Jim Dann and Hari Dillon

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


The NSC in mid-1971 attempted to address itself to a problem that could no longer be ignored, the total isolation of PLP. Only a short time before PLP had been at the center of the mass movement; by June 1971, the Party was so totally isolated its jobs demonstrations pulled out only 500. The contrast between the two periods was fresh, and the Party leadership became frightened of its new isolation and began to grope for answers.

Rosen wrote a fairly insightful critique of PL’s isolation. This did not deal at all with PL’s historical sectarian errors and even praised the 1969-1971 period as one in which PL had “done a fantastic job in re-establishing a communist presence in our country.” (Rosen was referring above all to the disastrous “Challenge Summer” scheme.) Nonetheless his article attempted to deal seriously with the question of the mass movement and the Party’s relation to it. Commenting on the fact that Party members had worked hard and yet had made no serious progress, Rosen wrote: “Well, if we are doing all this, and we do it bigger and better what is wrong? There is still something wrong. What is wrong is that we are still isolated from the mass movement. What is worse, we often do not see the mass movement, and if we do, we think it is rotten.” Rosen then linked this judgment to PL’s outlook on fighting for reforms: “people may consider the Party in a good light but not really serious about fighting for reforms” and thus “vote with their feet and leave the Party orbit.” (As an aside note how the oft-used metaphor, “Party orbit,” implies the Party as the center of the Universe, or at least of an independent star system.) Rosen continues “We must never be afraid of the mass movement no matter who leads it at any given moment. The only way the Party will ever emerge as the main leader of the mass movement is after the Party has entered into it at the particular level it is at and wins people to advanced politics and into the Party. Party members mast be known as organizers around principled issues and willing to work with others who don’t agree with them. It is clear that sectarianism is the main factor limiting our growth and preventing serious work in the unions and other mass organizations, and united front actions with other groups.” (All emphasis is Rosen’s.)[128]

This report by Rosen seemed to offer hope for PL, but there were three weaknesses that foretold the eventual defeat of the anti-sectarian struggle. In the first place, Rosen never published the report nor circulated it amongst the PL membership. Secondly, in analyzing the character of the mass movement he writes off all leaders in the mass movement. And most significantly, at the conclusion of a report detailing PL’s isolation from the mass movement, Rosen, rather than offering a serious proposal to enter the mass movement at its present level, offered only a series of proposals for independent activity by the Party and its front groups around what was emerging as the vanguard line of PL for the labor movement “30 for 40.” Despite these weaknesses the report as it was prompted PL to reverse gears and move, albeit gingerly, into some mass activity. The problem was that since existing mass movements continued to be scorned, PL organized its own mass work independent of, and in isolation from the mass movement.


Rosen’s report prompted the NC meeting in September 1971 to adopt a policy of moving PL back into the unions. The report from the September meeting raised “the urgent need for our members to join and participate in the right-led trade unions” and become “active union members.”[129] Lenin had pointed out long ago that it was obligatory for revolutionaries to work in reactionary led trade unions. PL belatedly heeded Lenin’s advice and PL members in NYC, San Francisco and elsewhere began attending union meetings again. While this was a step out of organizational isolation from the unions, the serious strategies for how to work in the unions, the 1969 trade-union program, was not necessarily the basis of the work. Thus, in most cases the trade-union work failed, although some serious caucuses did develop out of the anti-sectarian period, most notably the PL-led Teachers’ Action Caucus in San Francisco. (See below.)

As PL re-entered the unions, the NSC re-introduced the abandoned Communist Party demand of the 1950’s, 30 hours work at 40 hours pay, as the vanguard line and main demand PL would advance in the labor movement. This demand, Challenge argued, “could unite the employed with the unemployed, strike a massive blow against unemployment,” and “would mean a direct cut into the bosses’ profits, stolen from worker’s labor.”[130] To have an organizational form through which it could wage a campaign for “30 for 40” PL launched the Workers Action Movement (WAM). WAM immediately set about agitating for “30 for 40” in the unions where PL had members. Petitions were circulated, resolutions submitted at union meetings, and in a few locals “30 for 40” was adopted as a desired goal of the local. But WAM, as conceived originally, was supposed to be far more than just an agitational group. WAM was to “become the organizational form for a national caucus movement centered around ’30 for 40’.”[131] This goal was never achieved. Instead of developing serious mass work in the unions around the immediate issues on the job out of which broad rank and file caucuses could have grown and within which WAM could have raised “30 for 40,” PL in practice restricted its work to “building WAM and ’30 for 40’.” By 1973 even caucuses which PL led, such as TAC in AFT Local 61 in San Francisco, were urged to dissolve and convert themselves into WAM chapters. In other caucuses where PL participated but did not have leadership, such as the Traffic Jam Caucus among S.F. phone operators, PL forces were ordered to pull out and concentrate on “building WAM.” With this sectarian approach WAM never became the “center” for anything except PL’s own trade union members and their friends. By the fall of 1974 Rosen himself admitted that “in effect, many of us became workers for a form of dual unionism. We don’t see our work going thru the mass movements.”[132] WAM never had any serious impact on the unions, yet in electoral activity there was a breakthrough.

