Jim Dann and Hari Dillon

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


The evolution of PLP from a Marxist-Leninist Party into an anarchist party is the history of struggle between two lines within the Party – a Marxist-Leninist working class line vs. the petty-bourgeois anarchist line. With each defeat of the Marxist-Leninist opposition a concurrent process occurred in the leadership, a process of corruption of the leadership, convinced of their own infallibility, in short a process of bourgeoisification. Thus a cadre like Linder who was once a revolutionary worker became a petty-bourgeois hack, and at the top level, Rosen and Scheer, step-by-step lost their feeling for the working class and for the international communist movement; they slowly turned into corrupt bureaucrats, similar to the ones they had once fought in the CP. In the middle level the process occurred also: New recruits with no experience in mass work and less understanding of Marxist-Leninist theory were hired as “full-timers.” They lost what ties they had to the working class or student movement and instead increasingly emphasized ties with the paymaster in New York. This process occurred quantitatively throughout the 15 year history of PLP. Throughout this period individual members fought the retreats, criticized the sectarianism and struggled for a Marxist line. They were almost always put down and the anarchist tendency became more solidified. This process took qualitative leaps in the major struggles the leadership waged against Marxism-Leninism. This was mainly because in these struggles the NSC felt threatened, and unquestioning loyalty to the leadership became the sine qua non of each cadre. Meanwhile some of the better Marxist-Leninist cadre were lost.


The key internal battles between Marxism-Leninism and anarchism were:

(1) The 1967-68 struggle to prevent the retreat from the antiwar Movement. The student forces, most involved in the anti-war movement took exception to the article Rosen wrote attacking the anti-war Resistance. Both the Berkeley and Boston clubs protested ineffectually that the article would tend to isolate PL from the antiwar movement. But neither group put the question very sharply and did not see the connection between the retreat from the anti-war movement and PL’s wrong line on Vietnam.

(2) The 1967-1968 struggles of the various Harlem leaders McAdoo, Couglass and Mulzac against the PL retreat from the BLM. They exposed the racism inherent in this shameful retreat but did not see the connection with the retreat from the anti-war movement. Unfortunately these forces acted singly and were unable to unite themselves or other Marxist-Leninist forces in PL.

(3) The 1968-1969 struggle of the San Francisco State leaders, Levin, Dillon, and Randle, to oppose the racist NSC-line on opposing preferential admissions and Black studies. They fought only locally, however, and submitted to the NSC to one degree or other, after several meetings. Randle, who submitted the least, made his displeasure widely known, called for “democracy in the Party,” criticized the retreat from the T-U movement and said racism in the Party was the “key” question.[184] He was expelled shortly afterwards, while in prison on charges arising out of the State strike. Levin, who submitted the most, dropped the issue as a hopeless struggle in the context of the PL organization, but quietly dropped out of the Party three years later. Dillon, however, constantly attempted to re-open the question. He tried in 1973, 1974 and 1975 to re-open the question for discussion on a national level, and on each occasion the NSC moved quickly to squelch any discussion from rising.

(4) The 1969 1970 struggle of Bill Epton vs. the leadership. This was the crucial round in the battle between Marxism-Leninism and anarchism. Epton launched a many-sided attack on the politics of the NSC. He issued a comprehensive document which took the PLP to task for:

a.) Abandoning the BLM:

“... we, in the party, along with the leadership have gone on a binge in attacking every Black organization that has come into being in the last few years.”[185]

b.) The retreat from the T-U movement then currently embodied in the rectification of “students out of factories:”

“Our students and ’intellectuals’ went into the shops and factories, armed with what they thought to be truth and Marxism-Leninism. When they were not successful they were told it was their ’background,’ their petty-bourgeois hang-ups... the leadership was not self-critical that maybe they armed the students and ’intellectuals’ with something else other than Marxism-Leninism.”[186]

c.) The phony Challenge Summer project which wrecked all the T-U clubs:

“... Oh we’ve heard the stories that light the road to upping the Challenge sales and the turn to the working class that the party’s ’new’ line represents and how many wonderful letters the party receives, etc. Tell us about how many PL cadre are in the shops where these papers are sold, conducting struggle against the bosses. Don’t tell us that this cadre or that cadre told the workers that they are ’communists’ and haven’t been involved in organizing those workers to fight the boss. Telling workers we are ’communists’ does not make us communists.”[187]

d.) Racism and male chauvinism in the leadership of PLP:

“... Racism has been a conscious policy handed down by the ’centralized’ leadership of the Party and has then infected the ranks... the Party leadership has never organized a consistent fight against male chauvinism, just like they never organized a consistent campaign to wipe out racism in our ranks.”[188]

e.) The self-imposed isolation of PL from all international revolutionary movements:

“... What has happened is that PL has set itself up as the world’s leading Marxist-Leninist Party on all questions. Those parties around the world, and those liberation movements that happen not to conform with PL’s ’line’ are labeled as ’revisionist,’ ’dupes,’ not serious revolutionaries and so on... This arrogance toward other Marxist-Leninist parties is seen as the worst kind of nationalism: U.S. Chauvanism.”[189]

f.) Abandoning democracy in the Party:

“... In our party we have ’centralism without democracy.’ That centralism is centered, primarily in the person of the party chairman... Comrades we are governed by the Dictatorship of the Party Chairman!”[190]

Thus Epton put his finger on most of the anarchist essence of PL’s politics even though he did not attack the retreat from the anti-war movement nor the retreat from the student movement and thus did not see the developing PLP anarchism in all its aspects nor as a repeat of historically similar anti-Marxist trends. Unfortunately Epton’s opposition to the Party’s line was not known outside New York until the end, (he had always loyally obeyed the NSC rule of secrecy and centralism within the NC). Therefore it was impossible to rally much support outside of New York, and he put more faith in the CCP to help out than was warranted.

