Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Spartacist League

PL: Road to Oblivion?

First Published: Workers Vanguard No. 16, February 1973
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The Progressive Labor Party is presently facing a serious internal crisis which raises a distinct possibility of PL’s rapid disappearance as a serious force on the U.S. left. PL’s ten-year history has been marked by dramatic line changes, with instant success and an easy road to the masses expected from each new turn. Starting out as a left Stalinist movement (“Road to Revolution,” 1963), PL went through a prolonged Maoist phase (“Road to Revolution II,” 1966), then broke empirically to the left on the national question and the “theory of stages.” In an attempt at theoretical justification, PL elaborated its break from Maoism into a full-scale flight from Leninism toward syndicalism and sterile ultra-leftism (“Road to Revolution III,” 1972). Currently, demoralized by the failure of its leftist phase, PL is engaged in a deep plunge to the right, chasing liberals and competing with the CP and SWP on the field of reformism and single-issue opportunism.

For a period PL experienced rapid growth, capitalizing on its role as the pro-working-class left opposition in SDS. At the 1969 SDS convention, PL led a majority of the organization against the petty-bourgeois Third Worldism of SDS’s former leadership, enduring every sort of red-baiting and race-baiting from its right-Maoist opponents for its critical stance toward the NLF and black nationalism. In the decisive split at the convention, which spelled the death agony of the New Left, the Spartacist League gave unambiguous critical support to the PL-led wing. However, in the following months, PL demonstrated its incapacity to provide a revolutionary strategy for the subjectively pro-working-class student radical organization. PL-SDS retreated into campus parochialism and pathetic social-workerism (the “Campus Worker-Student Alliance”) and its following began to dwindle.

Desperately seeking to attract new forces, PL turned to self-styled “mass” marches, frantic Challenge sales campaigns and get-rich-quick gimmicks like its invasion of Buffalo for the expected 1971 steel strike. When these efforts failed to produce any flamboyant successes another switch was pulled, this time to single-issue campaigns (ban racist textbooks and professors, “30 for 40”), but without any particular results.

Crisis Hits PL

The present crisis in PL is the result of the intersection of the stagnation of its organizational efforts and its total ideological confusion. Over the past few years PL has all but dissipated the political capital which it gained from its struggle in SDS. Dozens of PL-SDS supporters have resolved their confusion by embracing mainstream right Maoism, which offers a more consistent path to reformism; literally hundreds of PL-SDSers have simply dropped out of politics–burned out by meaningless super-activism, demoralized by their failure to “build a base in the working class,” uncertain of what program they were defending, convinced by PL’s substitution of apolitical personal “criticism and self-criticism” in place of political struggle over the organization’s line that they just “didn’t have what it takes to be a communist.” Now this crisis is appearing in the core of the party, with the loss of Jeff Gordon and several prominent cadre in Boston, and PL chairman Milt Rosen’s recent national morale-boosting tour.

The purpose of Rosen’s tour is apparent from his speech, delivered “to members and friends of the Progressive Labor Party” in several cities and printed in PL magazine (January 1973) under the title “The Struggle for Socialism–A Matter of Life and Death.” Beginning with a declaration of “great confidence,” Rosen devotes the first portion of his talk to explaining that the commitment to revolution is important and dilating on the evils of the capitalist system–imperialist war, racism, unemployment, drugs, etc. Certainly, one might think, the “members and friends” of an organization like PL should not be in need of catalogues of the horrors of capitalism or impassioned exhortations to struggle against them. But apparently this is not the case, for Rosen goes on:

Some of us think that some how or other we can escape the consequences of imperialism.... Any form of retreat from our commitment to the class struggle is bad. ...Some people say, ’I’m bored.’ Others say ’I want to be free to lead my own life.’ Some will say they are ’tired.’ People will say, ’Workers are rotten,’ or ’they will never learn.’ Still others will say, ‘Everyone is rotten.’ And others will develop ’differences’.... A young mother in our party–mirroring others–told me recently, ’I’ve been thinking of dropping out....’ ” “To become ’bored’ or indifferent about them [revolutionary activities] means capitulation... .Some people say, ’This is all to the good, but we can’t win.’ ... It is possible that we will not live to see socialism in our country....

Citing the militancy of the French workers during the 1968 general strike, Rosen reassures his listeners that “Workers are for real, and they can win power.”