During the 60’s PL had had some significant success in utilizing electoral work as an agitational tactic in the reform struggle, most notably with the New York – ”ITS’ Get Out of Vietnam” referendum in 1967 and Rent Control campaigns in San Francisco in 1967-1968. PL achieved some notoriety for the issues and won a few new members around these campaigns. But as part of its drift into isolation in the post 1969 period, PL eschewed electoral work altogether and resurrected the anarchist slogan “Don’t Vote-Organize,” (as if the two were incompatible) as a major PL line.[133] Lenin in his book Left-Wing Communism had long ago made clear the need for revolutionary Marxists to do electoral work, not as the road to power but in order to “rouse the minds of the masses and draw them into struggle,” in order to leave no sphere uncontested to the bourgeoisie. The NSC reopened the question of elections in the NC meeting of December 1971, and proposed that PL again make use of electoral work. A debate broke out in the NC as some, still wedded to the old approach, argued: “Whenever we participate in such elections, no matter how much we ’explain’ that we don’t believe it will really work, we are helping to strengthen the brainwash.” Rosen pointed out that “the main underlying problem during our electoral work in the past was not right opportunism but sectarianism.”[134]

The NC discussion on elections led PL to attempt electoral referendums for the passage of “30 for 40” laws in 1972-1973. These were attempted in San Francisco, Berkeley, New York, Detroit, and Boston, however, due to the persistent sectarianism and ineptness – none got past a half-hearted petition campaign except in Berkeley and San Francisco. In San Francisco, PL and WAM were able to form a fledgling Shorter Work Week Coalition, collect 65,000 signatures to place “30 for 40” on the ballot, and wage a vigorous campaign that visibly frightened the S.F. Chamber of Commerce and drew significant harassment from the FBI. The slogan of the campaign was “30 for 40: Vote for it! Organize for it!” and, campaign literature made clear that only mass struggle by thousands of workers could win and enforce “30 for 40.” The idea of “30 for 40” was greatly popularized in the mass campaign and 33,000 (20%) voted for it. This off-the-job electoral campaign turned out to be WAM’s most significant and successful effort. However, it cost a tremendous amount of effort by PL members and the very few friends who helped with the campaign. Moreover, no organizational ties were built with the Labor Movement.


While no serious footing was ever developed in the unions, the struggle against sectarianism led to some positive developments on other fronts. One of PL’s rare successes with a significant penetration among the industrial working class developed during this period among immigrant Latin workers in Los Angeles. In the fall of 1971 the California legislature passed the racist Dixon-Arnett law making it a crime for an employer to hire an “illegal” alien. Overnight the livelihood of 200,000 Latin immigrants in the L.A. area was threatened. The main mass organization of immigrant Latinos, CASA, experienced a phenomenal growth – 10,000 dues paying members. PL entered CASA with a very small number of Latin cadre and the mass line of “Abolish the Dixon-Arnett law.” The conservatives of CASA had limited their efforts to private meetings with certain legislators and influential clergy. PL cadre, while not attacking these legalistic efforts, argued that mass struggle was the key to victory. PL took its fighting program to the mass meetings of 500 to 600 Latin workers which took place weekly. PL proposals passed overwhelmingly and PL cadre took the lead in forming a CASA “protest committee” which led a series of mass marches, demonstrations, house meetings and other actions. Two months of mass struggle, led by PL forces and involving thousands was followed by a victory. Dixon-Arnett was declared unconstitutional. PL’s respect and influence amongst immigrant Latin workers, many of whom worked in the huge garment industry, grew tremendously, and for the first time significant numbers of Latin industrial workers joined the Party. But PLP pulled them out of CASA after a brief clash with the leadership and in short order the new Latin members were as isolated as the rest of the Party.


