Jim Dann and Hari Dillon

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


It was the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) that in essence founded the Progressive Labor Movement (PLM) and PLP. They provided the theoretical guidance to the young movement on all levels. The first theoretical piece of PLM, “Road to Revolution” (1963) was basically an Americanized version of the Polemical articles then appearing in the Chinese press. It was neither as clear nor as sharp (Nor could one expect that the first pamphlet of a fledgling organization would compare with the product of the dictatorship of the proletariat in China) as such Chinese masterpieces as ̶More on the Differences Between Comrade Togliatti & Us” or “Long Live Leninism.” But since “Road to Revolution” hewed carefully to the line being put forward by the CPC it was a sound theoretical foundation on which to build a new party.

It was easy for the young PLM to become the early favorite of CPC within the USA. The CPC was fairly conservative with whom it established fraternal relations, preferring people whom it had known and worked with. Milt Rosen and Mort Scheer, both had been full-time paid functionaries of the U.S. Communist Party (CP) for at least 6 years and were known to the CPC. Others of the founders were the sons or relatives of famous CP personages or had visited China under CP auspices previously. Thus PLM started out with the powerful backing of the largest communist party in the world.

The year 1963 began with the publication by the CPC of “Leninism and Modern Revisionism” and ended with the publication of “Peaceful Coexistence – Two Diametrically Opposed Policies,” the sixth general polemic against the Soviet CP. 18 Powerful documents were published by the CPC. These polemics against Khrushchev revisionism electrified the world. The CPC defended Marxism-Lenin-ism and put forth the revolutionary concepts of Marx and Lenin that had been buried for at least a decade. Millions of communists all over the world were attracted to revolutionary Marxism and galvanized into action by the CPC polemics. This was especially true in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The pro-China parties the world over experienced rapid growth and great prestige as a result. The PLM, just 1 year old, doubled and redoubled in size.

The PLM entered a near vacuum in the U.S. mass movement. The two “socialist” parties the CP and the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) were conservative and isolated. The trade-union movement was dormant, thoroughly controlled by the ruling class. The ban-the-bomb movement had done some good in weakening the cold war mentality, but aside from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee there was no anti-imperialist movement at all. The big movement center was the civil rights movement then approaching its climax. But an organization such as PLM was sorely needed. The air was electric with bold new ideas, the polemics of the CCP, the charismatic influence of Cuba, the bold example of the civil rights movement.

A new generation of revolutionaries was brought up under the ideological guidance of the CPC and the revolutionary appeal of people like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Mohammed Babu, Ho Chi Minh; in the U.S. this included Robert Williams, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Dylan and the SNCC people. PLM embraced them all and then in its boldest move organized in quick succession trips to Cuba in defiance of the government travel ban. It was a brilliant stroke. The audacity of the move won the admiration and support of the most left elements in the growing anti-imperialist movement, in the civil rights movement, and among the vocal civil liberties advocates. PLM now had a core of activists with enthusiasm, courage, and imagination, something which the ex-CP functionaries in and by themselves were unable to provide.

The new activists, inspired by the revolutionary polemics of the CPC and the growing mass movement, carved out for PLM and PLP a place in the vanguard of the rising anti-imperialist, anti-racist tide that was inundating the U.S. in the years 1963-1964.

In January 1963 PL sent food and money to Hazard, Kentucky starting a serious campaign to aid the embattled coal miners in their protracted violent strike. A PL sponsored trade-union solidarity Committee on January 24 held a support rally of 800.[1] Although in the end better-heeled forces took control of the support campaign, PL’s efforts were useful.

In February 1963 PL started a new theoretical magazine, the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly. While it put out only 4 numbers and never replaced the influential Monthly Review it was a contribution to the CPC-led anti-revisionist struggle on the theoretical front.

In June of 1963 PL organized 59 students to spend a month in Cuba in defiance of the travel ban.[2]

In that same summer PL organized an election campaign for Bill Epton in Harlem and numerous rent-strike and other community based campaigns in the lower East Side of New York City.