In the past, communist parties that are granite-hard ideologically have withstood very sharp reverses. At the lowest ebb in the 1909-1911 period, there were no organized Bolshevik committees functioning in Russia; the Spartacist League itself was down to 40 following a faction fight and split in 1968. What has seen us through is the knowledge that we are defending the unique program of revolutionary Marxism, the historic interests of the proletariat. But PL, which changes programs every few years, can only overreact to setbacks which it measures against its earlier grandiose expectations. To be sure, openly opportunist reformist groups can survive for years through constant zig-zags, by adapting to every fashionable trend, from guerillaism to McGovern. But at this game PL faces two past masters, the CP and SWP, who already have this territory sewn up tight. So for Progressive Labor the combination of ideological and organizational crisis could well prove fatal.

Since the inception of the Progressive Labor Movement, the Spartacist tendency has distinguished PL from various other Stalinist groupings, noting the numerous subjectively revolutionary cadre who were attracted to PL’s hard communist face in opposition to the mushy social-democratic coffee-klatsch societies. We noted PL’s tendency to empirically take over bits and pieces of the Trotskyist program (opposition to theories of two-stage revolution, “30 for 40,” opposition to “revolutionary” nationalism). At the same time we warned:

In its confusion, a large section of PL may find Leninism as easy to abandon as the Maoist caricature of Leninism. ... PL will either discover the Leninist road in the only tendency–authentic Trotskyism–consistently opposed to the revisionism PL rejects, or reject Lenin along with the usurpers of his mantle and be lost forever in the wilderness of backward sectarianism and political banditry. –“PL at a Dead End,” Spartacist No. 19, November-December 1970

And so it happened. The demise of PL as a serious competitor for the allegiance of subjectively communist militants will aid in clearing the road to revolutionary consciousness for the masses. But it will be a defeat for the communist movement if PL fades into insignificance without a serious internal struggle counterposing a revolutionary alternative to its aimless wanderings. To date there has never been a serious political challenge within PL from the left, and if the present situation of decomposition continues much longer there may never be.

From Foster to Mao

Progressive Labor originated from a group in New York around Milt Rosen and Mort Scheer who were expelled from the CP in 1961 as “Albanians,” apparently for demanding that socialism be mentioned occasionally in the party’s trade union work. Basically pro-Stalin internationally, it found its domestic mentor in William Z. Foster, considering him the leader of the “militant” wing of the CP as against the open liquidationism of Browder, who dissolved the party after World War II. Disgusted by Khrushchev’s reformist policy of “peaceful coexistence,” the founding PLers supported the Chinese in the early 1960’s Sino-Soviet ideological dispute.

Reacting impressionistically to developments, the Progressive Labor Movement supported Mao, Castro, Ben Bella and various militant U.S. black nationalists (such as Robert Williams). According to PL’s founding document, Castro built socialism in Cuba through a “combination of flexibility and adherence to a consistent anti-imperialist policy” (“Road to Revolution,” March 1963).

Compared to other pro-Chinese elements internationally, the PL leadership was left-Stalinist. PL admitted that Foster and even Stalin himself had made serious mistakes, but did not draw the conclusions. “Road to Revolution” claimed that “young radicals can learn from such outstanding communists as William Z. Foster.” But: “From the earliest days of the communist movement in the United States to the present, revision and its political manifestation, class collaboration, has been the chronic weakness.... After the expulsion of Lovestone [1928J, the Party developed a militant pragmatic approach. ... But even at that time there was no long range strategy developed.” Stalin basically had a “militant revolutionary line,” yet “a number of the fraternal parties which unquestioningly acceded to Stalin are in the main blindly following Khrushchev in a class collaborationist line today.” PL avoided the obvious questions raised by its own analysis because it was unable to deal with the essential question of Stalinism as an international political current.

While PL did its best to ignore history, history refused to ignore PL. When the Chinese broke with Castro, PL suddenly discovered that the Cubans were revisionists. When Mao proclaimed the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union, sure enough PL discovered it too (as having taken place in 1956). When Mao turned on Liu Shao-chi, it turned out that even the Chinese had not been consistently fighting revisionism after all. This was PL’s Mao period, epitomized by “Road to Revolution II” (1966), by uncritical enthusing over the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” and “revolutionary” black nationalism. For example, in October 1964 LeRoi Jones spoke at a PL-sponsored rally against fascism, proclaiming: “The majority of American white men are evil and they can never admit their evil otherwise they would kill themselves.” PL printed his speech without comment (PL, November-December 1964).