The NSC, however, was totally unable to answer Epton politically and made no attempt to do so. The NSC issued “A Report to the Party from the NSC on Inner Party Struggle” as an answer. The first page of the report discusses a successful buffet luncheon the New York party held; the next four pages discuss previous inner Party struggles with the conclusions: “1. Some of the criticisms made of us by those who disagree often have an aspect of validity. Our enemies always use our shortcomings against us so they can confuse us. 2. Virtually all those who fought against the Party and quit were very arrogant, individualistic and often nuts.” Then “Keeping this in mind, we will tell you a few stories.” What follows is five pages of incredibly detailed stories about alleged personal defects in some friends of Epton’s. Then two pages about Maoists trying to organize; two pages about some mistakes Epton had made in the past, a page which quotes Vince Lombardi, of all people: “Follow the game plan.” and that’s it. Epton’s detailed and political charges were not even given a passing glance. But the juicy gossip about one of Epton’s friends, the core of the NSC reply, was better than a soap opera. In place of political struggle the NSC relied on its tight control of the organizational apparatus to spread the vilest kind of slanders and gossip about Epton. The complete political bankruptcy of anarchists was evidenced by their trading in gossip and soap-opera tales as their only resort to dealing with Marxist-Leninists.

This was the crucial round of inner-Party struggle because after Epton was dismissed from the PL leadership, the NSC, now certain of their infallibility, issued RTR III. This they claimed, was the “highest development of Marxism-Leninism,” “The Communist Manifesto of our time,” and it became a sacred calf for the Party to kneel down in front of. Even when the leadership wanted to fight sectarianism for a brief period, they were hemmed in by the anarchist theory of RTR III. The Party as a living force was doomed after 1971.


It is not too surprising that after RTR III, the study groups were converted into study-action groups that read only Challenge; at that time J. Israel proposed that all books by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao be banned from cadre classes at all levels as hopelessly outdated and incomprehensible to workers. This was not acted on right away, but by the Convention of 1973, Israel got his way. The NSC report to the Convention said that:

“The fundamental classic which our Party should study is, ’Road to Revolution III’... The NC doesn’t believe that reading the other classics is particularly useful...”[191]

Opposition was expected to the workshop, which was to report the proposal to the floor, was packed with Boston members and NC members already bound to fight for the NC report. Some New York, San Francisco and Canadian members fought the proposal, but unless they attacked RTR III and the whole anarchist line of PL, they had no answer for the argument that Marx and Lenin deviated greatly from RTR III. Nevertheless the NC argument that workers could not understand Marx was refuted by the Canadians who described their successful study groups, which used the “classics.” But it was all for nought. The result had been pre-ordained by Rosen, Israel, and Leonhardt, the latter of whom chaired the workshop. First the workshop, then the convention passed resolutions that specifically banned the use of the “classics” in study groups.

After the split with the Boston group in 1974, on the initiative of the San Francisco and the Canadian leadership, the NC in the summer of 1974 was confronted with the question again. During a struggle in the NC meeting, a number of NC members proudly related how they never read “any of these books.” The outcome, however, was that the ban was lifted. A study guide using a wide variety of Marxist classics was proposed from San Francisco. But in 1975 Rosen countered with his own study guide that relied almost exclusively on PL material. In 1975 the California Party proposed the use of Badayev’s Bolsheviks in the Czarist Duma and the CCP’s polemical anti-revisionist articles of 1963-1964. Both these proposals were ignored by the NSC, and only in Los Angeles and San Francisco were there any systematic use of basic Marxist texts. The rest of the Party studied only Challenge and occasionally a PL magazine article. Actually study groups even in California were poorly and irregularly attended. A 1975 goal of having 80% of the members in study groups was never even approached; very few non-members were attending study groups by 1976.[192]


The split with Boston also allowed the question of Stalin to be brought up again. An attempt was made to revise the anti-Stalin line of RTR III, without specifically criticizing that sacred text. Rosen and Scheer were open to this ploy, because as CP’ers of the old school the anti-Stalin slanders in RTR III had never sat well with them. They had agreed to those formulations at the time as an opportunistic compromise with some of the bitter Stalin-baiters who were instrumental in the writing of RTR III. Accordingly in 1974 two articles for PL magazine, “On Trotsky” and “On Solzhenitsyn” were written. In the guise of attacking these two, the articles revised much of the anti-Stalin portions of RTR III. The articles were not without serious weakness; one weakness was the short shrift the articles gave to Lenin and Stalin’s concept of democracy within the Party and their toleration, nay encouragement, of independent views. The articles foolishly called this “liberalism.”

Nevertheless these were attempts to revise PL’s verdict on Stalin and to begin a discussion on the question of the process of the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. Though published they were never accepted by the Party which never could make up its mind when capitalist restoration took place. A subsequent article in C-D stated that morale of the Soviet Army today is at least as good as it was in 1945; it also stated that the “quality of life” in the USSR is moving ahead.[193] If these statements are true then it follows that the restoration of capitalism took place before 1945 when Stalin headed the CPSU. Otherwise we are led to believe that the morale of an imperialist army improves and that the quality of life “moves ahead” after a socialist country returns to capitalism. When confronted with this contradiction Rosen, who authored the article, refused to admit error and insisted that Soviet soldiers fought only for nationalist reasons during World War 11.[194] All this shows that PLP has given in to the long-time popular prejudice of some of its petty-bourgeois members in claiming that capitalism was restored at some point during Stalin’s tenure, if not before. Thus PL again swung around toward Trotskyism.

