American Cuban Solidarity Committee, which immediately went onto the streets in the small barrio there, attempting to link community issues with the struggle for Puerto Rican independence and against U.S. imperialism in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. I remember one fairly successful rally we had, where we attracted a good crowd by playing Cuban revolutionary songs on a car-top loudspeaker. One of the Cubans spoke, I spoke in broken Spanish, and one of the black comrades spoke of black-Latin unity. We were beginning to develop real ties; people came to us with cases of police abuse, they worked with us on leaflets for the community, etc.

A third area of work was the beginnings of some rank and file labor organizing. One comrade worked on the docks and wrote several leaflets attacking the International Longshoremen’s Association leadership – the usual sort of leaflet – and from that came several contacts who worked with POC for a while. Also, we were able to pull together contacts in two different plants in one local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and put out one issue of a rank and file newsletter. One worker, with no previous movement experience, was recruited from that effort.

This work was carried on by about ten people, which was the average membership of the POC in Philadelphia during that time. It was not necessarily the same ten people, for a number of the original members dropped out. But POC demonstrated that in those years – before the rise of the New Left – it was possible to recruit black and white workers to a communist organization, by going directly to them and engaging them in struggle.

Outside of Philadelphia, similar work was going on. In Chicago, POC organized the defense of a black youth who was framed for murder of a teacher at his school. Through street rallies, regular speaking in black churches and leaflets, the Chicago Committee for Equal Justice was able to develop a significant defense campaign.[5]

Even in New York, where the outward turn was most limited, POC organized a defense campaign for Salvador Agron and Luis Antonio Hernandez, two Puerto Rican youths framed on a murder charge. [6]

During that same period, a group of lumber workers in Northern California and Oregon, led by Tom Scribner, who had dropped out of the CP in 1947 along with Harrison George and Vern Smith (that was the real original anti-revisionist group!), made contact with and decided to affiliate with the POC.

In 1962, the POC had nationally about fifty members, with branches in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and the West Coast (the group in Williamsport had dropped out). It was in the fall of 1961, at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, where Khrushchev delivered his attack on the Albanian Party of Labor, that POC learned of the international dimensions of the fight against revisionism. Up until that time, we simply refused to accept all the speculation in the bourgeois press of a split between China and the Soviet Union. Of course, POC was aware of the differences in emphasis between the two parties in their literature, and generally found the Chinese material more valuable, but it did not accept the reality of a split until Chou En-Lai walked out of the Soviet Party Congress.

I left Philadelphia in June of 1962 for an assignment in a locality where there was no POC branch. When I returned at the beginning of 1963 I was struck by the changes which had taken place. Two of the three areas of mass work, the rank and file factory groups and the Puerto Rican work, had totally collapsed and the third area had lost its vitality. The time of the members was now occupied with refining the POC principles to a level of higher purity. This sectarianism was directly related to two new theoretical innovations which had been introduced in those six months.

The first of these was the theory of the bribery of the working class from U.S. super profits, including black and Puerto Rican workers outside of their “national territories.” Whatever merit there may be to the theory, it had a devastating effect on the POC, because it strengthened the tendency, already present, to withdraw from the reform movement.

The second innovation was the adoption of a conspiracy theory of the state, brought about particularly by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of seeing that crisis as a normal part of U.S. Soviet bargaining, POC interpreted it as a joint plot of imperialism and revisionism to discredit the revolutionary movement in Latin America as the precondition for world-wide peaceful coexistence. This conspiratorial view of the world would later reach truly paranoid proportions. It is useful to see the fall of 1962, when these two new notions took root, as a dividing line between two periods of the POC. Not so much that they brought about a reversal of policy, but they solidified negative tendencies which already existed. Up until that time, POC was a legitimate communist organization – a bit sectarian, perhaps, but with real ties to the working class, able to draw upon the abilities and energies of its members to perform truly astounding quantities of work. Its national-racial composition gave it an important subjective advantage in assessing the world of which it was a part. After that time, the organization deteriorated into a pure sect – even worse than a sect, a comic opera version of a sect. One example of this was its attitude toward the black struggles that were growing.

The beginning of 1963 was a time of great ferment in the black community in Philadelphia. There were big demonstrations against police brutality, as well as a great mass struggle to open up Girard College, which was an endowed school for white male orphans. The latter took the form of mass blocking of new construction going on at the school. POC played no role in either of these struggles, in spite of being in an excellent position to do so.

The reason for this had largely to do with a mistaken estimate of the role of black nationalism. At that time, the teachings of Malcolm X were beginning to have an impact in the black community, and some of the key figures in those Philadelphia struggles regarded themselves as revolutionary nationalists, although they did not necessarily share the perspective of the struggle being centered in the South. POC adopted a sectarian stance toward them, in spite of their efforts to involve black POC cadre in the movement.

