Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Art Carling and Jay Franklin

PL on the Road to Reformism: An Insiders’ Viewpoint

First Published: Workers Vanguard No. 18, April 1973
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Editor’s note: The authors are two former members of PL. Jay F. was a member of the Progressive Labor Party from before its founding convention in 1965, and active in the Bay Area PL, primarily in trade union work, for six years. Art C. was involved in PL’s army work.

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The transformation of Progressive Labor from an aggressive left-centrist grouping into reformism is almost complete. The class orientation which marked PL through the summer of 1971 has been largely submerged in a desperate search for gimmicks promising mass influence. PL nose-dived into the bourgeois-led NPAC, created its own single-issue reform groups in SDS and WAM, and now begins to consider the possibility of work within the Democratic Party.

A combination of continual zigzags in the line, theoretical disorientation, moralizing sermons rather than political struggle and now a qualitative right turn has led to accelerated internal demoralization within PL, Scores of members and close sympathizers have left PL on the West Coast alone during the past two years. Unfortunately, most of these dropouts have fallen into political passivity rather than attempting to analyze the crisis facing PL. An index of this organizational crisis is the party chairman’s recent speech to the ranks reprinted in the latest PL–a homespun assortment of petty homilies begging the members not to quit and declaring that the very act of “fighting is winning.”

For PL the only existing organizational cement is super-activism based on this “fighting is winning” line; an orgy of paper sales, 30 for 40 petitions and anti-racist textbook campaigns substitute for political clarification. The inability of PLers to grapple with political criticisms, especially those of the Spartacist League, leads to responses along the line of, “at least we’re building something! What do you guys do, except bother us?” This can keep militants going for a few months, but more and more PL members are now asking themselves, “what exactly are we building?” Only a struggle to assimilate the lessons of the past, a programmatic fight against PL’s eclecticism, will prevent the continued demoralization of subjectively serious potential communists.

PLers must closely examine the results of an enormous amount of energy and work–an objective balance sheet of PL’s mass work must be drawn. We will focus on PL’s Bay Area trade union work and PL’s efforts at an army base. Such an examination, based on our own experiences, in fact shows that PL has really “done” very little in building a revolutionary party.

PL in the Trade Unions: Hot Breakfasts and Softball

PL’s trade-union work really began in the Bay Area in the Steelworkers local at American Can Co. and two other unions. The articles in Challenge about these workers were only a reflection of their militancy which in no way extended the workers’ understanding. For example, this Steelworkers’ local voted unanimously against sellout by Abel (the USWA president). But despite the potential and despite the fact that three PLers worked in this plant for three years, there was no attempt to channel this militancy into class consciousness by means of a caucus based on a class program. Three years of “revolutionary communist” work in this union produced a petition campaign to get hot breakfasts served earlier in the cafeteria and a Softball team which lost repeatedly and whose politics matched its league record! Of those non-party members of the team, not one is in or around PL today–not even the left fielder! Proof that this was not an isolated opportunist deviation in Bay Area union work is that a similar caucus and Softball team was led by the West Coast leader of PL.

PL did initiate an active caucus at Safeway stores, at one point having more than 30 members attending caucus meetings. But beyond selling Challenge, there was nowhere for them to go, no way to develop into communists. Lacking programmatic direction, the caucus began to degenerate, at one point having anti-semitic remarks in its newsletter, and eventually becoming an opportunist front-group which had to be liquidated. The extent of PL’s intervention in the key 1970 GM strike was to tail the spontaneous militancy of the strikers and to serve them rice and tuna fish. The PL auto caucus in the Bay Area was put on parade more than once during the SF State strike defending and promoting “revolutionary” nationalism. On the job, however, this caucus was impotent, eventually becoming demoralized and falling away from PL. In fact, the entire San Jose PL operation was eventually liquidated–it should be noted that San Jose is the proletarian center of Northern California (auto, food processing and warehouses, electronics, aerospace, etc.).

These experiences seem to have been a nation-wide phenomenon, as there was a sharp “rectification” in early 1970. Two lessons were drawn from these failures: the job of communists is to fight for the proletarian dictatorship, not to initiate reform fights or reform organizations, and most PLers from middle-class backgrounds should be pulled out of the unions, off the “front lines,” to become students, librarians, etc. whose main task would be the bombardment of “real, live center” workers with Challenge, attempting to win the more advanced to “Challenge Sellers’ Collectives.” Among other examples, in the Bay Area this meant dropping work among Muni Bus Drivers, who have a tradition of militancy, because the PL supporters in the union were deemed too middle-class!

