Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Ericson and Charles Loren

The Anti-Marxist-Leninist Line of Progressive Labor

Note on PL’ers Methods of Work

In their methods of work the petty bourgeois revolutionists base themselves on individualist and idealist bourgeois psychology. They hold an anti-rational view of the emotions. The most frequent words on the lips of the petty bourgeois revolutionists are “bad attitudes,” “weaknesses” and “fears.” Whatever the task or problem they face–from arranging to sell the newspaper to adopting a policy position on nationalism–the main obstacle to handling it is almost always held to be “our own bad attitudes or weaknesses or fears.” And, thinking that emotions have no causes, they can develop no rational analysis of the objective problems which underlie their anxiety. Proceeding instead from a subjective, anti-rational and idealist view of emotions, they engage, as is well known to those in and around their circles, in psychotherapy sessions with each other and pure enthusiasm in dealings with other people.

The petty bourgeois revolutionists cannot delve too deeply into why they have the attitudes, weaknesses and fears of which they speak. They would tumble into Freudian or some other form of bourgeois psychological analysis, and this would further expose them as not Marxist-Leninist. Therefore, they avoid any search for causes and simply “demand change from each other.” By psyching up or intimidating each other, they generate the needed enthusiasm–for the short term. All that is lacking is scientific knowledge of the class struggle; therefore, they cannot bring this knowledge to others or operate in political life themselves on the basis of Marxism-Leninism. The petty bourgeois revolutionists themselves confess this fact:

At this point, the revolution is still far enough around the corner that it is sometimes hard to keep it in view....It1s hard to sustain such a sense of urgency at this point, because what we are doing is not as clear as fighting the ruling class with guns. (PL, February 1971, p. 110)

What the petty bourgeois revolutionists are saying is that it is hard to be a Marxist-Leninist in between revolutionary situations. Of course, this is true of the petty bourgeois who enters political activity in exciting times. It is necessary to consolidate his enthusiasm with rational knowledge of the interests of the working class. But the petty bourgeois revolutionists regard such consolidation as irrelevant:

At times we don’t realize what that something is, but more often we realize what it is, the struggle is over whether to do it.’ The fear of doing the one vital thing... (Ibid., p. 101)

Such a statement is an admission that in fact the petty bourgeois revolutionists do not realize why they are undertaking some task and why it is both correct and feasible in the objective situation. If difficulties are encountered, then the petty bourgeois revolutionists do not really understand what they are trying to do. In this case, the party cannot carry out the task (any more than the working class can proceed with a revolution without a certain degree of class consciousness), or the task itself has been incorrectly posed, and further study of the situation needs to be made. But to make an analysis of the objective situation at this juncture is anathema to the petty bourgeois revolutionists. As idealists, they have made their “plan.” They have made it from the standpoint of what they would like, rather than what is to be done. They have asked themselves what precondition for revolution the plan’s success will satisfy but not whether the objective conditions for the success of the plan exist.

Hence, the petty bourgeois revolutionists instead conduct what they call inner-party struggle. However, there is a contradiction in their conception of it. On the one hand, it is arbitrarily stepped up without reference to real issues of struggle:

In addition, we’re trying to be much sharper in inner-party struggle. Concretely, this means a drive to make every member accountable for 75 sales per issue... (Ibid., p. 106)

On the other hand, inner-party struggle sometimes seems to be spoken of as an objective phenomenon:

The internal struggle within the Progressive Labor Party is becoming much sharper. (p. 88)

One would assume that a struggle against a Right or “Left” deviation on some political question had arisen. But this is not the case. Instead, there is a general policy to whip up subjective, unfounded enthusiasm, always to “up the ante” (increase certain requirements in numbers of newspaper sales, personal contacts or recruits). This subjectivist glorification of psychological methods was contrasted to a scientific and confident approach by Mao:

Lu Hsun once said in criticism of such people, ’Hurling insults and threats is certainly not fighting.’ What is scientific never fears criticism, for science is truth and fears no refutation. But those who write subjectivist and sectarian articles and speeches and therefore rely on pretentiousness to overawe others, are very cowardly, believing that they can thereby silence people....Two terms used to appear in the articles and speeches of many comrades, one being ’ruthless struggle’ and the other ’merciless blows’.... they were striking a pose in an effort to intimidate. This method is no good, no matter whom you are dealing with. Against the enemy this tactic of intimidation is utterly useless, and with our own comrades it can only do harm. It is a tactic which the exploiting classes and the lumpen-proletariat habitually practise, but for which the proletariat has no use. For the proletariat the sharpest and most effective weapon is a serious and militant scientific attitude. The Communist Party lives by the truth of Marxism-Leninism, by seeking truth from facts, by science, and not by intimidating people.[1]

Communist consolidation means passing from a primarily emotional involvement in political activity to a long-term view based on a scientific grasp of Marxism-Leninism. The communist persists in the various forms of the class struggle over a lifetime and knows that the struggle of the proletariat will eventually result in the abolition of classes. The unconsolidated activist works for a few weeks, months, or years and then gives up the work, for there is to him no perceivable reason to continue. The petty bourgeois revolutionists were not consolidated. Furthermore, they have a whole battery of psychological methods to hamper such consolidation.