The September HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings were disrupted by PLM. The same month PLM physically defeated several attempts of Nazis and Cuban counter-revolutionaries to break-up meetings held by the returnees from Cuba in New York, Washington and San Francisco. In Washington, SNCC-led students from Howard were instrumental in PLP’s victory. In December PL led hundreds in protests against the New York murder of 2 Puerto Rican Youth.

In April 1964 PLM drove HUAC out of Buffalo after a broad-based protest movement. It was HUAC’s last road show.

On May 2nd, 1964 PLM organized the first major anti-Vietnam march in New York City. The idea for the march was presented by Milt Rosen at a broad-based socialist conference at Yale. The May 2nd Movement (M2M) was formed out of the action, and subsequently led a whole series of actions to expose and publicize the growing U.S. aggression in Viet Nam. Two M2M demonstrations in Times Square in August, 1964 were heavily attacked by the police.[3]

In June 1964 PLM led a second contingent of students to Cuba. This time 84 students defied the travel ban to spend more than 2 months in Cuba.[4]

In spring, 1964 PL founded a weekly newspaper Challenge which almost immediately began agitating against the vicious police brutality in Harlem. Week after week there were street rallies in Harlem protesting the frame-up of the Harlem 6 and other police atrocities. In July 1964 one Lt. Gilligan murdered a 15-year-old Black youth. Harlem exploded into rebellion and PLM was there in the thick of it passing out “Wanted for Murder, Gilligan the Cop” posters, holding illegal demonstrations, forming a broad-based Harlem Defense Council. PLM leader Bill Epton appeared to be the personal leader of the rebellion. His subsequent arrest and trial for “criminal anarchy” provoked worldwide protests. Bill McAdoo, who organized the Harlem Defense Committee for PLM, in the fall spoke in San Francisco; 500 Black workers came on a moment’s notice.[5] Such was the fame of PL and the Harlem Rebellion. A vicious grand jury probe of PL’s activities in Harlem resulted in a jail sentence for numerous young PL activists, who refused to testify. But in the atmosphere of 1965 the police persecution could only strengthen PLM.

At its founding convention in April 1965, PLP drew 300 activists around its anti-revisionist (pro-Chinese CP) line, its identification with Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and its militant activity. The new PLP was conscious that it was up and coming. The young revolutionaries had a good mass style; while holding forth for communist principle they united with diverse groups including the MPI (Puerto Rican Independence Movement, now the Puerto Rican Socialist Party), the National Guardian, the Freedom Now Party, Berkeley activists like Jerry Rubin and others. PL brought its militancy and its Marxist-Leninist line into movements it built around mass issues like “End Police Brutality,” “Freedom to Travel to Cuba,” “No Rent for Rats,” and “U.S. Get Out of Vietnam.” PLP openly proclaimed and fought for its communist beliefs but pitched in and fought around reform issues of almost any character. It was a formula for growth and influence.

A constitution for the new Party was approved by the convention. It was based on an article “On The Party” by Milt Rosen published in PL magazine (V.4, n.1). The democratic aspects of the constitution were based on a firm conviction that the new organization would never fall into the bureaucratic habits of the old CP. The convention mandated a newly elected National Committee (NC) every two years, elected club and regional officers. Also it called for minority reports from NC meetings and regular criticism and self-criticism of the leadership. A twenty-person NC was elected.

The special place the Black Liberation Movement had in the hearts and minds of PLers was recognized by the establishment of a semi-autonomous Black Liberation Commission. This commission was to be solely responsible for formulating the slogans and tactics around issues of Black Liberation. The Convention also demanded the Party unconditionally support independence for Puerto Rico.