In the period 1968-1971 PLP was drawn into work within the Army as a number of its members were drafted. At first the Party fought to keep its members out, but later on the Party encouraged the men to go quetly when drafted. The first Army work in 1968-1969 carefully followed the model of the trade-union work and was relatively successful. But by 1970-1971, as in the factory, base-building and caucus building was replaced by anarchist exemplary actions which isolated the PL members from the majority of the soldiers and landed them in the stockades. However, in 1970-1971 there were a number of rebellions in the stockades both in the U.S. and in Vietnam and it seemed that the stockade was the best place for a PL GI. Thus even more isolating actions, purposefully designed to get the PL soldier arrested or dishonorably discharged, were the PL orders of the day. PLP made no serious inroads in the imperialist army, which, by the way, would have been very vulnerable in that period to a serious approach to military work.

PL’s army work was in as serious a shambles as its TU work when the struggle against sectarianism was ordered in late 1971 to begin in the Army area too. Well-needed it was, since a number of good PL cadre had quit when they refused to carry out dangerous orders for anarchist actions. Others became burned out by the brutality of the stockade life. The rest were totally isolated from a vigorously growing GI protest movement, the coffee-house movement (a movement to set-up as anti-war centers off-base coffee houses,) and the anti-war organizations of soldiers, sailors and veterans. The first attempts by New York to correct the sectarianism missed the mark and landed all the way into gross right-wing opportunism. The Party proposed an incredibly opportunist campaign to make the Army’s court-martial system more democratic. This rightist program was quietly rejected by the Party in Seattle, which directed the Army work at the near-by Fort Lewis. The program at Ft. Lewis was based squarely on fighting racism; the method was to join forces with existing organizations in and around the military to fight racism. Thus the PL GI cadre allied with the local GI coffee house, hooked up with the national campaign to free Billy Dean Smith; a Black GI accused of fragging (a method used in Vietnam to eliminate pro-war officers), and formed a chapter of the anti-war national organization VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) on the base. With the support of the broad off-base forces and with a fighting anti-racist program that helped build a base especially among minority soldiers, a bold but sensible series of actions took place, which in short order made the Ft. Lewis VVAW the most feared organization on the base and one of the most influential GI protest centers on the West Coast. PLP for the first time was able to recruit active-duty GI’s. The Ft. Lewis program then became the model for PL’s army work. But by late 1973 all of PL’s GI’s had served their time, and with the end of the draft there were no more enlistments. PL work within the armed forces ended until the Camp Pendleton Campaign in late 1976. (See below).


In 1972 McGovern made ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam and a vague vision of economic justice the two main planks of his program, and his campaign for the Presidency attracted and involved thousands of young activists committed to these goals. Having recently re-evaluated their approach to elections the NSC conceived and developed a skillful approach toward the McGovern campaign which enabled PL to work among and have some serious influence upon the young McGovern activists. PL cadre joined the campaign and a few became leaders of it at the local level. These PL cadre worked hard in the daily activity of the campaign and organized politically around the mass line of “Keep McGovern straight on the issues” and “Democracy in the Campaign.” Around this line PL initiated an unofficial caucus-type formation (within the official campaign apparatus) called “Grassroots McGovern Volunteers.” At Miami during the national Democratic Party convention, after McGovern made a clearly backsliding speech which mentioned he was in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Thailand, the Grassroots McGovern Volunteers organized a mass meeting of 600 at McGovern’s convention headquarters at the Dorval Hotel to demand McGovern retract his statement. McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart was forced to attend and had the unpleasant experience of being raked over the coals by 600 of his “own people” Later the chapters of this caucus in the San Francisco Bay Area joined with the United Farm Workers (U.F.W.) to organize a mass march in San Francisco against the anti-farmworker initiative, Proposition 22. McGovern and his campaign leaders in the Democratic Party opposed this and began redbaiting the Grassroots McGovern Volunteers declaring that “communists have infiltrated our campaign in San Mateo county, (adjacent to San Francisco).” McGovern and his aides wanted the march stopped but the caucus had a solid base inside his Bay Area organization and solid support from the UFW. Dolores Huerta of the UFW leadership threatened to expose McGovern for vacillating on Proposition 22. McGovern backed down, and the PL caucus and the Farmworkers led a march of 2,000. The efforts of the PL cadre in the McGovern campaign were an example of a Leninist approach to the liberal electoral campaigns which often involve large numbers of well meaning activists, often open to revolutionary politics. A small number of these McGovern activists were involved by the PL forces in study groups and in the Party itself. However, as the campaign developed, “Grassroots McGovern Volunteers” became increasingly isolated from other reform Democratic groups and after the election it died; PLP, for all its good work, was left with no ties with the people active in Democratic politics.