This truly infantile ultra-left turn was based on the contradiction between PL’s crassly reformist union work (which had its student counterpart in the infamous strategy of fights around slippery floors in the campus cafeteria) and a subjective communist impulse. If outright reformism not only didn’t work but was also demoralizing the members in the unions then the solution must lie in shouting “Communism” from the treetops–and pulling a chunk of PL supporters out of the unions! A frenzy of Challenge sales, contacting sessions and embryonic Challenge Sellers’ Collectives produced very little. A few workers and students were attracted to this source of energy, but the turnover rate was very high. In addition, a number of members and sympathizers left during this frenzied “rectification,” convinced that PL had forsaken its main attribute, that of “building a base in’ the working class.”

The idea that advanced workers will be won to communism largely from the outside, in the absence of a communist pole within the unions fighting and exposing the present union leadership, is doomed to failure. When this failure became clear, when it became obvious that each issue of Challenge was not being read by 100,000 “masses,” primarily workers (the claim of the leadership), and that workers were not being attracted to the Challenge Sellers’ Collectives, then a change had to be made. Obviously, if “communist agitation” failed then a zigzag to reformism was the answer. The only difference was that now PL had fewer cadre in the unions and the turn to blatantly reformist organizing was much deeper, based on the shambles of the “ultra-left” period.

A series of gimmick reform movements has dominated PL’s work in the class over the past two years, ranging from the “fight racist unemployment” campaign to the current “30 for 40” struggle. These campaigns have been single-issue attempts to create a “center,” basically outside the unions, from which PL can recruit and which can serve as focal points of activity to siphon off the anxiety of the ranks. An organization of PL’s limited size and influence, an organization which has proven its inability to build opposition caucuses within the unions, is absolutely incapable of really waging a fight against unemployment or for 30 for 40. The attempt to hold PL together with promises about building a mass fight is simple opportunism which will lead to the further disillusionment of the PL ranks.

PL in the Army: “GI Joe’s a Red”

PL’s initial attitude toward GI organizing was abstention. Tailing after the new left and black nationalists, the “center,” PL was among the most energetic fighters for “Hell no! We won’t go!” draft resistance. PL gave this position a militant, avowedly anti-imperialist thrust to the left of the pacifist-liberal forces; but it refused to conduct a principled fight for the Leninist position that revolutionaries must accept induction in order to politicize worker-soldiers.

By 1968 a combination of growing spontaneous GI struggles, the success of other left tendencies’ work in the military, a romanticism of the left about so-called GI organizing and the success of an inadvertently drafted PLer in organizing an anti-imperialist paper on his base led PL to abandon its earlier policy of draft resistance. The approach to this work was pragmatic, with little attempt to understand the history of communist work in this arena or to formulate a program for GI work.

PL’s lurch to the left in early 1970 found its reflection in the army in a sharp tactical turn. We were no longer supposed to be just one of the guys but instead “revolutionary communists fighting for the proletarian dictatorship.” The idiocy of this ultra-left turn is perhaps better seen in the army than in other arenas. The objective situation was truly ripe–the vast majority of GI’s strongly hated the war and military discipline and were neutral to communists (the usual response was, if you’re against the army you can’t be too bad). The spontaneous level of struggle was high not only in Vietnam, exemplified by “fraggings” and some refusals to fight, but also stateside as seen in a spiraling AWOL and desertion rate and stockade rebellions. On almost every major base there were indications that this individual rebellion could be transformed into collective struggle, as coffeehouses and GI organizations attracted a nucleus of potential organizers. The ferment in the military in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s presented an excellent opportunity for revolutionaries.

But the sum total of PL’s program in this period was “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and Challenge Sellers’ Collectives. Every barracks was seen as a potential red fortress, with the only obstacle between PL and the recruitment of GI’s being the lack of exposure to “communist” ideas, i.e., Challenge. The only tactic of PL supporters was to talk about communism and try to win GIs to the Challenge Sellers’ Collectives. The tense objective situation and the energy of PL’s work attracted handfuls of GI militants at various times, but the overwhelming majority was not ready to make the big leap of joining a communist organization. The other result of PL’s work in this “rectification” period was a number of busts. Given the adventurism of PL’s tactics this is not surprising. An organization whose newspaper could carry the headlines, “GIs, WACs, Beat, Kill Officers!” was obviously out of touch with reality, unable to pose any perspective other than individual martyrdom for radical worker-soldiers.