And still history would not leave PL alone. In early 1969, after having supported scabbing in the New York teachers’ strike in favor of “community control” (which even PL had to admit was a fraud perpetrated by the Ford Foundation), PL found itself in a bloc with openly anti-working-class student black nationalists at San Francisco State. Diametrically reversing its previous position that “revolutionary” nationalism was “national in form, class in content,” PL began to insist that “Any form of nationalism is bad!... In the past... we were confused by the concept of the two-stage struggle, which claimed that first there is the battle for national liberation, and then communists transform it to the battle for socialism.... Communists have no business advocating national liberation movements that do not openly proclaim socialism as a goal” (“Revolutionaries Must Fight Nationalism,” PL, August 1969). This is no longer a Stalinist position, for in Stalin’s efforts to strangle the world revolution the rhetoric of “revolutionary” nationalists was invaluable. The Chinese CP was crushed by Stalin’s policy of subordination to Chiang Kai-shek; even in the fake-militant “Third Period” Stalin sought to divide the U.S. proletariat by calling for a black nation in the American South.

PL’s gut-level and belated recognition of the pernicious role of nationalist ideology in suppressing the basic class antagonisms could be only partial and distorted. Although the rejection of nationalism and the “two-stage” theory was a step toward Trotskyism (we termed it “Trotskyism with a prefrontal lobotomy” at the time), PL’s left turn carried it past Leninism to latter-day Luxemburgism as PL refused to recognize the right of nations to self-determination. At the same time, PL continued to support “socialism in one country/ Mao, Stalin, etc.

This contradictory situation could not last. Bill Epton, one of the founders of PL, broke away in the direction of black nationalism; orthodox Maoist-Stalinist groups (such as the Revolutionary Union) grew; and above all Mao topped off his usual Stalinist policies of class collaboration with the likes of Sihanouk, Bandaranaike and Ayub Khan by extending his hand to Nixon.

“Road to Revolution III”

For PL, the result was ”Road to Revolution III,” an amazing document in which PL denounced not just Mao and Stalin, but Trotsky, Lenin, Engels and Marx and the very fundamentals of Marxism itself. Instead, PL counterposed the heroic masses of the Paris Commune and China’s “Cultural Revolution.”

“RR III” is characterized by a systematic idealism. According to PL: what restored capitalism in the Soviet Union was Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress; the level of development of productive forces is irrelevant to the construction of socialism, and peasants are just rural workers (thus socialism should have been possible in ancient Egypt, if only Milt Rosen instead of Moses had been chosen to lead the peasants out of bondage!); “the masses are more important than weapons and can defeat any imperialist war, including nuclear war”; material incentives are impermissible in a workers state (in which case PL’s cherished call for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is only a betrayal, since the demand should be for communism now). PL generalizes its idealism by claiming simply: “Historical development depends on the ideas that the various classes hold.... Marxism does not hold that economic law rules political struggle. It is the other way around...” (“Strengths and Weaknesses of the International Communist Movement,” PL, November 1972). This one-sided “theory” challenges the materialist premise that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but rather their social existence that determines their consciousness.

A consistent thread in PL’s wanderings is eclecticism, an inability to go beyond surface appearances and make a Marxist analysis of the underlying contradictions. Black nationalists seem militant and anti-establishment? Then PL supports “revolutionary” nationalism. Black nationalists push blatant anti-communism? Then PL “discovers” that nationalism is reactionary. Mao seems militant, attacking Khrushchev and Liu? Fine, PL supports Mao wholeheartedly. But Mao crushes the Red Guard, aids the butchers Khan and Bandaranaike, makes deals with Nixon? Well then, Mao is the leading revisionist and, surprise, he has been all along.

Dictatorship of the Peasantry?

The treatment of the peasant question in “RR III” is a good example of PL’s eclecticism. Observing that peasant revolutions have succeeded in overthrowing capitalism in China, Cuba and Vietnam, PL concludes that peasants are really workers. “We believe that virtually all of the world’s peasants and oppressed peoples are proletarianized” (“Road to Revolution III,” PL, November 1972). “There is no necessary qualitative difference between urban and rural workers, neither ’objectively’ nor ’subjectively’” (“Strengths and Weaknesses... ”). This is opposed to the whole Marxist tradition, from the statement in the Communist Manifesto onwards, that the proletariat is the only consistently revolutionary class. PL takes the position of the Russian populists who held (against Plekhanov, Engels and Lenin) that the peasants could build socialism.