The anarchists, who developed out of the anti-revisionist movement within the CP, faced a contradiction. On one hand, Rosen and Scheer, as old CP stalwarts who came into political puberty during World War II, in the “Stalin era,” they get their backs up when younger PL members innocently point up that the logic of the RTR III politics is that socialism never really existed in the USSR, and perhaps Trotsky was right. On the other hand, there is no escaping the conclusion of the anarchist thinking: The wage differentials were capitalist; the NEP was all wrong; the foreign policy was “nationalist;” the 3rd international had a “thoroughly revisionist strategy;” the peasant policy sought to implant capitalism; the Army was nationalist; Soviet culture was “Bourgeois;” this is how PL describes the USSR under Stalin and Lenin. What PL sees is not socialism; when the anarchists attack Stalin from their point of view they inevitably end up by denying the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR under Lenin and Stalin.


There was not much change in PL’s thinking about imperialism in the years 1967-1972. Indeed since, according to PLP, the U.S. imperialists had forced the Vietnamese to negotiate their surrender, the U.S. imperialists were seen as very powerful, if not omnipotent. As late as a 1972 NC meeting Marxist-Leninist forces in PLP were sharply put down by Rosen when they suggested that the war in Vietnam caused big losses to the imperialist position. The correction of these one-sided views took place in the winter of 1972-1973 and typically the pendulum swung too wide, missed the mark and now the U.S. imperialists are seen as far weaker than they actually are. The dollar devaluations of that period were seen as severely weakening the U.S. investment position but were not understood as helping the U.S. trade position. Watergate was seen as evidence of extreme instability, when the fact that that crisis was resolved peacefully and, more or less, constitutionally, illustrated the relative stability of the U.S. governmental system, as compared to what happened in France in 1958, in the USSR in 1964 (In France in 1958 the Fourth Republic was overthrown by Fascist Army officers in Algeria, DeGaulle took power, and established the Fifth Republic. In 1964 Khrushchev was overthrown by Brezhnev in a semi-military coup.) or in China after Mao’s death. These were minor straws in the wind at the time and only Dave Levey was perceptive enough to protest the growing one-sidedness on the question of imperialism during the 1973 pre-convention discussion.

During the oil crisis of 1973-1974, however, the NSC, now convinced that U.S. imperialism was declining inexorably, made a totally subjective analysis of that crisis. The NSC bought the ruling class line hook, line and sinker and almost alone of the U.S. Left believed that there really was a shortage and the embargo was for real. They were convinced the Arab bourgeoisie had gone over to the side of the Soviet imperialists and that the U.S. oil companies were suffering great losses and the desperate U.S. imperialists were about to go to war to “recoup their losses.”[195] In the NC only Dann argued against this position. He gave a great deal of data from the bourgeois press showing that there was no shortage; he proved that the Arab bourgeoisie was tied to the U.S. not Soviet imperialists and that the U.S. oil companies were both the cause and the main beneficiaries of the oil-shortage hoax, which only served to treble worldwide oil prices. Rosen interrupted at length and gave a long speech about how in New York a service station attendant had been threatened with a gun by an irate motorist unable to get gas and this incident proved the shortage was for real and the capitalist system unstable, and then he closed the discussion.[196]

This type of subjective reasoning is typical of how PL approached the question of imperialism. If the facts don’t fit the theory then ignore the facts or make up a few. In essence anarchism is a form of idealism and the anarchists need not consider material realities that don’t jive with their homespun theories. In 1975-1976 the NSC developed the theory (definitely another “new development” of Marxism-Leninism) that:

(1) the main contradiction in the world is between U.S. and Soviet imperialisms, thus putting in a very secondary position the contradictions between workers and capitalists, and between capitalism and socialism.
(2) military might determined the power of an imperialist country, thus ignoring the overriding emphasis Lenin gave to finance capital in determining the relative strength of imperialists.
(3) the Soviet imperialists were top dog and the U.S. was weakening fast.

To “prove” this last point the anarchists issued an incredible array of foolishness which illustrated their abysmal ignorance of the real world as well as their mulish insistence on their own rectitude. Among other ludicrous examples they:

(1) claimed that U.S. defeat in Vietnam was due to Soviet arms; people’s war was ignored.[197]
(2) pretended that “vast” Rumanian oil fields are at Soviet disposal; in actual fact Rumania is a net importer of oil these days.[198]
(3) said that U.S. mainly exports foodstuffs; in fact the U.S. mainly exports machinery.[199]
(4) argued that Uganda is under Soviet control and in almost the same breath said the recent rebellion in Zaire’s Shaba province was Soviet controlled; if so, why did Uganda send troops to help crush the rebellion?[200]
(5) dismissed Alaskan oil as not useful to the U.S. imperialists because the Soviets are a short distance away in Siberia and can knock it out, but then in the same article they say that bombers are useless militarily; also wouldn’t the reverse hold true for Siberian oil?[201]
(6) warned Puerto Rico about the danger of a Soviet takeover; what can you say to this?
(7) insisted that the recent victories of anti-Soviet parties in India did not change India’s status as a Soviet “satellite.”[202]
(8) claimed that the CP workers in Italy, France and Spain were pro-Soviet; even Brezhnev doesn’t think like that.[203]
(9) created a theory that Saudi Arabia was a major antagonist of U.S. interests in the Mid-East, even though Saudi money has restored Egypt, Sudan, Syria and possibly Yemen and Somalia among other nations to the U.S. orbit. For their military expertise the PL publicists relied on some columnists and generals who were making their annual alarming statements about the “weak status of U.S. defences” in order to get a bigger slice of the budget.

