Jim Dann and Hari Dillon

The Five Retreats: A History of the Failure of the Progressive Labor Party


Challenge-Desafio (C-D), PLP’s newspaper, accurately reflects the theory and practice of the organization. It is tightly controlled by the National Steering Committee and is their main political tool. C-D is used by them to shape the work of the Party nationwide. Challenge sales are considered by the PL leadership to be a central task of Party-building. Party members are encouraged to use C-D as their main source of study and information. (Many PL members never read anything else).

For all these reasons, we can see that an analysis of C-D can throw some light on the question of PL’s failure. Such an analysis shows that Challenge is filled with bullying talk, fantasizing, systematic lies and distortions, and contempt for workers.

Challenge talks “tough.” The reader is initially confronted with super-“militant” headlines such as: “Smash (Crush, Attack, Flatten, Bury, Rout, Defeat, Stomp, Hit or even Melt) the Bosses!”

Articles often end on empty threats like “Let the Bosses tremble!” “Their days of fun and profit are numbered!” “PLP will put them six feet under!” “Death and destruction to the fascist capitalist pigs!” (all quoted from C-D 9/22/77).

Occasionally, PLP carries out what they call a “bold” action (which of course falls far short of fulfilling the threats). Challenge describes these actions in comical pseudo-military jargon. About a legal and peaceful PL demonstration during the Humboldt Park rebellions in June, 1977, we read:

“A lot of us tend to underestimate the Party’s experience and our own experience in the class struggle. The tactical plan [including taking the Chicago Transit Authority to the park], agreed upon at the meeting prior to the march, was excellent. It combined the best aspects of offensive and defensive strategy.” (6-30-77, p. 2)

About a small sit-in in an ABC-TV office in Detroit:

“PLP invades ABC over KKK on TV” “... we seized an executive office and firmly held our ground until we were all arrested 1 1/2 hours later. We had vowed not to leave until ABC had agreed to our demands...” [which ABC did not do – and yet the action was termed an overwhelming success] ... We divided all available forces into two groups – an assault force and a back-up force... we drove past their armed guards and entered ABC – the bosses and their state apparatus are not all-powerful or invincible; they are weak and they can (and will) be crushed! One pipsqueak executive had the audacity to block our path in one of the corridors. That punk quickly moved aside as he realized we were about to turn him into a ’human rug’ [Talk about heroism!] and what is more, the police... were extremely afraid of us. We were not a large group, but we were armed with an undaunted spirit... The ABC-TV bosses and the pigs understood it was not just our small force which they had to deal with but the impending wrath of the entire working class. And that thought had the bastards literally shaking and shivering. . .” [It’s amazing they managed to arrest the PL’ers!] (8-17-77 p. 5)

The absurd glorification of these tactics sometimes leads to out-and-out sadism:

“The union goon staggered against the wall as blood poured from his forehead... Another blow sent him reeling to the floor, he screamed in terror and passed out!” (7-3-75)

The contrast between Challenge’s tough talk and PL’s actual cautious practice was highlighted by a NYC PL leaflet. C-D had run several full page ads for the PL October 1 demonstrations, featuring the red star and a machine gun. From the leaflet:

“Some people think that because there is a gun on this poster we intend to bring guns to the match... Eventually millions of workers will pick up guns... We do not want people to bring guns to this march, and will prohibit anyone from bringing such weapons.”

Challenge described the world not as it is, but as PL would like it to be. The following are a few typical examples.

Headlines: “As Capitalism Wilts, Cities Crumble” (3-10-77), “A Cold Wave Cripples Bosses’ Economy” (2-10-77), “Communists Lead Labor Left to Zap Sellouts” (1-29-76).

About PL’s October 1, 1977 “Marches for jobs and socialist revolution” which is mentioned 15 times in the twelve pages of the Sept. 22, 1977 issue of C-D, we are told:

“These marches can propel such a mass movement forward to influence millions affected by unemployment and racism, to understand that Capitalism is the cause of these evils and to understand the reason for growing fascism in the U.S. and therefore to smash it.” (P. 11, emphasis added).

“Readers, take a giant step towards bringing about the destruction of this decadent capitalist system. March on October 1...” (P. 8, emphasis added).

“When we say joining these marches will put the working class on the road to smashing capitalism and racism, fascism and war, we are not engaged in some idle chatter.” (P. 11)

“... it is for these goals that we are building a mass movement and to welcome thousands of workers into PLP.” (P. 4, emphasis added).

In reality, the marches were to be noticed by only a few thousand and influence a few hundred members and friends of PL. PLP has less than 500 members and can look to the recruitment of at most a few dozens in the coming period, which will not replace those lost through splits or attrition. These quotes are typical.