Lenin’s slogan of the “worker-peasant alliance,” basing itself on the uneven development of world capitalism, called for a uniting of the workers’ insurrection against capitalism with a vast peasant uprising aimed at destroying the last vestiges of feudalism (“land to the tiller”), by establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. This was the program of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and it is in this sense that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution speaks of the “dictatorship of the proletariat leaning on the peasantry.” Subsequently the workers (urban and rural) would ally with the poorest sectors of the peasantry in the struggle for collectivization.

Today in some of the more developed backward countries, capitalism has itself eliminated the feudal content of production relations in the countryside. Thus the latter alliance, on a socialist program and only with the lowest segments of the petty bourgeoisie, is appropriate. However, even in this case any alliance must be firmly led by the proletariat, particularly the urban industrial proletariat; it requires a split in the peasantry (rather than peasants magically “becoming” rural workers), with the poorest peasants rejecting their petty-bourgeois class interests and adopting those of the proletariat. PL simply wishes to dissolve the petty bourgeoisie into the working class with a few drops of ink.

PL is right in one respect– the slogan of a worker-peasant alliance has been used to subordinate the interests of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie, but not by Lenin and Trotsky. It was Stalin who demanded that the Chinese CP prostrate itself before Chiang Kai-shek in the interests of the “worker-peasant alliance,” the “bloc of four classes” and the theory of a two-stage revolution; it was Stalin and the Mensheviks who called for critical support to the bourgeois provisional government in 1917. Lenin’s famous “April Theses,” the platform of the Russian Revolution, called for the dictatorship of the proletariat. As for Mao, he did his very best to avoid revolution, time after time offering Chiang a coalition government. Only Chiang’s obtuseness forced the Chinese CP to struggle for power in its own right; only the incredible corruption of Kuomintang rule, the temporary weakness of U.S. imperialism and the absence of an independent workers movement permitted his success. It was the same in Cuba and Vietnam.

Infantile Ultra-Leftism

The key to “Road to Revolution III” seems to be the argument that any concessions to self-determination amount to support for the bourgeoisie. The main source of errors of the “old communist movement” is defined as “Lenin’s national liberation strategy.” If Marx advocated independence for Ireland; if Lenin said Rosa Luxemburg’s opposition to the right of Polish self-determination played into the hands of the Russian bourgeoisie; if Trotsky argued that only through the dictatorship of the proletariat can the tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation be accomplished–then, according to PL, it is because they were all opportunists, calling for a two-stage revolution and a “better capitalism”!

Marxists speak on behalf of the proletariat, which according to the Communist Manifesto is the first class in history that can achieve its own emancipation only by liberating all the oppressed. As Lenin put it, the communist must be the tribune of the people. We support the right of self-determination for oppressed nations in order to eliminate a poisonous source of friction between workers of different countries, to clear the path to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and to respond to the reality of national oppression. Yes, in some cases this could involve giving military support to a bourgeois nationalist movement struggling against imperialism. But at the same time we struggle above all to win the working class to the internationalist perspective of proletarian revolution, mobilizing the workers independently of the sellout nationalist fakers.

Authentic Leninists and Trotskyists never advocate a “national liberation strategy” or two-stage theory of revolution. We do point out to those sincerely fighting for national emancipation that in the era of moribund capitalism, bourgeois nationalists will simply end up substituting the domination of one imperialist overlord for another (the example of Bangla Desh), and that real independence will be possible only by struggling for the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, for socialist revolution.

Materialism, the peasant question, self-determination–these are not abstract questions; they are matters of life and death in the real world. The Spartacist League has for years exposed the Soviet Union’s betrayal of the Indochinese revolution by our demand for massive Soviet aid to North Vietnam, including the most advanced weapons, in defense against U.S. imperialism. PL, on the other hand, calls On Vietnamese revolutionaries to reject this aid (no unity with the revisionists and, of course, the will of the people is more powerful than technology). Thus PL wishes Vietnamese peasants and workers to fight U.S. B-52’s with bamboo spears and rifles! This is madness. As Lenin said of the ultra-lefts of his day, who opposed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918 (PL opposes it, too): “The revolution that took these people seriously would perish irrevocably (and deservedly)” (V.I. Lenin, “Left Wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality” [1918], Collected Works, Vol. 27, p. 340. This short pamphlet is an excellent refutation in advance of many of PL’s current views).