The expected effect of all this was not to engage in debate. The anarchists long since gave up any interest in debate. The NSC was trying to ship up enthusiasm for PLP among an increasingly apathetic membership. The idea was nuclear war is immanent. The hope is workers will rally around PLP once they see that war and fascism is the only other alternative (PLP long since dismissed other left groups as agents of one variety or other.) At one NC meeting after area reports couldn’t cover up the Tact that the Party was declining and morale badly sagging, Rosen said the problem was the members didn’t believe that war and fascism were imminent.203 Thus the insistence on the subjective militarist theory of inter-imperialist rivalry and the idea that the aggressive Soviets would attack a weakened U.S. are vital for the PLP leadership.

The real effect of all this, however, was to convert PLP to social-patriotism. With the Soviet imperialists as the main enemy and the U.S. imperialists depicted as underdogs or even victims all over the world the unintended effect was to whip up support for the U.S. ruling class, to cover up the crimes of the U.S. imperialists abroad, to lend credence to the more extreme militarists’ demands for more arms, and to attack all national liberation movements, no longer as merely misguided nationalists, but in fact as tools of the major enemy, Soviet imperialism.


The most striking sign of PL’s decline from 1968 to 1973 was the difference between Milt Rosen’s opening address at the two PLP conventions. In 1968 even though the retreat from the anti-war movement was substantially underway and the first signs of a retreat from the BLM were evident, PLP was still very much at the center of the movement. And the 1968 Convention reflected the mass movement, or at least PLP’s participation in the mass movement. Rosen’s “Build a Base” speech reflected PL’s leadership in the mass struggle; it was largely devoid of idealism and drew political lessons from material reality.

In 1968 Rosen in his talk to the PL convention drew examples from the student-worker rebellion in France, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Brooklyn College rebellion, and PL’s work in New York’s garment district. The speech was rich with material examples and was therefore politically very instructive. In 1973, Rosen instead of referring to material reality, repeated the children’s tale of “The Little Engine that Could,” a five-year old’s tale of how a tiny choo-choo engine realized his life’s dream by pulling a great big diesel train over a mountain. Rosen went on to say that PLP could “be the little Party that could.”[204] Here was the baldest possible statement of voluntarism, and pure wish-fulfillment. Here in this childish talk, Rosen betrayed PLP’s departure from materialism to idealism. The “Revolution not Reform” document issued three years later merely applied this idealistic voluntarism to the work. Only in children’s tales do dreams come true. When PLP lost its grip on material reality the idealist dream turned into a nightmare of isolation and decline.

Towards the end, PL retreated from Marxism-Leninism up and down the line. It abandoned materialism for subjective idealism, convinced they were at the center of the universe, they interpreted (The editor of Challenge declared in all seriousness that the ABC TV series, ROOTS, was meant as an attack on PLP. Indeed PLP re-acted as if it were so, because there followed several issues of Challenge with hysterical front-page editorial “counter-attacks” on the TV series.) all events according to how they affected the development of PLP. “Nothing in the (domestic) class struggle is positive unless PLP is built out of it” became a cardinal principle of the Party. This is really existential thinking. Internationally all events had to fit PL’s analysis of declining U.S. strength, growing Soviet aggressiveness, and approaching war and fascism – a completely subjectivist mode of thought. PL’s strategy and tactics, as we saw, were based on subjective desires rather than a sober assessment of material reality; this was idealism. In March, 1977, the NC declared that Lenin’s brilliant guide, Left-Wing Communism, should be “thrown out the window, stomped on and spat upon.”[205] Rosen also declared earlier, but in the same context, that the Bolsheviks were the cause of modern revisionism because they fought for “reform issues such as ’Bread,’ ’Land’ and ’Peace’ and didn’t fight for socialism.”[206] The history of the International Communist Movement was reinterpreted to prove PLP was the highest development of Marxism-Leninism. Even Marx’s time-tested theory of surplus value was thrown out and a new concept of surplus value created, called “Progressive Labor Economics.”[207] PLP left Marxism-Leninism behind and convinced itself that the subjective mishmash of Trotskyism, Bakuninism, Utopian socialism and anarchism it created was an “advance” and that “Road to Revolution III is the Communist Manifesto of our time.”[208]


For Progressive Labor the words PL and communist are interchangeable. It was never considered possible that another domestic group could aspire to PL’s unique position “as vanguard of the working class.” Nor could an individual be a communist unless he was a member of PLP. After 1971 this rule of thumb was extended abroad and, according to PLP’s fantastic conception, every Party abroad had to subscribe to the principles of RTR III in order to qualify as communist. PLP was at the center of the universe and the Party sat in judgement on other groups in the world and in almost every case found them unqualified to enter the pearly gates. (Only the Canadian Party of Labor was admitted to heaven to sit at the feet of PLP. However, Rosen never trusted fully his “Canadian comrades” and kept a sharp eye on them. There were a few short-lived admissions such as the now-defunct groups in Israel and Sweden which adhered to RTR III. The Swedish group drew the logical conclusion from RTR III and dissolved. The Israeli group was crushed.)