But the political vacuum which PL helped to perpetuate was partially filled by the reformist coffeehouses and organizations. PL’s attitude toward the Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM) and its coffeehouse at Fort Ord was typical. This particular MDM effort was politically controlled by the right Maoist Revolutionary Union (RU), with some CP influence. Its activities consisted of running a coffeehouse off-base in which GIs could congregate, printing a newspaper modeled after the Black Panther, undertaking defense work and some attempts at organizing on base. The MDM’s work at this base lasted only about six months, falling apart from cop and military harassment, lack of funds and the contradictions inherent in the RU’s politics. But in this period, especially during the summer of 1970, MDM attracted a large chunk of the more radical GIs, those who were looking for a way to fight against the war, military discipline and racism.

PL’s approach to these militants was the “united front from below,” which meant that we made sporadic efforts to win these guys by baldly posing the Challenge Sellers’ Collective as the alternative to the “reformist, CP-controlled, cop-out MDM.” But the very purpose of the united-front tactic is not only to provide unity in action, but also to be a means of testing and exposing reformist leaders before their membership in the course of practical struggle. PL demanded that these militants just abandon their reformist illusions and join them–the result was no united front at all and the continued stranglehold of the reformists on the most advanced GI militants. Opportunities for PL to intersect these militants existed without actually joining MDM, e.g., defense cases, demonstrations, MDM public activities, etc. But PL was content to continue building the Challenge Sellers’ Collective–a group which at this base never recruited outside of PL and sympathizers who had already been close to PL before entering the army.

Another aspect of PL’s sectarianism during this period was the attitude toward democratic rights. Basically, PL’s position was that democratic rights don’t exist, therefore it is unprincipled to ever appeal to democratic precedents in bourgeois law as this builds illusions. In one case, PL refused to take the cops to court to prevent them from harassing and preventing literature sales off-base, although there was considerable evidence that the case could have been easily won. After all, PL reasoned, if we do win the case it will only build illusions in bourgeois democracy, so all we can do is build a mass movement which will pressure the cops to leave us alone. Fortunately, other radicals in the area did sue the city and easily won the right of literature distribution. PL, of course, took advantage of this case.

These examples give a flavor of PL’s approach to GI organizing for most of 1970. The failures of this ultra-leftism nationally led to a turn to the right, a turn which was gradual at first. A more cautious approach was taken to implantation of supporters. The Challenge Sellers’ Collectives were given up and a series of front groups usually formed around single issues, e.g., defense cases, against on-base racism, etc., was set up. A completely uncritical attitude was taken towards the reformist GI movement (see articles in Challenge on Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Oleo Strut Coffeehouse at Fort Hood). PL has since entered VVAW on the basis of simply calling for more militant demonstrations.

PL had the resources to make a limited but real impact on GI radicals. Instead, by their inability to pose a programmatically-based organizational alternative to the reformist groupings, PL aided in the dissipation of GI militancy, and its zany zigzags demoralized many of its supporters in the Army.

PL’s Failure in Proletarian Arenas

Thus, in two crucial arenas PL has not only failed to generate the mass struggles it aspired to, or to attract and hold advanced workers, but even had difficulty maintaining its cadre. The revolutionary impulse which motivated most PLers who colonized themselves into these arenas was criminally squandered. The leadership’s answer to these failures is that the party must “rid itself of sectarianism,” which to them means capitulating to reformism and diving into more “mass struggles.” Any attempt to analyze these failures is termed a diversion; the important thing is to build the mass struggle– “fighting is winning.”

But fighting is not winning–the history of the revolutionary movement is, unfortunately, full of examples where tremendous mass struggles were defeated due to the treachery or weakness of the leadership. Mass struggles alone do not generate a program which can lead the workers to power. Rather the prerequisite to successful mass struggle is a revolutionary leadership based on the revolutionary program. Concretely in this period, Bolshevik mass work must mean the penetration of the working class through its most advanced layers, rather than tailing the class at its present level of consciousness as PL does in its single-issue reform groups and its articles in Challenge. “Mass work” or “fighting” are abstractions; today in the workers’ movement, communists do mass work by building opposition caucuses based on a full transitional program within the only existing mass class organizations, the unions.