In the school year of 1971-1972 the NSC picked up the shell of SDS and made an attempt to bring it back to life. At the time a significant wave of publicity and promotion was being given in academic circles to a dangerous group of racist eugenecists such as Arthur Jensen, Richard Herstein, and William Shockley. PL organized what forces it had left on the campuses, using the vehicle of SDS, to launch a national campaign against the racist professors. While SDS was never revived to even a shadow of its former self, PL student cadre worked hard on agitational campaigns, at times complemented by exemplary actions, exposing the racists and their texts. PL and its short-lived, Boston-based graduate student organization, University Action Group, succeeded in getting resolutions passed in the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Economic Association, and the Linguistic Society of North America condemning the racist “theories.” PL and SESPA (Scientists & Engineers of Social and Political Action) later succeeded in getting the American Physics Society to “dissociate” itself from physicist Shockley’s racist “theories.” Unfortunately, PL did not realize the significance of the anti-racist opposition in these professional societies. The activists in these organizations were often intellectuals most open to Left ideas, yet PL was not capable of either following through on contacts made at these meetings or of developing a long range plan for work in these societies.

Occasionally during the spring of 1972, the SDS-led efforts on the campus took on a mass character temporarily, most notably at the University of Iowa when 400 students confronted Hernstein during a speaking engagement. On the whole, however, no significant mass struggle developed against the racist professors. As for SDS, to revive it into a mass organization, assuming that was still possible given what the NSC had done to it since June 1969, would have required a completely self-critical evaluation of why it had died since the split. This, of course, was never even considered. While the racist professors were an issue, they were not the issue; the main issue around which tens of thousands of students would, and did move in the spring of 1972 was still the war in Vietnam.

When Nixon re-escalated the war against Vietnam in the spring of 1972, PLP took the opportunity to re-escalate the verbal attacks on the Vietnamese for negotiating. As the Vietnamese were carrying out an all-out offensive against U.S. imperialism, Challenge stated: “... if they were really intent on driving the U.S. out of Vietnam altogether they never would have gone to the ’bargaining table’ to negotiate with U.S. imperialism in the first place.”[135]

Naturally with this line the initial response of the NSC was to ignore the war and keep PL’s student forces plugging away against the racist professors. At a large national SDS conference on April 1st and 2nd, the war was hardly mentioned.[136] Marxist-Leninist elements in the national leadership argued against this abstention from what was the biggest anti-war upsurge since the spring of 1970 (2,500 had voted to strike at Harvard; 3,000 were already on strike and battling the police at Columbia; at Stanford 2,000 took over 3 campus buildings; at Boston U., 3,000 voted to strike until the bombings were stopped.) Under these circumstances and given the current anti-sectarian push, it was possible in a few places for PL and SDS to jump into this anti-imperialist uprising, even to help lead the upsurge, most notably at the U. of Washington and at UCLA, to a lesser extent at San Francisco State, Univ. of Minnesota, Princeton, and Boston U. At U.C. Berkeley, PL played a significant and positive role in the anti-war movement, then led by the Maoist R.U., by raising the level of militancy beyond what the moderate R.U. was then willing to allow.

In an attempt to broaden the campaign against the racist “theorists” PL launched the Committee Against Racism (CAR). CAR had a very promising beginning as PL forces succeeded in getting over 1,400 prominent professors and other academics to sponsor the call for the founding conference of CAR. The founding conference itself, due to its broad sponsorship, was a huge success. Over 1,200 students and faculty met at New York University and pledged themselves to CAR’s program of “opposing racist ’theories’ and practices wherever they exist.” A similar conference, though not quite so broad in character, was held on the West coast a few months later. At these early CAR conferences PL made an effort to overcome some of the sectarianism of the SDS anti-racist campaign by emphasizing that CAR was open to all those who wanted to oppose the racists on any level. Also PL recognized the need and possibility for CAR to form united fronts with other forces, particularly minority student and faculty groups, in the anti-racist struggle, When this policy was pursued, as in Los Angeles for a brief period, CAR experienced growth in both numbers and influence in the campus community. At UCLA CAR helped spearhead a very influential Coalition which held off UCLA’s planned “Violence Center.” During this period some excellent anti-racist literature was produced including the pamphlets “The Myth of Reverse Racism” and “Jensenism: A Closer Look.”(This was in fact an SDS pamphlet, written by rank and file PL’ers at Berkeley on their own initiative. In fact the conventional wisdom in PL was that it was wrong to discredit Jensen scientifically, as opposed to purely political expose.) Unfortunately, this approach to building CAR did not last long nor did it ever become widespread in the Party and even at the CAR founding Convention the NSC began the process of narrowing the organization down.