Within the U.S. PLP went to some lengths to guarantee its own isolation. In 1971-1973 the Party purposely organized fist fights with other left groups, so as to make united actions possible. PLP refused to attend functions or demonstrations where “revisionists” were participating. Since every organized left group was “revisionist” as well as any individual Marxist who was not a member of PLP, PL was rapidly isolated and the NSC hoped that nothing would intervene into the consciousness of the rank and file that might interfere with the myth that PLP was at the center of the universe. Nothing upset the NSC more than the occasional call from rank and filers to participate in actions which also included “revisionists.” In general, if a local PL group by some chance found itself in the same place at the same time with “revisionists” or their “dupes” they could be expected to answer to the NSC as to why this couldn’t have been avoided. PLP’s attitude toward other groups on the Left is reminiscent of the mentality of teen-age gang leaders, in sharp contrast with that of the Bolsheviks in the pre-Revolutionary period. Sometimes the Bolsheviks united with the Mensheviks, sometimes not, as the needs of the times required. But Lenin’s Bolsheviks never regarded themselves as the center of the universe, the one and only true socialists around, although they would have had more reason that PLP to make these claims.

When PLP put forward the claim to be the one and only vanguard of the working class they did so because “our line is correct and the workers will eventually see us as the vanguard.” At no time in PL’s history did more than one two-thousandth of one percent of the U.S. workers ever think of PLP as their vanguard. Again the contrast with the Bolsheviks is instructive. Although their line was correct this was not the reason the latter were regarded as Russia’s vanguard. The Bolsheviks were the vanguard of the Russian working class because they were so regarded by the workers themselves. Even before the Party was formed, those who were to become the Bolsheviks had led a substantial if not the majority section of Russia’s working class day in and day out on major and minor issues for at least ten years. In short order the overwhelming majority of Russia’s workers came to regard the Bolsheviks as the only Party that spoke for their interests. This was proven during the elections to the 1912 Duma, when the Bolsheviks won all the seats in the workers’ curia.

Today in the U.S. less than one per cent of the working class regards any of the Left Parties as the best representative of the class (and PLP accounts for a miniscule fraction of that 1%.) For any Party to declare itself the vanguard at this point is to sign its own death warrant. A “vanguard” that is regarded as such by less than 1% of the workers will almost inevitably tread the same path PLP blazed. The center of the universe mentality leads to increasing arrogance, increasing subjectivity and decreasing opportunities for debate within and without the Party and the concomitant sectarianism, inescapable subjective idealism and inevitable splits will follow as the Sunday hangover follows the Saturday night drinking spree. In the anti-Soviet revisionism movement it appears that the Revolutionary Communist Party is already fairly well on its way to repeating the essence of PLP’s tragic history, and lately the October League also has shown every sign of wanting to follow suit. As Marx remarked, history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce. In the context of the revolutionary movement of the sixties, the demise of PLP was a great tragedy, but in today’s context the spectacle of two, three, many “general staffs” of the working class all stubbornly repeating the fatal errors of PLP threatens to become such a farce that communists may be regarded as a laughing stock by the working class before they are regarded as a vanguard.

A real Marxist-Leninist Party does not need to declare itself as the vanguard. If it truly be the vanguard it will be so because tens of millions of workers so regard it and everyone will know it. Until that time is reached humility, a sense of proportion, and a willingness to listen, learn from and unite with those with whom one disagrees are indispensable necessities.

The one book of Lenin’s that the PL leadership never tired of quoting from was What Is To Be Done? Even after they had decided to throw out the window, stomp and spit on Left Wing Communism, (which was Lenin’s specific advice to a communist movement at our particular stage of development) the PL leadership was ripping quotes out of historical context from What Is To Be Done? in order to buttress their sectarian politics. But What Is To Be Done? discusses the period after the socialist movement had achieved leadership of working class. At that historical point it was necessary to consolidate a general staff of the working class and that is why Lenin wrote the book.

How does Lenin conclude the book, answer the question “What is to be done?” He answered, “Put an End to the Third Period” (of Russian Social-Democracy). The third period, according to Lenin, was a period of backwardness and vacillation in the socialist-led working class movement. The second period was where the “Social Democrats went into the working class movement without ’for a moment’ forgetting either the theory of Marxism, which brightly illuminated their path; or the task of overthrowing the autocracy.” The first period was the period of the rise of a small socialist trend, mainly among intellectuals, isolated from the working class movement.

Obviously in the U.S. today we are still in the first period. Lenin’s advice to us today would be “Put an End to the First Period.” We have to enter the stage of development where communists go “into the working class movement without for a moment forgetting either the theory of Marxism which will brightly illuminate our paths or the task of overthrowing U.S. imperialism. This is the stage in which we find ourselves. And that is why Lenin wrote the book, Left-Wing Communism, as advice to the then newborn communist groups in Europe.

“The immediate objective of the class-conscious vanguard of the international working class movement, i.e., the Communist parties, groups and trends is to be able to lead the broad masses. (Left-Wing Communism, Lenin’s emphasis)

A real Marxist-Leninist Party group or trend has to recognize this and act on it or die as a relevant force. The distorted over-emphasis on winning advanced workers, consolidating the vanguard, fighting economism, “building the Left” is an obstacle to the pressing task the fusion of the Communist Movement with the working class and democratic movements of the moment: Marxist-Leninists who refuse to emphasize the struggle against sectarianism, ultra-leftism and subjective idealism become obstacles to the development of the Party and will only delay the fulfillment of our efforts.

In the end PLP refused to admit that there even was such a thing as a “Left deviation” but by then the corpse of PLP had become an excellent negative example of what happens when the struggle against sectarianism is ignored. At an earlier stage sectarianism was recognized by PL as a danger, but always secondary to the danger of right-wing opportunism. “Leftism” was and is and will continue for some time to be the main danger. This recognition is absolutely essential for the development of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard. By not focusing on sectarianism as the prime danger PLP went under. Rosen often said, “No movement ever died because of ’left’ errors.” Wrong again, Mr. Rosen. Probably thousands did, but since such groups never led masses and always remained insignificant one is not likely to hear of them. PLP has now joined these. But the wreck of PLP will have served a useful purpose if Marxists will learn the truth that in the period of isolation from the working class movement, Left errors are the most deadly because they prevent even the possibility of Right errors.