Not only the petty bourgeois revolutionists themselves are affected by their practice; they also damage persons who become interested in communism through PL. The petty bourgeois revolutionists make contact with persons; these persons they burn out and spoil for political life. New persons are systematically shielded from Marxist-Leninist theory by the means of discussion groups that plan immediate activities, read only the newspaper, and dispense with theoretical questions by discussing them “in the context of” the current activities and stories in the newspaper. It is well known to anyone who has been through such discussions that to discuss scientific question A “in the context of” current task or news item B means in fact to dwell on the psychological and technical aspects of B to the exclusion of A. This phrase “in the context of” has been used to construct such wonderful formulas as “socialist construction in China in the context of Saturday’s picnic.” The petty bourgeois revolutionists “consolidate” a person instead by exploiting his momentary enthusiasm. They have him sell fantastic numbers of the newspaper and attend every march up and down the East or West Coast.

The petty bourgeois revolutionists have the same idealist conception of revolution that Lenin criticized. They believe that a revolution is “built,” that it is approached by successive waves of militant reform struggles, and that the duty of communists is simply to supply the initial momentum and to help to sustain these struggles.

This something more concrete must and should be the extensive organisation of local newspapers, the immediate preparation of the workers’ forces for demonstrations, the constant activity of local organisations among the unemployed (indefatigable distribution of pamphlets and leaflets, convening of meetings, appeals to actions of protest against the government, etc.). These lines were written by Nadezhdin, first a Narodnik and then a Menshevik. They are quoted by Lenin in What Is To Be Done? (chapter 5.B.).

A petty bourgeois revolutionist of today could have written them. To the worshippers of spontaneity, all that communists need to do is to issue vigorous calls to action. Lenin criticized singling out this activity as something special, saying,

To single out...this function ’the call upon the masses to undertake definite concrete actions’, is sheer nonsense, because the ’call’, as a single act, either naturally and inevitably supplements the theoretical treatise, propagandist pamphlet, and agitational speech, or represents a purely executive function.[2]

To this idealist view of “building a revolution” by the sheer volume of the call is opposed the materialist view of the development of revolutions. Revolutions occur in societies having objective economic contradictions between classes. The occurrence in these societies of crises, such as wars, is inevitable. The oppressed are always a majority in a class society, and so that cannot explain why revolutions break out when they do. Rather, sudden crises may lead the oppressed classes to question the system of fraud, the ideology by which the ruling class maintains its rule. In short, objective conditions govern the appearance of a revolutionary situation. Lenin said:

To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ’up-per classes’, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for ’the lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ’the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in ’peace time’, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the ’upper classes’ themselves into independent historical action.

Without these objective changes, which are independent of the will, not only of individual groups and parties but even of individual classes, a revolution, as a general rule, is impossible.[3]

A party cannot fulfill its task merely by issuing strenuous calls. It must guard the purity of the theory of scientific socialism, educate the most advanced workers in it, and build an organization including an underground apparatus if it is to defeat the highly organized ruling class.

Such a party, no matter what its numerical size at any moment, will not be a sect. Yet there is a misconception that a sect is 1) numerically small, and 2) “too theoretical.” This misconception is reformist and anti-Marxist-Leninist. It implies that a numerically large mass party is desirable. Such a concern with numbers reveals that one still thinks in liberal terms of minorities and majorities instead of in terms of classes and the strength of the various classes. This is true even if one refers to such majorities with militant phrases like “the masses.”

Such a misconception is also anti-Marxist-Leninist because it opposes scientific socialism and displays the fantastic notion that it is possible to be “too theoretical.” But in fact, it is the caricature of theory called dogma that may be one source of sectarianism. The remedy for such sectarianism is more genuine theory, a general grasp of the real world. It is well known that Engels criticized the German workers in the United States for sectarianism. However, it is often mistakenly thought that Engels criticized them for “preferring theory to action.” But this is incorrect. Engels said:

The Germans (in the U.S.) have not understood how to use their theory as a lever which could set the American masses in motion; they do not understand the theory themselves for the most part and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way, as something which has got to be learnt off by heart but which will then supply all needs without more ado...But it is just now that it is doubly necessary to have a few people there from our side with a firm seat in their saddles where theory and long-proved tactics are concerned, and who can also write and speak English; for, from good historical reasons, the Americans re worlds behind in all theoretical things....And if there are people at hand there whose minds are theoretically clear, who can tell them the consequences of their own mistakes beforehand and make it clear to them that every movement which does not keep the destruction of the wage system in view the whole time as its final aim is bound to go astray and fail – then many a piece of nonsense may be avoided and the process considerably shortened. (Letter by Engels to to Sorge, Nov. 29, 1886. Dona Torr, trans.)

The petty bourgeois revolutionists share with the objects of Engels’ observation a lack of understanding of the theory of scientific socialism, disdain for long-proved tactics of the international communist movement, and an inability to use theoretical knowledge to explain patiently the ultimate goal and the pitfalls which need to be avoided. The true difference in these two examples of sectarianism is that the German socialists in the U.S. had a dogmatic caricature of theory, while the petty bourgeois revolutionists openly oppose Marxist-Leninist theory.

Sectarianism means isolating the people from Marxism-Leninism. This isolation condemns the people to struggle in blindness and does them no good but instead causes them prolonged suffering under capitalism. This isolation also hurts the communist movement, whose strength increases with closer contact with the people. To overcome sectarianism requires that the people and Marxism-Leninism approach one another. The petty bourgeois revolutionists set themselves up as Marxist-Leninists, which they are not This gives people a mistaken idea of Marxism-Leninism and spoils many persons for political life. Neither the people nor the communist movement need such sectarian obstacles.


[1] Mao Tse-tung, “Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing,” Selected Works, vol. 3 (Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1965), pp. 57-8.

[2] V. I. Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?”, Selected Works, vol. 1 (New York, International Publishers, 1967), p. 153.

[3] V. I. Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” Collected Works (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1964), vol. 21, pp. 213-14.