In the spring of 1975 PL’s work among farmworkers, which had previously been limited to agitational work on the periphery of that movement, received a big boost when a longtime veteran and respected leader of the farmworkers’ movement in the Delano area joined the Party. (He had first contacted PL during the Party’s work around Proposition 22 in 1972.) This opened the door to the possibility of serious organizing in the UFW by the PLP. The new Delano organizer and the other NC member responsible for the work in the valley wrote a thoughtful series of articles for Challenge that traced the political development of the UFW from a working class perspective. The proposed program for developing the UFW into a serious weapon of class struggle against the growers, included ending the reliance on liberal politicians, ending the UFW leaders’ collaboration with the Immigration Police and welcoming immigrant workers into the union. The method of work was to include mobilizing and relying upon the initiative and power of rank and file farmworkers through a system of ranch committees and shop stewards that could shut down the fields. This program could have provided the basis for a vibrant rank and file movement in the UFW. But the NSC was quick to pour cold water on this document and its program, criticizing it as “opportunist.” The NSC instead urged the Delano comrades to concentrate on selling Challenge at the Saturday flea market in nearby rural towns. Thus the hope of a new movement in the fields was quickly snuffed out.


In response to the skyrocketing unemployment crisis in 1974-1975 PL undertook to organize two major actions against unemployment, one in California and one in the East. In California the Party leadership employed a united front approach around the mass line of “Jobs Now!” A wide range of forces including caucuses, union locals, student governments, Black and Chicano organizations, welfare rights groups, churches, were won by PL and WAM to send delegates to a planning conference and participate in a March on the State capitol. This united front approach led to a mass march of over 2,000. PLP was clearly in the leadership of this demonstration, the largest non-student action ever organized and led by PL in California. The Party leadership in New York City on the other hand, pursued a narrow sectarian policy of building their march with only PL and WAM; the result was a march less than one-fifth as large as the one in California. The disparity between the two marches was so striking that it had a sobering effect on Rosen who wrote self-critically shortly afterwards, “Take the last WAM march in the East... In NYC... the march was never raised in a single local for adoption... the march was poorly organized by a few party leaders in the office. Superficially the march was called WAM but in fact it was only the Party... Almost no other group, caucus, etc. was asked to co-sponsor the march. There was no united front... in NYC our work in the TU’s has narrowed down, because I have allowed the comrades to wander too far away from the UF approach...”[137] The differences reflected in the two unemployment marches were a prelude, unbeknownst to those involved at the time, to an eventual head-on clash between the S.F. leadership and the NSC over the question of united-front strategy and tactics.


Attempting to draw some lessons from the experience of the unemployment marches and from some positive on-the-job work in S.F., the two San Francisco leaders, Jim Dann and Hari Dillon, submitted two reports to the January 1975, meeting of the NC on the question of United Front. The reports argued that “while our cadre are dedicated and often bold” the Party “lags far behind in understanding the nature of united front work... the problem of UF is the key problem we have to solve in the mass movement... a truly broad UF is not a neat package... but includes a wide range of Forces. Thus a healthy and complex process of unity/struggle/unity constantly transpires.”[138] Most significantly, the reports referred back to the experiences of PL in the 1960’s and called for re-opening discussion and evaluation of the four retreats (put more tactfully in the reports as “PL’s role” at San Francisco State, the anti-war movement, and SDS) as part of a general self-critical Party-wide discussion on united front and PL’s work in the mass movement.