This was truly tragic, as some of these individuals would later become some of the most important figures in the black movement of the sixties; POC could have learned a great deal from them, and perhaps it could have contributed something to their development. The episode certainly demonstrates that holding a position in favor of the right of self-determination is no guarantee against underestimating the revolutionary potential of the autonomous black movement. (This blunder did not take place without opposition; several black comrades in Philadelphia were expelled for opposing the line.)

That experience in Philadelphia, instead of being recognized as sectarianism and corrected, set the pattern for future POC work in the black movement. The organization would play no role whatsoever in the upsurge to come, and even went so far as to condemn Malcolm X and Black Power for “fostering illusions” about bourgeois democracy.

From that time on, POC degenerated in all areas. It abandoned any work of a united front character except with those in near total agreement with it. It retreated from its limited involvement in the reform movement in favor of propaganda about the evils of the system and the betrayals of the various reformists and revisionists, who included virtually every figure who came forward to articulate the demands of the fledgling movements. What then did its work consist of? It became inwardly oriented. There was a great emphasis on propaganda; leaflets were written which had to be gone over four or five times to eliminate any mistakes before they could be distributed. Major battles were fought over formulations, as if they really made a difference. The preparation of the newspaper, Vanguard, which appeared less frequently and devoted almost its entire space to analyses of revisionism on a world scale [7], occupied more and more of the organization’s time. More stress was placed on internal education, in the interests of “cadre training.” Educationals were revised several times and repeated; this, of course, meant that the members never actually read and studied much. There were five different political economy educationals, yet we never got beyond Wage Labor and Capital and Value, Price and Profit. We read Foundations of Leninism a hundred times and What Is To Be Done? often enough, but never collectively read State and Revolution, or Capital, or even the entire Communist Manifesto. The various “united front” organizations were maintained, and there was even an “Equal Rights Congress” which brought together the POC front groups from the different cities where they existed but these groups had no real existence apart from POC and their work was solely limited to propaganda.

Along with this sectarianism arose the conspiracy theory to which I referred earlier. POC had no notion of the relative independence of the superstructure. According to its doctrine, all the acts of the state were centrally orchestrated, even down to fairly small cases. Thus, POC believed that the slight repression directed its way, and the lack of news coverage of its activities was deliberate bourgeois policy, to prevent knowledge of its work from reaching the masses, especially in view of the generous publicity received by the CP and other misleaders.

Yet, it should be noted that throughout this period of incredible sectarianism, POC managed to recruit workers in small numbers (while continuing to lose members as well). How was this possible? It was achieved largely through the efforts of the members in selling the paper door-to-door in poor neighborhoods. This had a comical side, although I must admit I didn’ t see it at the time; here was this paper, whose lead article was likely to be entitled “Polarization on A World Scale,” being used for outreach work. Yet, to some degree it worked. There were always a few people who would be attracted by the members’ obvious sense of purpose and dream of a better world. These recruits were of two categories: people from the lower depths of society, and moreover people who had no previous independent political activity that would make them want something more than blanket denunciations of every form of struggle around them; and whites from the left who were masochistically drawn to POC’s furious condemnation of intellectuals. I think the Jehovah’s Witnesses are able to grow on much the same basis.

And this brings me to the point: how was the leadership able to stay in power? How was the original grouping of people who had the independence of mind to break with revisionism four years before the Communist Party of China made it “legitimate” to do so, unable to prevent the degeneration of their organization into a cult?

POC had meetings and conferences, like any other organization. Proposals were put to a vote and ratified. Elections were held. It was clearly stated in the statutes that any member had the right to criticize any leader. Yet, none of this made any difference. How was such a thing possible? The starting point is the view of Marxism as revealed truth, as a science whose mastery (or belonging to an organization possessing the mastery) eliminates the need for thought. Thus., critical thought becomes a vice, petit bourgeois weakness to be rooted out. Discipline becomes the greatest virtue – discipline and devotion to the final aim. Along with the notion of revealed truth comes the conception of those having it being a small band ranged against a hostile world. The willingness to subordinate one’s doubts about policy in the interests of the groups’ cohesion becomes the test of the faithful. And this is reinforced by a general anti-intellectualism which became the dominant tradition of the Comintern, where the model cadre was one who could take the policy (whatever policy) already adopted and express it in colorful “working class” terms. From its birth until the summer of 1962, POC went through at least five major political splits that I can recall. The first two, right after the organization’s founding, were with Haywood and Marino. The third was with Joe Dougher, in 1960. The fourth was with Ted Allen, in 1962. The fifth was with the black grouping in Philadelphia. In each case, the oppositionists were identified as anti-organization and isolated. Others, seeing the futility of opposition, simply left. [8] Thus, none of the top leaders were left but the one person – Roman, the general secretary – who became the embodiment of the group.

