Jim Dann and Hari Dillon

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


This document is a product of the split that occurred in Progressive Labor Party (PLP) in April 1977. At that time more than 70% of the San Francisco area of P.L.P., the second largest and the only area still engaged in mass struggle, quit the PLP en masse. Committed as before to the struggle for a revolutionary socialist solution to the crisis of U.S. monopoly capitalism, we began a study of our past in order to understand our future tasks.

Why is the failure of PLP significant? Not because of what PL is today, for it is nothing more than one of the more insignificant of those multitude of little sects that call themselves the one and only revolutionary Party. Nor do we study PL primarily for what it was, even though PLP did leave its mark on history as the leading force in the San Francisco State Strike, the most significant student strike in U.S. history, as a crucial element in the 1964 Harlem Rebellion and in the L.A. Century City Demonstration that ended Lyndon Johnson’s public speaking career, and as the key force that turned a number of radicals, especially those in SDS, toward working class politics. Yet that mark in itself is not reason enough for the production of this document.

We study the failure of PLP for what it could have become, not primarily for what it was and certainly not for what it is today. Progressive Labor Party could have become a genuine Marxist-Leninist Party in the heartland of U.S. imperialism, the acknowledged successor of the moribund Communist Party (CP) as leader of Left and progressive movements. This is what PLP might have become, and seemed on the verge of becoming in 1964-67. Unlike some communist parties abroad PLP did not fail because of bloody suppression; it did hot even receive the milder measure of repression imposed on the CPUSA. PLP died because of its own internal weaknesses that are natural in this period, but weaknesses that are avoidable. In studying the failure of PLP due to this internal disease we will study a fairly common disease in Marxist-Leninist Parties: the ultra leftist obsession with purity which leads only to pure isolation.

The contemporary period has seen the dissolution of the International Communist Movement, which until 1956 had seemed monolithic, prodigious and destined to bury capitalism and imperialism in short order. The big communist Parties, outwardly strong, but internally rotten with bourgeois influence, all sold out their revolutionary principles in order to make peace with their local bourgeoisie and/or U.S. imperialism. Many of the world’s communists followed their leaders into opportunism. For those who refused to revise their revolutionary birthright, it has been a difficult period. Some gave up the struggle; others began to compromise with opportunism a little, then a little more, and ended up revisionists themselves; a third group sank into petty nationalism. Others tried to protect themselves from all this by ultra-leftist, ultra-sectarian policies and theories. This was the road PLP took, and it led to the same ultimate futility and failure, as the other roads did.

Generally speaking, the course PLP pursued began with an over-estimation of the power of revisionism. This was an understandable error given the havoc that revisionism wrought in the post-1956 period. But this over-estimation prevented PLP from analyzing political events concretely and dialectically. The first manifestation of this overestimation of revisionism was fear of revisionism that PL quit formations that were penetrated by the revisionist groups. The second manifestation was underestimation of imperialism. Since revisionism was so powerful, it was reasoned that in the conflict between imperialism and revisionism the main enemy was always the revisionists. This led to a general underestimation of the power of U.S. imperialists. The third manifestation was anarchist tactics. Since the imperialists were weak and the revisionists strong, it was natural for PLP to eschew the reform struggle (where revisionists were active) in favor of the individual exemplary action. The fourth manifestation was to equate racism with nationalism. Since racism was fostered by “weakened” imperialism, and nationalism was often allied with “all-powerful” revisionism, it was to be expected that PLP would emphasize more the struggle against nationalism than against racism. The fifth manifestation was an autocratic Party life which flowed from a conviction that PL and only PL was pure and that the new rank and file members brought revisionism and nationalism into the Party; therefore increasing authority had to be granted to the leaders lest the Party go revisionist.

In its prime PL was not paranoid about revisionism and had not yet to any large degree fallen victim to these fatal errors. In those days (1962-1965) PL felt itself a part of a huge world wide revolutionary movement that included the 17,000,000 member-Chinese Communist Party (CPC), the trailblazing Albanian Party of Labor, 6,000,000 revolutionary Cubans, North Korea, North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front, Algeria, Guinea, the 3,000,000 strong Indonesian Communist Party, the majority of India’s communists, the national liberation armies in Angola, Mozambique, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Venezuela, Guatemala, the large Japanese Communist Party, the Peoples’ Progressive Party in Guyana, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement plus newly formed Marxist-Leninist parties in Belgium, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere. This massive movement of hundreds of millions was largely inspired by the outstanding revolutionary figure of our era, Mao-Tse-Tung. As a small but strategically located part of all this PLP was far from isolated, far from over-estimating revisionism and falling into sectarian errors. Yet this great movement did not hold together past 1965: The Cubans attacked the CCP and allied themselves with the revisionist USSR; the North Koreans moved in the same direction; the Indonesian CP was destroyed by U.S. imperialism as was the Venezuelan People’s Army; the Japanese Communist Party and the main Indian communist party (the Communist Party of India (Marxist) entered the state government in West Bengal) made their peace with their respective bourgeoisies. The Algerian Revolution grew conservative, inviting first the French and then the U.S. imperialists back in; there were splits in the movements in Angola and Mozambique, splits and disintegration in many of the new Marxist-Leninist Parties, backsliding in Guinea. The great anti-revisionist, revolutionary movement of 1963-1965 was breaking apart and PLP began to feel isolated. Having underestimated the influence of revisionism in the early period, PL overestimated the penetration of revisionism later on. What appeared to PLP to be backsliding in Vietnam confirmed PL in its fixation on revisionism. When the foreign policy of China appeared to veer to the Right after 1969, PL’s worst fears were realized, and nothing after that shook PLP’s obsession with revisionism and enchantment with ultra-leftism. A paralyzing fixation on modern revisionism replaced a balanced Marxist analysis, and the Party step-by-step fell victim to five main errors: (1) fear of revisionism, (2) under-estimating imperialism, (3) anarchist tactics, (4) equating racism and nationalism, and (5) autocratic party life. These errors led to successive retreats from the mass movement, as we shall see. First they retreated from the anti-Vietnam war movement, secondly from the Black Liberation Movement, thirdly from the student movement, and fourthly from the trade-union movement. Finally there was a general retreat from Marxism-Leninism, scientific socialism. PLP’s philosophy came to resemble more anarchism and Utopian socialism than Marxism, more Trotskyism than Leninism, more subjective idealism than dialectical materialism.

We were long-term members and leaders of PLP. We shared in the responsibility for many of the errors and abuses that will be dealt with in the text. We also fought, within the narrow confines of our Party collectives, against some of the worst manifestations of the ultra-left line. In particular we opposed the equating of the racism of the oppressor with the nationalism of the oppressed, the escalating PLP verbal abuse of the Vietnamese liberation struggle, the retreat from fighting U.S. imperialism, and the anarchist line on the Soviet Union as it developed in the PL text “Road to Revolution III” (See Chapter 6), when we opposed the PL line on these and other questions, we were in the minority in the National Committee. But because of Party rules we were prohibited from involving the membership in our disagreements. Moreover, we failed at the time to connect all of the various deviations in a comprehensive political and historical analysis until the last year in the Party.

Therefore we hope this document will be of value, because the objective causes of the failure of PLP will undoubtedly be encountered in future attempts to build a revolutionary Party. These errors can be avoided if and only if it is understood where they will lead. Thus a history of the failure of PLP is useful and timely. ̶o;Those who won’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”