Rosen on his part issued a report in which, while bowing to the need to “broaden out our work” argued that the main problem in the Party’s work “is right opportunism, not only in the long run but in the immediate” (Rosen’s emphasis). Rather than seriously and self-critically examine the errors in PL’s strategy Rosen argued the problem was “the leadership doesn’t hold the line” for the “agreed upon strategy” such as WAM and CAR.[139]

Rosen and W. Linder met with the two San Francisco leaders the day before the NC meeting to discuss the differences regarding strategy. Rosen declared that the death of SDS resulted not from pursuing the narrow CWSA, but because CWSA was not “pursued enough;” he defended PL’s walk out of the anti-war movement because the anti-war movement did not involve the working class. (This was not true in the 1969-1971 period, and even to the extent that it was true earlier it is quite beside the point. You can’t change the nature of a movement by walking out of it.) While avoiding dealing with the S.F. State Strike specifically, he argued that the loss of many Black cadre in 1968-1970 was due to to their nationalism, not PL’s racist deviations from Marxism-Leninism on the national question.[140] Dann and Dillon, while not agreeing with Rosen’s line and never actually recanting their views, nevertheless did retreat and did not press the issue at the general meetings of the NC the next day. Three factors led Dann and Dillon to retreat in this manner: (1) their perception of their political differences with the line of the NSC were fragmented and incomplete; (2) Rosen, while staunchly defending PL’s past errors, made bows toward correcting present errors in strategy; (3) the distorted way in which democratic centralism was practiced by the NSC made it impossible for Dillon and Dann to press for a Party-wide discussion on PL’s strategy without being “guilty” of factionalizing against the line of the NC and “undermining the Party’s strategy.”

Rosen, while sharply attacking Dann’s report as “right-wing,” praised the “Jobs March” in California. Nevertheless he insisted on his line that right opportunism is the main error. The only proposal to come out of the meeting was a recruiting drive to double the membership of PL in the next year and thus make PL into more of a “mass party.”[141]

At the following NC meeting in March 1975, Dillon again attempted to re-open the crucial question of the San Francisco State strike by submitting a report which though mild compared to what was warranted, was sharper in regard to S.F. State than the two reports submitted by him and Dann at the previous NC. The report stated that “the primary aspect of the strike demands was progressive and anti-racist” (this was antithetical to the NSC position) and that PL’s opposition to preferential admissions of minority students was “a serious racist error on the part of the NSC.”[142] Rosen replied that the NSC had been “correct” at San Francisco State and that Dillon’s position was a “capitulation to nationalism.” Rosen attacked Dillon for “assaulting the line of the Party” and declared his report to be a prime example of “right-opportunism within the National Committee.” Rosen then recessed the meeting without discussion.[143]


Ironically as the Party’s base shrunk to one-tenth its former size during the 1967-1971 period, the Party membership itself had increased, and there was a greater spread geographically as well. At the time of the founding Convention in 1965 there were about 200 members; this grew steadily to about 325 at the time of the 1968 Convention, about one-half in New York, one-fifth in San Francisco, almost all the rest in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. But the successful struggle in SDS brought a whole new crop of young activists around PLP, many of whom ironically joined PLP because, as SDS died, they had no organization. By the time of RTR III PL’s membership numbered about 440. Now besides a new club in Detroit, there were PL organizers (ex-SDS’ers) who formed the nuclei of future clubs in Houston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Kansas City, Cleveland, San Diego, St. Louis, Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh. During the anti-sectarian period these nuclei were able to transform themselves into small but stable clubs. PLP continued its slow steady growth, growing mainly in these new areas until most new areas had at least 10 members, when the split with Boston occurred. Just before the split PLP counted some 520 members. The loss of Boston dropped PL’s membership to 400, but the big recruiting drive of 1975 made good the loss and then some. At the time of the May 1975 meeting, the NC counted 708 members, half of them from NY and San Francisco. There were all sorts of wild projections based on this modest success. Rosen promised 1,000 members before the year was out. The NC upped that projection and agreed to re-double the membership by October 1975, and try for 2,000 by the end of 1975. The count at the NC of October, 1975, however, was disappointing. The most high-pressured recruiting campaign in PL’s history (with the most liberal membership requirements) produced a virtually static situation. There were only 763 members counted, not the 1400 promised in May. However, more rapid growth was expected by the NC if more pressure were applied. The Minneapolis section claimed to have almost tripled in size in the 5 month period by using all-night struggle sessions with new prospects. This was seen as a national model. Mort Scheer proposed a “realistic” goal of 25,000 by 1980, and this was agreed to by the NC as well as the intermediate goal of 2,000 by May, 1977. None of this materialized; 763 was as large as PLP was destined to grow. It was all downhill after that. A shrinking base of friends of the Party was eventually milked dry and even the most high-pressured recruiting could not keep pace with attrition. (AII figures are from notes taken at NC meetings of May, 1975 and October 1975. This was the first time NC members were given honest membership figures. The innovation stopped in 1976, when membership began to plummet.)