At the time of the Convention the only two areas of the U.S. that had more than two or three Party members were New York City and San Francisco. The New York-San Francisco axis would always remain at the center of the Party and at no time until 1977 would more than 50% of the Party be outside of the New York, Boston, or San Francisco branches. Since these cities are largely commercial, not industrial, the Party’s inability to go beyond these two cities as its major centers presaged its historical failure to gain a toehold within the industrial working class. Nevertheless steps were taken in 1965 to build a more national Party. Two of the most promising young activists, recruited out of the mass movement, not of the old CP, Phil Taylor and Jared Israel, went to Los Angeles and Boston respectively to set up PL branches there. Within a year there was a core of 10 members in each of these two cities.[6] Also Andy Rakochy went to Chicago for the same purpose but with less success and a former-CP leader in Seattle, C. Van Lydegraf, joined PLP with a large group of dissident CPers and he won a sympathyzing group across the border in British Columbia, called the Progressive Workers Movement, to be a fraternal Canadian group.[7] Besides the Chinese Communist Party, the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF), the Albanian Party of Labor and the Cuban Communist Leadership, the PLP established mutual fraternal ties with the Liga Socialista, Puertoriquena, the Peoples’ Progressive Party of British Guyana, and the new revolutionary government of Zanzibar. Challenge, in its June 1st, 1965 issue featured special messages to PLP by leaders of various national liberation movements such as Frelimo in Mozambique, the MPLA in Angola, ZAPU in Zimbabwe, and the Algerian revolutionary leadership.

The activist PLPers and M2Mers plunged into the burgeoning antiwar movement in 1965. PL’ers in New York and San Francisco, and in Boston and Los Angeles were at the heart of the new anti-war committees that were springing up to protest U.S. aggression in Vietnam. PLP introduced the then radical slogan “U.S. Get Out of Vietnam” (The CP slogan was “Stop the Bombing – Negotiate,” this implied the U.S. imperialists had a right to be in Vietnam and was a pacifist, plague-on-both-your houses slogan and PL was right to oppose it) and around this slogan organized a firm anti-imperialist Left within the generally pacifist or CP-dominated anti-war committees. Anti-imperialist contingents led by PLP participated in the April, 1965 SDS march on Washington, the Anti-war marches on the Oakland Army Base in the fall of 1965, the New York Fifth Avenue March in November 1965 and scores of militant actions like stopping the troop trains, campus anti-draft rallies, donating blood to the NLF, setting up the “free university” movement. Members of PLP spoke as open communists at the Vietnam Day Teach-in at Berkeley, the Teach-in at City College of New York, and elsewhere.

The anti-war phenomenon was immensely liberating after the 20 years of cold war. The SDS march on Washington, which had speakers ranging from a liberal Senator to SNCC’s Bob Moses, was brought to its feet by Phil Ochs’ devastating song “I’m a Liberal” which shattered so many cold war myths. The early Vietnam teach-ins were of this character. Liberals from the establishment trying to keep the protests mild and patriotic found themselves on the same platform with those who proclaimed solidarity with the NLF. The 1966 UCLA teach-in, which had heard a range of speakers from conservative to radical liberal was electrified when PLP’s Bill MacAdoo bitterly denounced the white liberal mentality, then he openly called for the U.S. Army to mutiny: “Turn your guns on the Generals,” he said to the shocked audience. “Treason at UCLA Teach-in,” screamed the headlines the following day. Yet rally after rally the cold war myths were smashed, the liberals were denounced, and hundreds of thousands of students became radicals and suddenly open to revolutionary thought. Demonstrations such as the one in Berkeley to stop the troop trains brought the militancy of the civil rights movement into this cauldron of the anti-war movement, where old myths were being shattered and revolutionary thought was becoming a respectable trend.

Through it all PLP urged the anti-war Movement to rely on the working class. This was a specific contribution of Milt Rosen who as early as 1964 wrote a key article, “U.S. Workers, Force for Revolution.” In the summer of 1965 Rosen wrote a three-part series for Challenge, which while hailing the NLF and the U.S. Peace Movement pointed out the necessity of basing the anti-war movement squarely on the working class. In this task Rosen had to defeat deep ingrained anti-working class prejudices among many of the young PLP activists. Rosen helped educate a generation of U.S. revolutionaries on the necessity of class-based politics.