Internationalism is the opposite of nationalism. Nationalism can never be the ideology of the working class nor of Marxist-Leninists. This is a fundamental principle of Marxism-Leninism. But to say that all forms of nationalism are always and at all times equally reactionary and to claim that nationalism can never play a progressive role reduces the principle of internationalism to an absurdity. It denies the dialectic of material reality, refuses to recognize the changing relationship of class forces that make certain classes progressive at one point and reactionary at another time. The dialectics of Marxism profoundly examine all changing relationships of classes and nations and avoid such metaphysical nonsense as “All nationalism is equally reactionary.”

When, in the present conditions of the U.S., white racism is equated with Black nationalism what you have is more than just a departure from dialectical materialism. The Party which, like PLP, says that “Racism and Black nationalism are equally reactionary” becomes itself a reactionary fetter on the revolutionary movement. Under no circumstances can a Marxist-Leninist party content itself to issue abstract calls for “multi-racial unity” in the face of racist attacks on Black people or to launch into fierce attacks on Martin Luther King and Black nationalists while giving only passing reference to white racists. The spearhead of the attack must be on racism, and the overwhelming bulk of the propaganda must expose to the white workers the evils of racism. Multi-racial unity will not develop out of mere calls for Black and white to unite, and it will certainly not develop out of one-sided vicious attacks on Black nationalists or other black leaders.

The experience of PLP shows that once the equation is made between the nationalism of the oppressed and the racism of the oppressor the organization slips into a de facto racist position. The PLP attacks on the BPP were racist in fact; PL’s campus slogan of no preferential admissions of Black students (but preferential hiring of Black maids and janitors) was racist in fact; the PL slander on the Camp Pendleton 14 Campaign was racist in fact; the PL split with the Puerto Rican communists and its abandonment of the struggle for Puerto Rican independence was U.S. nationalism in fact. All the verbiage about “internationalism,” “multi-racial unity,” “struggle against the twin evils of racism and nationalism” couldn’t cover up the fact that PLP had slipped into racism and U.S. nationalism. This is a lesson all Marxists have to learn. The metaphysical equating of all nationalisms will inevitably lead to a tendency to succumb to the strongest nationalism, that of the ruling class, and in effect to adapt oneself to racism. Those who refuse to learn this lesson will inevitably repeat the racist errors of PLP.

In the same way that they turned from fighting racism into emphasizing the fight against Black or Puerto Rican nationalism, PLP quit the struggle against U.S. imperialism in favor of the struggle against the enemies of U.S. imperialism. At first they considered the struggle to expose Soviet revisionism, and by extension to expose the Vietnamese and other national liberation fighters, to be more important than the struggle against U.S. imperialism. In the end they merely borrowed wholesale from the arguments of the U.S. militarists and judged that the Soviet imperialists were about to start World War III.

The PL anarchists never dressed up their retreat from fighting U.S. imperialism with such slogans as “United Front Against the Two Superpowers” or “Mobilize the third world, unite all the forces of the second world willing to struggle, neutralize the United States and strike the main blow at the Soviet Union.” (William Hinton, President of the US-China Friendship Association, attributes this position to the leadership of the CCP (Guardian, May 5, 1977). This certainly seems to be the case. c.f. Peking Review (August 9, 1976) p. 11.) PLP was never that “sophisticated.” PLP just quoted the Committee on the Present Danger, Evans and Novak, the B-1 Bomber advocates and editorialized at length about how Soviet aggressiveness against a weak U.S. was going to cause a nuclear war.

Any way you dress it up the retreat from the struggle against U.S. imperialism as the main enemy of the people of the world is counter-revolutionary. In the current period no Marxist-Leninist movement can be built on the absurdity that the Soviet Union is the main enemy of the people of the world.

It is the U.S. imperialists that are the main support of racist Apartheid regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia; the U.S. imperialists are the paymasters of the aggressive Zionist military colonists in Palestine; they are the bosses of the reactionary monarchy in Saudi Arabia, and of the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran; the U.S. imperialists are the ones propping the corrupt dictatorships in Zaire and Kenya; they give the orders to the fascist overlords in Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea; the U.S. imperialists control the bloody militarists of Indonesia, as well as the Marcos martial-law regime in the Philippines; the U.S. imperialists are the bulwark of the reactionary governments of torturers and mass murderers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador. The U.S. imperialists fought with might and main to defeat the national liberation struggles in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Guineu-Bissau, and Cuba; they sabotaged the Portuguese Revolution, ordered first their Jordanian lackeys, then the Lebanese fascists to engage in a fratricidal slaughter of the Palestinian freedom fighters, and stage-managed a host of bloody fascist coups around the world from Greece to Indonesia, from Chile to Thailand. The U.S. imperialists have the bulk of the investments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; it is they, through their network of finance capital, who are the owners in fact of the bulk of the mines in Africa, the oil wells in the Mid-East, the manufacturing industries in Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, the resources of Indonesia, the plantations and mines and factories in Latin America, and a significant portion of the industry in Western and even some in Eastern Europe. Naturally the Soviet imperialists don’t have clean hands either, (Czechoslovakia in 1968, Ethiopia in 1977) but they are puppies compared to the U.S. imperialist wolves. A real Marxist-Leninist Party would forthrightly state that the U.S. imperialists are the main enemy and direct its fire accordingly.