The call by the NC for a more mass approach to recruitment had both good and bad aspects. PL had always been saddled with an elitist recruitment policy that set stricter criteria for joining the Party than for being a member or leader of the Party. The “new” approach by PL was really a return to the three basic guidelines for membership in the Bolshevik Party: agreement with the general line and strategy of the Party; agreement to meet and function in a Party unit; and agreement to help sustain the Party financially. (In practice, however, many new members never met with a club.) Adopting this approach enabled PL to recruit many people who had been close to the Party for some time but had been prevented from joining due to PL’s elitism.

The shortcoming in the “mass recruiting campaign” lay primarily in the fact that it was viewed as the strategic answer to how the Party would become qualitatively more mass in character and thus able to play a significant role in the class struggle. It circumvented the fundamental problem of PL’s isolation from the mass movement in general, and in the trade unions in particular. Thus, once the few people already around the Party were recruited, the growth of the Party once again came to a standstill. But of course nothing stands still for very long. Losses of many of the new members began in 1976 and whittled the membership down rapidly. This was made painfully clear by the January 1977, NC meeting when Rosen reported that “we recruited nearly 100 members in New York City in the mass recruiting drive and by now almost all have quit.”[144] After the 1977 split with San Francisco Party group, PLP’s membership was down to 430, a little less than it had been in 1971.[145]


The struggle against sectarianism in PL was doomed to fail from the beginning because the struggle never came to grips with the theoretical basis of PL’s isolation from the mass movement, RTR III. RTR III is full of talk about winning the masses “directly to socialism” and attacks on the Bolsheviks for the various mass lines they put forward – self-determination for national minorities, bread, land and peace, and for giving priority to achieving a “higher standard of living” for the workers and peasants after the Bolshevik revolution. In RTR III the NSC in essence rejected the scientific Marxist outlook on why the masses make revolution (in order to rid themselves of the material oppression of capitalism). Only Utopian socialists and anarchists think that high ideals are enough to produce revolution. Based on this understanding Marxist-Leninists have always recognized the necessity of organizing around a mass line which embodies the burning desires of the masses at the moment. Marxist-Leninists cannot limit their efforts to purely agitational and propaganda work; the workers cannot be convinced by propaganda and agitation alone. A distinction must be made between agitational slogans and the slogans of action. “If the call to action properly and aptly formulates the demands of the masses, and if the time is really ripe for it, it is usually taken up by the broad masses of toilers. To confuse slogans with directives or an agitational slogan with a slogan of action, is as dangerous as premature or belated action which is sometimes fatal.”[146] The NSC never came close to grasping and acting on the fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist strategy and tactics during its half-hearted struggle against sectarianism. While “30 for 40” was a valid agitational slogan, it was never the burning issue of the day that would make it a “slogan of action.” Thus PL restricted its worker in the unions in the main to “propaganda and agitation alone.” The change during the anti-sectarian period too often only meant that instead of “hawking” Challenge, PL members hawked “30 for 40.” The result was indeed politically “fatal” for PL.

This first error in strategy led logically to the NSC’s second major deviation from what has always been an essential component of Marxist-Leninist strategy and tactics, the united front: “A most important basic part of the tactics of the Communist Parties is the tactic of the united front, as a means toward the most successful struggle against capital, towards the class mobilization of the masses and the exposure and isolation of the opportunist leaders.”[147] Since in the trade unions the NSC wanted to limit the line around which PL members worked to “30 for 40,” it followed logically that the organizational form was limited to WAM. The building of broad united front caucuses was discouraged.