PL’s Internal Regime

PL still maintains Stalinist norms of “democratic-centralism,” i.e., there is no mechanism by which a minority can organize to fight for its position or change the leadership, in contrast to the Leninist norm of factional democracy as the only real guarantee against bureaucratic control, subterranean cliques and a docile membership. The conception of ”democratic-centralism” in PL is that the ranks can criticize the leaders for e.g., not washing enough dishes, but the political decisions are only the business of the leadership. The discussion bulletins around “Road to Revolution III” deliberately suppressed an orthodox Trotskyist criticism of Stalinism by Juan Farinas (now a Workers League supporter) while printing a hack job on Trotskyism written in the Moscow Trials tradition by Mort Sheer. Rosen and Co. attempted to maintain an appearance of internal democracy by publishing a bulletin of critiques of “Road to Revolution III.” But every one of the authors had already left PL, while papers written by opponents of the new line who were still members were not circulated! Bill Epton’s ill-fated attempt to wage a fight against PL’s break from Mao was met by an internal document which can only be characterized as slander and character assassination. Other attempts to raise fundamental questions about PL’s history and line have been smashed, whereas a Bolshevik leadership would encourage–in fact demand–an open struggle on political questions.

Moreover, PL’s organization into numerous small clubs, instead of local branches, enabled the leadership to severely limit communication within the party. Many PL trade unionists never knew what “Weatherman” stood for, and student activists had little or no knowledge of what was going on in the trade-union clubs. More generally, this practice of hermetically sealing off the different sections of the party is an excellent means of preventing any national factional challenge to the present leadership. In late 1969 three members of PL’s leading national body, the national committee, were removed by PL’s core leadership, not the membership which elected them at a national convention, because of alleged arrogance, not getting a Job, not doing the dishes at home, and so on. The horror stories could go on–the point is that the leadership’s political failures are protected not only by the “fighting is winning,” mass-work mystique but by a tradition of political suppression internally.

Right and Left Together

After a period of ultra-left activity which brought no tangible results, PL has recently turned sharply to the right. In the unions this means hobnobbing with the bureaucrats and aspiring bureaucrats. On the political field this meant joining ”Grass Roots for McGovern.” Reportedly, in California some PLers are now registered Democrats. No doubt they have been sent into this capitalist party in order to do battle with the CP which has been there for decades!

But the reformist slot is already filled by two more competent and socially powerful groups, the CP and SWP. The CP has everything PL doesn’t–a history in selling out real mass struggles, an experienced cadre, roots in the trade-union movement and ties to the Soviet bureaucracy. The CP’s recent growth and mini-left turn give it added ability to continue its role as the main ostensibly revolutionary obstacle in this country. The SWP, although having lost its roots in the unions, has a revolutionary past, a new cadre schooled in “mass action” reformism, an efficient organization, a certain middle-class base and strong social-democratic appetites. PL will be unable to successfully compete for reformist hegemony with these groups–the alternative for the PLer is either to make a fight for the revolutionary alternative of Trotskyism or to continue building these mini-mass reform grouplets which will be easy pickings for a slick union bureaucrat or the CP.

The 22 February issue of Challenge carries the front-page headline of “Fight for Socialism!” just like the good old days. And the previous issue (8 February) carries an article on the upcoming WAM convention in which the 30 for 40 demand is described as a reform demand but one which ”points out the basic nature of this system–which forces workers to produce surplus value for the profits of a tiny few....” The same issue notes that 30 for 40 must be taken into the unions if it is to have any influence. These points indicate a sensitivity both to criticism from the Spartacist League and probably an attempt by PLers to empirically turn back to a class line. PL has suppressed its “fight for socialism” line in favor of “fighting is winning” and has put forth 30 for 40 as simply a good economist demand essentially outside of the union movement. The mechanical reprinting of earlier militant-sounding headlines represents only a slight left shading to cover its own flanks.

A genuine turn to the left, a turn to revolutionary Marxism, can only be the result of a serious attempt to assimilate the lessons of Bolshevism, especially Trotsky’s struggle against the Stalinist attack on the fundamentals of Leninism and the degeneration of the Soviet state and the destruction of the Third International. If the subjectively communist cadres amassed by PL are not to be simply squandered– reprogrammed as aspiring reformists or lost to the workers’ movement as demoralized drop-outs–it is absolutely essential that a fight be waged within PL against its current nose dive into reformism.