Challenge articles are thoroughly permeated with wishful thinking, unrealistic estimates and out-and-out fantasy. It’s hard to know where to draw the line between fantasy and outright prevarication, but it’s clear that often, Challenge goes beyond day-dreaming and consciously lies. For example, on 1-12-77, the C-D headline announced “Texas Farmworkers Kick Out Sellouts, Take Over Union.” The article claimed that the independent and militantly-led Texas Farmworkers Union (TFW) was taken over by rank and filers led by PLP. This report was totally false. In reality, the Chavez staff-members, who had been sniping at the TFW leaders, finally seized the headquarters and the bank account in co-operation with some nationalists and some naive PL friends. However the leadership of the strike movement in the fields remained in the hands of the tested TFW-leaders. When a PL cadre from Houston went down to the Valley to pass out that issue of Challenge (The local PL “friends” wouldn’t touch it), he was confronted by 20 people who demanded PL retract all the lies in the article. Nothing more was heard in C-D about this PL “victory” in Texas.

On April 15, 1977, at least 800 people demonstrated against apartheid at the Davis Cup tournament in Southern California where a South African team was playing. People poured oil on the court, and a number were arrested. This got national news coverage. PL did not participate (even though invited by the coalition that organized the action). The next day PL had what was praised by the L.A. Times as an “orderly picket of 40 people” while a few symbolically unfurled a banner and got arrested. Yet Challenge’s front page headline story (4-28-77) deliberately confused the two actions, implicitly taking credit for the first one.

Another common C-D technique is to distort figures. C-D (5-12-77) claimed 350 marched with PL for May Day in SF; three separate eyewitness accounts produced totals between 160 and 180 marchers. Two years earlier, at the Los Angeles May Day march in 1975, a member was asked to count the demonstrators. He averaged out the results of nearly 10 counts to find about 500 (no count was over 550). Challenge claimed 800. And two years previous to that, at the May Day demonstration in 1973, which C-D claimed brought a “Red Sky Over Washington” with 2500 marchers, actually consisted of 1100 people according to an honest count by the organizers.

Yet another frequent type of lie is by omission. The typical “struggle” article carefully selects the information included to give the wrong impression to readers in another part of the country. For example in C-D (6-22-77, P. 5) is an article about a PL demonstration of “40” at the University of California at Berkeley against anti-Semitic incidents, which had occurred a month before. The article failed to mention that only four demonstrators were UC students (the others were PL members from off-campus). Of these 4, all were white, three had been in and around PL for 7 years, and the other one left the demonstration in disgust during a long, sectarian speech by a PL member.

Was this low turn-out of UC students due to widespread apathy on campus? No! To the contrary: the article fails to mention that the PL demonstration was scheduled to conflict with (1) a militant demonstration of UCB students at the Regent’s meeting against UC investments in South Africa, and (2) an ACLU-sponsored forum on the Camp Pendleton 14 versus the KKK which was attended by 150 people, including a large proportion of black students and community people.

So the facts clearly show PL’s total isolation on campus. Yet C-D concludes the article with the standard “optimistic” paragraph:

“The march was very spirited and well received as several people signed up for CAR and 40 copies of C-D were sold. By going boldly into the dorms and fraternity rows we showed [to whom?!] that students can be won to the anti-fascist and anti-racist line of CAR and PLP.”

Some of the more blatant and consistent omissions entail activities by rival Left groups. These are automatically ignored, even if they are germane or central to the subject of the article. For example, the participation in, and even leadership at a certain level of the Revolutionary Union (now the Revolutionary Communist Party) in the West Virginia miners’ wildcats was never mentioned even once in the dozen C-D articles on the subject from 1975 to 1977. Yet even Business Week had to discuss their role.

Major anti-racist struggles such as the 10-year fight against the eviction of Filipino and Chinese tenants of the International Hotel in San Francisco, which involved thousands at many levels including militant fights with the cops, or demonstrations against the Bakke decision, also involving thousands, are at best mentioned in passing, and then only to attack the leadership of those struggles and assert the correctness of PL’s line.

Another type of omission is PL’s defeats and setbacks, which are covered up or not mentioned at all. An example: for at least a year, every article on a trade union struggle concluded that a PL fraction was needed at that shop. Yet no PL fraction with a lifespan of more than one meeting ever existed anywhere in the country!

Finally, all facts which would tend not to support the current line are also excluded. Thus in the abovementioned Texas article, the PL united front with the Chavistas, the La Raza Unida and the Brown Berets was not mentioned because the NSC line then was, that workers were ready to follow PL leadership directly and united fronts with “revisionists and nationalists” were outlawed.

The PL leadership’s justification for the exaggerations, lies, distortions and omissions is that Challenge looks “dialectically” at what is “coming into being” and emphasizes it. But given PL’s record of thoroughgoing retreat from the mass movements why should we believe that PL leadership of the working class is “coming into being?” On the contrary, the trend is that PL has been dying a slow death for years, while the Marxist-Leninist Left has been steadily growing in this country.

Who is Challenge written for?