After 1962, there was no political opposition left within POC. There were few members with an independent history of struggle that might be capable of developing an opposition. Yet, the splits and purges didn’t end. They were invariably accompanied by personal slander, and approved unanimously. As an organization loses touch with the outside world, its inner dynamic becomes more important to it; the internal struggles become the means by which the group’s cohesion is maintained. In addition, as within any totalitarian structure, the leadership must surround itself not merely with loyal followers, but with individuals who have no possibility of ever becoming centers of opposition. That means it must surround itself with mediocrities.

After 1962, the process of purging POC took the form of eliminating all those who, however loyal they were to the line, were not perceived as mediocrities. I was an example of this: I was expelled in 1966, less than two months after having been “elected” to a high position. (I think that the first fish that managed to crawl up onto dry land from the ocean slime and discover a world of light and fresh breezes could not have been more shocked than I on being propelled from that cultish environment. Being expelled from the POC was the best thing that ever happened to me, surpassing in value being recruited to it originally.)

A more important example was Nelson Peery, today the leader of the Communist Labor Party (CLP). Nelson was a loyal member who had accepted all the purges and line shifts, etc. He was expelled about a year after I was, not for failing to carry out the line, but for carrying it out too well. He had been sent to Los Angeles to build a branch and, largely due to the force of his own personality, had succeeded in doing so. This was enough to make Roman regard him as a potential center of opposition, and he, too, was accused of all kinds of bad behavior when he was kicked out, his expulsion unanimously approved by those who had praised his work a short time before.

So far as I know, the POC still exists, under a different name. (It is now the “American Workers Communist Party.”) It has about fifteen members, and thinks it is keeping alive the revolutionary tradition in a period when struggle is impossible. As for the former POC members, most have dropped out of politics. A few are trying to reconstitute a better POC, without the flaws of the last one. Occasionally, some of the former members, who shared an experience which touched them deeply, get together socially, but they have little in common beyond a bitterness toward Armando Roman. At one such gathering, someone suggested that the ex-members get together at the next conference and outvote him.


1. The “ultra-left” broke with Foster very early in the factional struggle, largely over his willingness to sacrifice the total struggle against revisionism in the interests of formally preserving the Party. It was the experience of observing him operate in the 1956-68 period that led the extreme left to reevaluate his alleged opposition to Browder over a decade earlier, an “opposition” which was tolerated only because it was kept a total secret from the rank and file. This appreciation of Foster’s conciliatory role is shared by none of the more recent “anti-revisionist” groups, all of whom make him their hero and guiding star.

2. There were quite a few who were willing to meet with the caucus in their own locality, but balked when it came to calling a national conference, with its implications of a formal break. Several of those who later founded Progressive Labor fell into this category. They argued that it was premature to break with the Party, that it was still possible to wage struggle within. POC called this group the “conciliators of revisionism” ; when they did leave three years later, they took a smaller number with them than POC did, almost solidly white in composition.

3.In his autobiography, A Long Journey, George Charney refers to these comrades as “a rather motley group who lived on their past reputation” and “a shriveled semi-anarchist group that displayed its militancy in wordy battles within party meetings.” A few pages later, he rhapsodizes over Seymour Martin Lipset, James Wechsler, Harrison Salisbury, Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin and Daniel Bell. Certainly none of these would ever “display all the frustration and instability of a ’seaman’ cast on the beach for twenty years.”

4.This comrade, the late Ramon Acevedo, soon joined POC.

5. I have since learned that the POC leadership, in a criminal display of sectarianism, virtually sabotaged that defense effort. That youth – no longer a youth! – is still in prison, absolutely innocent.

6. Agron, a revolutionary figure in the prison movement, has recently escaped from jail.

7.For example, the April-May 1964 issue was eight pages long and carried five articles; part one of an analysis of the Suslov Report to the CPSU Central Committee; a May Day article which dealt with the growth of the anti-revisionist movement in the world; an article entitled “Imperio-Revisionist Skin Game” about the crisis of neo-colonialism; a long anti-revisionist article from the Marxist-Leninists of New Zealand; and a plenum report which dealt with internal questions of “growth,” cadre policy, education, etc. This was not an exceptional issue.

8. Tom Scribner, the West Coast organizer, was included among this number, as were nearly all those who had come out of the CP with the original group and who made up the middle leadership. HR>