The deviation which led PLP to develop from a democratic party to an autocratic party destroyed the possibility of correcting the other deviations. The lack of democracy cut PLP off from the rank and file and from serious opposition trends and thus ensured that the other serious deviations and misestimates of the objective situation would go unchallenged. The average member of PLP had no more say in the running of PLP than the average voter has in the running of the U.S. government. A small bureaucracy impervious to pressures from below ran the Party. Rosen’s views always, without the slightest exception, prevailed in the NC. And NC members who disagreed were forbidden to raise their views with the rank and file. Thus dissatisfaction from below was always met with the unanimous unyielding opposition of higher bodies. The dissatisfied members were left with no option but to quit. The dissatisfied leaders had no way of fighting for their line inside the Party in the face of Milt Rosen’s opposition and were forced to organize splits or quit quietly. The Party was by this method kept small but monolithic.

If Marxist-Leninists examine the internal workings of PLP and do exactly the opposite of PL they will be more or less on the right path of how to build a real Marxist-Leninist Party. Fortunately, however, we have more than the negative experience of PLP to go on; we have the positive experience of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin said he considered it better to have a tolerant party life “even if it were to involve a certain departure from absolute obedience to discipline.”[209]

In fact the history of the Bolshevik Party was the history of a very sharp inner-Party struggle and democratic discussion. The leaders very often differed from one another, openly before the members and even publicly in print. In the twenty-five years between the split with the Mensheviks and the final split with the Trotskyites, there were no major permanent splits. This is an incredible record when compared with PLP’s record of nine major (and a score of minor) splits in only 14 years. Every one of those splits remained permanent and severely antagonistic. (While PLP may win the U.S. record for splits, all of the other groups, Maoists, Trotskyites and the CP. have had their share. Even small Marxist-Leninist collectives of 20 people have split into permanent antagonistic groups that hardly speak to each other.) The Bolshevik split with Mensheviks was not anywhere as childishly antagonistic as our modern splits. The Bolsheviks continued to regard the Mensheviks as socialists and there were a number of unity conferences to re-unite the two parties, as well as in-between groups that attempted to conciliate differences. Naturally the ideological differences between Marxism and Revisionism could not be bridged and these unity conferences and conciliators failed, but still the Bolsheviks often operated with the Mensheviks in various joint formations such as the Duma fraction or in the Soviets. Only after the Mensheviks joined the Whiteguard uprising they were regarded as out-and-out counter-revolutionaries, and even then Lenin made a distinction between the active counterrevolutionaries and those, like Martov, who though a Menshevik and a revisionist to the last, respected the legal bounds of the Soviet state; he was tolerated, nay encouraged, to remain in open opposition by the Bolsheviks even under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Bolsheviks avoided splits because they had a correct line and led the mass struggle and also because they allowed the sharpest possible differences to arise openly before the members and the masses. Their correct general line and mass line could never have been maintained without the broad democracy and toleration of diversity that they practiced.

One example of the lengths Lenin went to in order not to split the Party was during the debate on the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. The background was that the German imperialists had made almost intolerable demands on the young Soviet state. Lenin and Stalin viewed it as imperative to accede to the demands in order to save Soviet power, but they were outvoted in the Central Committee. When the Germans advanced deeper into Soviet territory, made fresh demands and seemed on the verge of capturing the capital, the Central Committee finally voted by a bare majority to sign the peace treaty. In this desperate situation the Moscow Regional Bureau of the Party led by Bukharin refused to go along. Here is what Lenin said about the situation:

“The Moscow Regional Bureau of our Party, in a resolution adopted on February 24, 1918, has expressed lack of confidence in the Central Committee, refused to obey those of its decisions ’that will be connected with the implementation of the terms of the peace treaty with Austria and Germany,’ and, in an ’explanatory note’ to the resolution, declared that it ’considers a split in the Party in the very near future hardly avoidable.’

“There is nothing monstrous, nor even strange in all this. It is quite natural that comrades who sharply disagree with the Central Committee over the question of a separate peace should sharply condemn the Central Committee and express their conviction that a split is inevitable. All that is the most legitimate right of Party members, which is quite understandable.”[210]

Lenin then went on to sharply and scathingly refute the political positions of the Bukharin group. However, the eight-page political refutation is not accompanied by any call for organizational measures.

What is important here is the attitude Lenin took toward inner-Party struggle. Organizational discipline was always secondary to sharp political discussion, which Lenin welcomed. When in 1909 Bolsheviks like Bogdanov and Lunacharsky got together with some Mensheviks to write up a philosophical criticism of Marxism, Lenin didn’t dream of taking organizational measures or of coming up with cute verities such as, “Two lines in the Party, one line too many,” but on the contrary, used the occasion to write a book himself, not only refuting the critics, but also putting forth a brilliant exposition of Marxist philosophy (Materialism and Empiro-Criticism). The critics, Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, remained in the Party and crossed swords more than once again with Lenin.

The Bolsheviks never had a rule that there should be democratic-centralism within the Central Committee. All leaders were free to argue their point of view to the membership. Lenin frequently was in a minority and openly fought for his position. Very rarely were articles in the Bolshevik press unsigned; the various Party leaders signed their articles, took personal responsibility for their position and in this way drew the membership into debate. On important questions the discussion was widened way beyond the Central Committee, even if that meant compromising security. The timing of the October, 1917, insurrection was not only discussed in the Central Committees but also widely in the Petrograd Party Organization.[211]

After Lenin’s death when the Trotskyites organized an opposition they were given every opportunity to put forward their views publicly. Trotsky published polemical articles in the Soviet press and as the debate sharpened it was carried to the factories, where the leading Trotskyites debated the leaders of the majority of the Central Committee. In the period 1925-27 the whole Soviet working class joined the debate. The organizational split occurred because the Trotskyites joined forces with the anti-Soviet underground and even established relations with foreign intelligence services. Only after the Trotskyite underground murdered leading Bolsheviks were they treated as counter-revolutionaries. Throughout the twenties and early thirties Stalin continued Lenin’s policy of toleration of diversity and full democracy. To the end of his life Stalin dealt with his opponents as much as possible politically. When some Soviet economists raised certain revisionist ideas in the early 1950’s Stalin took the occasion to write his book, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. Stalin also jumped into the debate around linguistics at that time. Later the CCP raised the criticism that despite this there was not enough democracy in the later part of Stalin’s tenure. The criticism seems justified. During the Cultural Revolution the CCP developed the wall poster method of opening up inner-Party struggle; Mao-Tse-Tung personally participated in this.