Nevertheless when it came to analyzing international events from a communist perspective Rosen was often at sea. In this period Rosen’s inability to understand even the rudiments of how imperialism functioned was not very significant because the PLP followed the lead of the Chinese Communist Party, who understood these matters better. In October 19, 1965 Rosen wrote an article for Challenge on the two-week old fascist coup in Indonesia, directed by U.S. imperialism. In his article Rosen failed to realize how U.S. imperialism had controlled the Indonesian state structure all along through the U.S. financed fascist Army, and how President Sukarno, whom Rosen hailed as a “Left” force and whose writings had been reprinted in PL magazine, was never anything but a figurehead for the U.S. imperialist-controlled fascist ruling class of Indonesia. (ln hailing Sukarno PLP was following the CPC which beat the record in singing the praises of “Bung Karno.”) Rosen’s inability to analyze world events at times led him to make rash and subjective predictions such as the one in this article in 1965: “Sukarno re-affirmed Indonesia’s solid support to revolution and anti-imperialist positions in Asia... It would appear that the coup has fallen far short of its mark. Sukarno has returned to Jakarta. (Actually he was under Army arrest.) The communists are participating in the parliament, while the other party leaders are organizing against the counter-revolution.”

Although it is too early to fully predict the immediate outcome, it is safe to say that in the near future millions of progressive Indonesians will rally to destroy once and for all U.S. intrigue in alliance with local fascists.” (The fascist coup killed 500,000 and thoroughly destroyed the Communist Party.)

PL’s penchant for wildly subjective predictions of the future was to cause PLP no end of grief in the Vietnam anti-war movement later on.

Yet this weakness was undetected in the heady anti-war atmosphere of 1966. PLP and M2M led or participated in all manner of protests, demonstrations and actions against the war in Vietnam. PL’s anti-war activity assumed an almost daily character. PL was involved in massive marches involving hundreds of thousands in New York, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles; smaller marches in places like New Orleans and Newark, protest meetings in such parts of Middle America as Bellingham, Washington; Las Vegas, Nevada; Orange County, California, and scores of other places, antiwar election campaigns in 4 districts of New York and New Jersey, campus anti-war demonstrations at CCNY, UCLA, Harvard, San Francisco State, Berkeley, U of Chicago, Brooklyn College, Roosevelt University (Chicago), Los Angeles City College and Columbia. Most significantly PL tried to take the anti-war movement to the working class with anti-war rallies in New York’s garment district, marches in Harlem and anti-war committees in at least two New York Unions. When PLP (along with some independent forces like Jerry Rubin) was singled out by HUAC in August, 1966, for being the communists responsible for the anti-war movement, it was HUAC, not PLP that was destroyed. PLP brought 800 people for 3 days of the sharpest struggle that Capital Hill had seen in 30 years. PL members shocked the inquisitors when they openly proclaimed their communist beliefs and then went on into long sharp detailed explanations, which didn’t spare the HUAC Congressmen being called every name in the book. There were scores of arrests but each arrest was more costly politically to HUAC than to PLP. The resulting final defeat of HUAC (they never had a public hearing again) was brilliantly organized by PLP inside and outside the hearing room.


Abbreviations Used in Endnotes

EA: Eyewitness Account: Some 30 former members of PLP contributed to these accounts, including seven former NC members, at least one of whom was present at all NC meetings between April, 1965 and March, 1977. Whenever this citation is used the account has been carefully crosschecked with other witnesses.

CD: Challenge-Desafio, PL's national newspaper.

PL: PL magazine, PL's national theoretical magazine.

IB: PL internal bulletin.

CW: Collected works.

[1] PL, V. 2, No. 2, February, 1963, p. 5.

[2] PL, V. 2, No. 7-8, July-August, 1963, p. 16.

[3] PL, V. 3, No. 10-11, September-October, 1964, p. 17.

[4] PL, V. 3, No. 8-9, July-August, 1964, p. 16.

[5] PL, V. 10, No. 1, August-September, 1975, p. 65.

[6] EA

[7] EA