Take the question of the “restoration” of capitalism in the so-called “socialist” states. As Trotskyists, we hold that North Vietnam is a deformed workers state, run by a parasitic bureaucratic caste but based on nationalized means of production, state planning, state control of banking and foreign trade, smashing of the bourgeois state. PL says North Vietnam is capitalist, because its leaders have revisionist ideas. The consequences of this seeming terminological dispute? The Spartacist League calls for the unconditional defense of North Vietnam against U.S. imperialism, while at the same time calling for a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy which daily attempts to sell out the heroic struggle of the workers and peasants.

But the only principled position PL could take is to call for revolutionary defeatism–i.e., PL must be indifferent as to who wins in this war between what they consider to be two capitalist states (remember, even defending national independence is a sellout). But of course this is not a popular stand; when pressed, PL cadre will argue that of course they defend the Vietnamese workers and peasants against U.S. imperialism, without defending the state. The position is absurd and, moreover, this is the same excuse which the German and French social democrats gave for voting war credits in World War I–they were only defending the workers! If North Vietnam is the capitalist state PL claims it is, PL’s shamefaced defensism is a betrayal of proletarian internationalism.

In breaking with its own Maoist and Stalinist past, Progressive Labor has proceeded to overthrow Marxism: “The old communist movement, led by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, is dead as a revolutionary force” (“Strengths and Weaknesses... ”). But communists adhere to Marxism not out of some bizarre necromancy or quasi-religious fanaticism, but because it is the scientific doctrine which enables us to come up with correct answers to the problems revolutionaries face in organizing the socialist revolution. When Progressive Labor rejects the essential conclusions and method of Marxism, it can only lead to more “mistakes” –and it is the workers who will pay the price.

PL’s Plunge to the Right

Forced to recognize that infantile ultra-leftism will not win over the masses, PL reacted with a pronounced turn to the right, first evident in the anti-war movement. In the summer 1971 NPAC conference the Spartacist League gave support to PL’s motions demanding the exclusion of the bourgeoisie, a measure the SL has consistently called for since 1965. At the July 1971 NPAC meeting PL and the SL were physically expelled for booing down U.S. Senator Vance Hartke. But by fall 1971 PL was no longer fighting for the exclusion of the class enemy, and supported the semi-annual peace crawl provided it got a speaker.

On the campuses PL/SDS has placed exclusive emphasis on a liberal campaign against racist textbooks and professors. This policy, fostering the illusion that racist ideology is the product of a few evil reactionaries and mad scientists rather than the attempted justification for the material oppression of black workers which is endemic to capitalism, compelled the walkout of SL/RCY supporters from SDS at the spring 1972 SDS conference. As we stated in our leaflet:

The main thrust of any strategy against racial oppression must be against unemployment and lumpenization and for uniform black integration into the labor force. ...The struggle against both racial oppression and white racist attitudes is necessarily linked to the struggle of the working class as a whole against capitalism and to the destruction of bourgeois society.” –“Out of the Classroom and into the Class Struggle!” 30 March 1972

This last summer PL/SDS took its liberal strategy to its logical conclusion by calling on the parties of big capital to eliminate racism! “SDS is taking the following bill to the Democratic Convention in Miami to demand it be accepted as a platform,” announced a New Left Notes flyer (“Indict the U.S„ Gov’t for Racist Acts, Genocide,” June 1972).

On the question of elections PL had always taken the simplistic leftist position of abstentionism on principle. But now that it was asking the Democrats to ban racism, SDS could hardly ignore the liberal McGovern supporters on campus. So instead of condemning this bourgeois politician and campaigning against him, the 26 June 1972 issue of New Left Notes took a “balanced” view, printing one article for McGovern, one against and one neutral!

SDS’s policy was only the tip of the iceberg. A recent PL internal bulletin contained an “Election Report” which urged: “Before, during and after the Democratic convention try to build unity on issues with forces inside reform movements tied to electioneering. ... Raise 30 for 40 resolutions before reform organizations, including Democrats.” A “discussion paper” entitled “Elections: A Reform Struggle Worth PL’s Involvement” was even clearer:

The Party maintained a purist and therefore sectarian attitude towards both the McCarthy and the 1968 Kennedy campaign.... we weren’t flexible enough to stay in touch and work with the masses at this crucial time in their political development...The party must recognize the differences which exist within the bourgeois electoral movements if it is to win friends from it.... We must get into electoral work–really make a serious effort to get involved in this area of reform struggle when the masses choose this way of fighting “against the war, unemployment, and racism.”