A real Marxist-Leninist Party must emphasize inner-Party democracy. There is hardly ever a good reason to restrict discussion to the Central Committee. The members of leading bodies who are in a minority on any one question must be free to fight for their view within the Party as a whole. The Party press ought to have mainly signed articles, where different Party members and leaders can put forward the most diverse points of view. Nor should any debates be pre-maturely brought to a close by the majority. Unity of action can be guaranteed by majority vote without restricting the minority from continuing to debate its wisdom. The leaders should be able to openly criticize each other. Under these circumstances, elections have real meaning and the elected leaders have real authority. Finally expulsions and harsh disciplinary measures should be reserved for proven counter-revolutionaries and agents. Disagreement should be encouraged; energy and initiative in fighting for minority views would be welcomed by a real Marxist-Leninist Party. Even disobedience to orders should be dealt with politically rather than organizationally, in the way Lenin dealt with Bukharin’s Moscow Committee in 1918.

When faced with a new situation, it’s usually only a minority who can figure out the correct line. It’s not obvious how to deal with new situations, and the only way the right position can be found is by having the means for that minority (which may not include most of the NC) to make their views known and understood. More than this, they must have the confidence they’ll be listened to and taken seriously if they do argue their points.

Between democracy and discipline the former is the more difficult to achieve. Workers under capitalism are trained by school, union and factory to obey orders and respect authority. What they are not trained to do is to debate politics, to exercise their democratic rights, and to see themselves as part of the authority. The Party has to devote primary attention to developing the democratic aspect of Party life. Real proletarian discipline will come about only if there is full scale democracy.

The history of the last 100 years and more proves that socialism is on the agenda and that a Marxist-Leninist Party can be built in the U.S. The failure of PLP can be a good thing if we study the pitfalls and avoid the errors. We can accomplish the task before us. The Chinese Communist Party pointed out in its open letter to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of March 30, 1963:

“A most important lesson from the experience of the international communist movement is that the development and victory of this revolution depend on the existence of a revolutionary proletarian party.
“There must be a revolutionary party.
“There must be a revolutionary party built according to the revolutionary theory and revolutionary style of Marxism-Leninism.
“There must be a revolutionary party able to integrate the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete practice of the revolution in its own country.
“There must be a revolutionary party able to link the leadership closely with the broad masses of the people.
“There must be a revolutionary party that perseveres in the truth; corrects their errors and knows how to conduct criticism and self-criticism.
“Only such a revolutionary party can lead the proletariat and the broad masses of the people in defeating imperialism and its lackeys, winning a thorough victory in the national democratic revolution and winning the socialist revolution.
“If a party is not a proletarian revolutionary party but a bourgeois reformist party;
“If it is not a vanguard party of the proletariat but a party tailing after the bourgeoisie;
“If it is not a party representing the interests of the proletariat and all the working people but a party representing the interests of the labour aristocracy;
“If it is not an internationalist party but a nationalist party:
“If it is not a party that can use its brains to think for itself and acquire an accurate knowledge of the trends of the different classes in its own country through serious investigation and study, and knows how to apply the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism and integrate it with the concrete practice of its own country, but instead is a party that parrots the words of others, copies foreign experience without analysis, runs hither and thither in response to the baton of certain persons abroad, and has become a hodgepodge of revisionism, dogmatism and everything but Marxist-Leninist principle; then such a party is absolutely incapable of leading the proletariat and the masses in revolutionary struggle, absolutely incapable of winning the revolution and absolutely incapable of fulfilling the great historical mission of the proletariat.
“This is a question all Marxist-Leninists, all class conscious workers and all progressive people everywhere need to ponder deeply.”

It is in the interests of helping to ponder these questions that this paper was written.


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.

[184] “Bay Area PL IB, August 1, 1970.𔄙

[185] Letter by Bill Epton to PLP, June, 1970. p. 22.

[186] Ibid., p. 7.

[187] Ibid., p. 9.

[188] Ibid., p. 22.

[189] Ibid., p. 26

[190] Ibid., p. 3.

[191] “Convention Reports for 1973 Convention,” p. 63.

[192] EA

[193] CD, V. 13, No. 21, October 21, 1976, p. 9.

[194] EA

[195] CD, V. 10, No. 14, January 10, 1974, p. 2.

[196] EA

[197] CD, V. 13, No. 21, p. 9.

[198] Ibid.

[199] Ibid.

[200] C-D, V. 13, No. 21, p. 9.

[201] IB, May 14, 1977, p. 109.

[202] EA

[203] EA

[204] EA

[205] EA

[206] EA

[207] CD, V. 13, No. 45, April 7, 1977, p. 2.

[208] Resolved at the NC meeting of March, 1977.

[209] Lenin, CW, V. 7, p. 115.

[210] Lenin, “Strange and Monstrous”

[211] Krupskaya, Reminicences of Lenin, p. 373-4.