The end result, indeed the essence of all this, was the abandonment by PLP of the goal of power. In RTR III PL attacked the Bolsheviks and CCP for the necessary strategic steps those parties took to achieve and consolidate power. The four retreats by PL, while at first glance demonstrating only fear of both revisionism and the masses, in essence reflected PL’s total fear of leading a fighting mass movement that could do serious battle with the ruling class immediately, and eventually challenge the rulers for power. While Marxist-Leninist parties have always sought to achieve power even to the point of refusing to allow its cadre to hold the position of shop steward. PL opposed the goal of power in one union local from the same theoretical precepts from which RTR III in essence attacked the concept of power in one country. Thus we can see a direct connection between PL’s infantile leftist’ tactics and its anarchist opposition in theory to the dictatorship of the proletariat. “Revisionism begins with the seizure of power.” Of course this turns Marxism inside out. As Lenin pointed out, the seizure of power by the proletariat is the watershed between Marxism and opportunism. Revisionism begins with the abandonment of this fundamental goal.

The Marxist-Leninist forces in PL attempted as best they could within the framework of PL’s general line to take advantage of the anti-sectarian period to halt and reverse PL’s drift into anarchistic isolation. To the extent they succeeded locally, PL occasionally had a positive effect in the class struggle. Also, the Marxist-Leninist forces at times attempted to open discussion on PL errors in the past relating to the anti-war, student, and Black movements. But these forces only dimly perceived the connection between the anarchist, Utopian line of RTR III and PL’s isolation from the masses and thus lacked the political clarity to wage an all-out struggle against the NSC. Moreover, they knew that the entrenched leadership would expel them forthwith if they did more than meekly raise questions or try to get around the NSC line in the local areas. All the West Coast leaders in the 1971-77 period were to one degree or other opposed to the NSC line, and, therefore, a better, less sectarian united front approach obtained in San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Only in those four cities was there significant PL action around the Hanoi-Haiphong bombings (1972); only in San Francisco and Berkeley were successful electoral “30 for 40” campaigns built (1973); only in California was a successful March for Jobs built (1974-1975). San Francisco teachers work was far broader and more successful than in New York City. But the West Coast leaders were saddled with carrying out the isolationist NC line and actually, the situation on the West Coast was only slightly better than in New York. This flexibility for the West Coast and token NSC opposition to sectarianism were enough to keep the Marxist-Leninist forces hopeful that PL would improve and busy in their local futilely trying to build a mass movement headed by the sectarian, area PLP.

The smaller areas in the Mid-West were less supervised by New York and were allowed to indulge in a slightly longer perspective and to do more base building. Even in New York there were areas of work, not under the direct supervision of the national office where a rank and file member could do some relatively broad work and carry out elements of a communist line. That is why it was possible in this period for serious revolutionaries to maintain themselves in the Party, to ignore the sectarian NSC line and not take challenge too seriously. Thus good work was done in the “30 for 40” and, later, in the unemployment campaigns in San Francisco, in the Army work in Seattle, in student work at a number of West Coast, Minnesota and Boston campuses, among undocumented workers in Los Angeles, farmworkers in California, teachers, carpenters and phone workers in San Francisco, welfare workers in Chicago, and in some other areas. Only on the West Coast did NC members actually encourage a broader type of work, but in some areas other local leaders and rank and file members (in New York City only the latter) maintained their commitment by struggling to carry out communist work.

All this was in contradiction to the anarchist line of RTR III and the sectarian politics of Challenge and in time the piper had to be paid. As long as RTR III was the unchallenged general line of PLP and the Rosen clique the unchallenged, entrenched leadership, the non-sectarian work existed only as an anomaly tolerated by the NSC. This tolerance ended soon enough.


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.

[128] “Report to the NC,” September, 1971.

[129] “Report to the members from Sept. 1971 NC.”

[130] CD, V. 8, No. 5, September 4, 1971, p. 15.

[131] NC Report, April, 1972.

[132] Report to the NC, December, 1974.

[133] EA

[134] EA, Reports for the September, 1971 NC entitled “Election Campaigns, Useful Tactic or Ruling Class Trap,” “Issued by NC for discussion.”

[135] CD, V. 8, No. 22, May 1, 1972, p. 2.

[136] EA

[137] Rosen, Milt, “Some Problems in the Work,” December, 1974.

[138] Dann, Jim “On the NC Report on Internationalism and the United Front,” December, 1974. Dillon, Hari, “A Few Notes on the Party and the Left on the United Front,” December, 1974.

[139] Rosen, Milt, op. cit.

[140] EA

[141] EA

[142] Dillon, Hari, “History of the State Strike.”

[143] EA

[144] EA

[145] A fairly accurate estimate (within 5%) based on figures given by the various area leaders or others in a position to know.

[146] Stalin, CW, V. 5, p. 175.

[147] “Program of the Communist International,” 1928.