“Svoboda is a worthless little rag. Its author – indeed, this is precisely the impression it creates, that one person has written it all, from beginning to end – claims to write popularly ’for the workers.’ But what we have here is not popularization, but talking down in the worst sense of the term. There is not one single phrase without embellishments, without ’popular’ similes and ’popular’ catchwords... Outworn socialist ideas are chewed over in this ugly language without any new data, any new examples, any new analysis, and the whole thing is deliberately vulgarized... The vulgar writer assumes that his reader does not lead him in his first steps towards serious knowledge, but in a distortedly simplified form, interlarded with jokes and facetiousness, hands out ’ready-made’ all the conclusions of a known theory, so that the reader does not even have to chew but merely to swallow what he is given.” (Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 5 pp. 311-12).

This quote from Lenin, written in 1901, shows that newspapers like Challenge have plagued the revolutionary movement for a long time. The overall low journalistic quality of C-D combined with its contempt for workers as shown by the bullying style, the exaggerations, lies and distortions, guarantee that most first-time readers never buy the paper a second time. This is reinforced by C-D’s contempt for the demands and goals of reform movements. About a slate running for union office:

“We will regard the number of union members and friends we bring to Washington, not the number of votes we get, as the measure of our success”. (9-22-77 P. 3).

About a union contract:

“Phone workers won’t be fooled with promises of better dental care; we know that healthy teeth mean nothing when they take you to the battlefield!”

“Victory for auto workers in the ’76 contract is scores and hundreds of auto workers joining PLP and PLP fractions.” (9-16-76)

About the legal defense of one of the Camp Pendleton 14:

“His lawyer plans to appeal, but the main appeal to be made is to the masses of soldiers and workers to crush the racists and demand the charges be dropped.” (9-15-77 P. 4)

About the fight for a fired welfare worker’s job:

“One worker asked whether we were using Lou Etta’s case as a ’publicity stunt’ to build the Party. The answer is basically, yes.” (10-7-76).

In fact, Challenge is not a weapon of the working class. It is the drug of the PL membership! While many don’t pay much attention to C-D, every week, a number of Party members skim through the paper searching for evidence of PL successes. The evidence is scant, but the rhetoric is plentiful and morale is sometimes boosted for another week. The fact that “break-throughs” only last for a week or two (e.g. the Texas farmworkers “victory” mentioned above), that figures are known to be inflated, and that deep inside no one really believes Challenge success stories is immaterial.

This is not to say that there is no fight-back within PL against Challenge. PL members generally don’t read very much of C-D.

Most hardly sell it at all. Once in a while criticisms of the paper or of specific articles are raised in club discussions and letters are written. A major battle to improve C-D took place around the 1973 convention. About 20 articles, pro and con, were written for the internal discussion, including one by Milt Rosen defending C-D’s style as “sharp” and reflecting “class hatred.” Many of the criticisms of C-D were correct and far-sighted, but the convention resolved to keep Challenge as it was, after a “struggle” which consisted mainly of branding C-D critics as “right-wingers.”

Some of the criticisms centered around what type of articles should be printed, with many people arguing for more international and analytical articles. In 1976, this point was finally conceded by the NSC. The reason was probably the lack of PL-led struggles to write about. At any rate C-D’s format changed. The “analysis” articles on the whole turned out to be disappointing since they continued to reveal PL’s ideological poverty and still often lacked data or facts to back up the assertions (e.g. “U.S.S.R. Top Imperialist Dog” which argued that the USSR was stronger than the US and based itself entirely on data carefully selected by military lobbyists in Washington).

But two good developments came in 1976. The first one was two pages each issue of letters, largely unedited and often critical of C-D and PL. These quickly became the most widely read and talked about pages in the paper among PL members and friends.

In addition, a page was devoted to culture and was edited in San Francisco by a knowledgeable member who had been waging a 5-year struggle against PL’s gross amateurism in its attitude towards bourgeois and proletarian culture. Previously C-D cultural reviews had exhibited every possible problem from praising racist and sexist TV shows and movies (for example, “About the only good thing to do with a TV set is not to turn it on, except for a few shows that we consider a little entertaining (’Good Times,’ ’Mash,’ ’Sanford and Son,’ ’Mary Tyler Moore,’ ’Rhoda’ and ’Marcus Welby, MD’)” (3-13-75), to attacking revolutionary theatre (several outstanding plays by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, including their production of Brecht’s The Mother).

For six months the cultural page started to develop some Marxist-Leninist cultural criticism, and was even praised by several non-PL’ers, including several serious revolutionary artists.

But these improvements were at best peripheral and all very short-lived. The cultural page editor was purged just prior to the split for having internally criticized a sectarian C-D review of the TV program “Roots.” (2-10-77 P. 10) But at all times in essence C-D remained a “worthless little rag.” Its bullying talk reflected PLP’s anarchist line. Its fantasizing reflected PLP’s abandonment of dialectical materialism in favor of idealism. Its lies reflected PLP’s corruption. Its contempt of workers reflected PLP’s gross sectarianism. And finally, its tiny (but dwindling) readership guarantees its complete insignificance.