PL paid a price for its gross conciliation to rightist elements; unable to protect its right flank, PL lost several prominent supporters on both Coasts, some of whom helped form “Grass Roots for McGovern” in the Boston area.

Playing a part in McGovern’s inroads into PL was PL’s chronic inability to draw the class line. Unable to understand the phenomenon of reformism within the working-class movement, PL simplistically lumped union bureaucrats and organizations like the SWP in the same camp with the bosses (and incidentally provided a justification for outbursts of PL physical gangsterism against the SWP and others). Such a line was of course constantly running up against reality, leading PL to capitulate to union bureaucrats whenever it found it could not simply wish away the workers’ inexplicable allegiance to its established leaders. Unable to draw the class line, PL explicitly proclaimed in “RR III” that there was really no difference between a united front (of working-class organizations) and a popular front (with the bourgeoisie). Thus PL’s formal theories provided it with nothing but an inarticulate class instinct which recoiled from but was unable to explain why joining the McGovern movement is any different from, for example, membership in a reformist trade union.

“30 for 40”

For the workers, PL has its “30 for 40” campaign, led by the single-issue Workers Action Movement. In this campaign PL/WAM has bodily lifted the demand for 30 hours work for 40 hours pay from the Trotskyist “Transitional Program” (which first called for a sliding scale of wages and hours 35 years ago) and plastered it mechanically across the front page of Challenge. But the manner in which PL agitates around this transitional demand is openly and cravenly reformist. In the propaganda of the Spartacist League, we point out that capitalism cannot provide full employment on a permanent basis and thus the demand is unwinnable in any real sense without going beyond the limits of capitalism. We link “30 for 40” with demands for workers’ control of industry, for expropriation of the key sectors of the economy (without compensations), for a workers party and a workers government. In other words, we raise the demand in a revolutionary context, building a bridge between the workers’ felt needs of today and the program of socialist revolution.

For PL “30 for 40” is simply a “better” reform demand, which is why they isolate it, similar to the way Mandel, of the fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat treats the demand for “workers’ control.” In its pamphlet on “30 for 40” PL utters a few abstract pious words about socialism, but in plant gate leaflets it wallows in its reformism: “We should build this defensive fight for job security now into an offensive fight that will win job security for years to come: ’Thirty for Forty in ’73,’ ’Better, Earlier Retirement’” (“Strike in January,” December 1972). Meanwhile, Challenge (14 December 1972) boasts that West Coast PL is pushing “to put a charter amendment on the ballot for 30 hours work for 40 hours pay in the city of San Francisco in 1973.” As the Bay Area Spartacist League said of this electoral quackery in a recent leaflet:

WAM calls on workers to put their faith in and work through the bourgeois democratic system of the ruling class–to ’vote in’ a shorter work week. The projected amendment is not only ludicrous, but politically dangerous as well, giving to the local bourgeois government legal powers it does not presently possess, such as the right to determine the work week, abrogate union bargaining agreements, etc... The whole history of the labor movement’s struggles against the attacks of the ruling class... can lead only to one unalterable conclusion: the government will only intervene in unions today in order to smash them tomorrow.” [emphasis in original] – “Electoral Reform vs. Class Struggle,” 20 November 1972

PL is also using its reformist “30 for 40” campaign to sidle up to aspiring bureaucrats in the labor movement. Thus it endorses the reformist, careerist United National Caucus in the UAW: “’Thirty for Forty’ could unify more workers than any other demand. This campaign will be spear-headed by the UNC and allied groups and individuals from a number of plants, including... Jordan Sims... ” (Challenge, 1 May 1972). PL doesn’t bother to tell its readers Sims is a demagogic careerist, that UNC leaders dropped their program at the UAW convention in order to focus on the bogus election-by-referendum campaign. Similarly, PL’s election day “30 for 40” rally gave enthusiastic coverage to Dennis Serrette, vice-president of CWA Local 1101, and Nat Williams, vice-president of SSEU Local 371, and included N.Y. State Senator Sydney Von Luther, an aspiring Adam Clayton Powell-type black Democrat, as one of the demonstration’s sponsors. “RR III” claims that the left-center coalition strategy is a “united front from below,” but the “30 for 40” campaign shows once again that sectarianism is just opportunism standing in fear of its own shadow. In its “left” periods PL refuses to ally with anyone, going so far as to argue against participation in the unions (around the time of the 1970 auto strike). But in its right swings PL shamelessly chases the bureaucrats.

PL at the Crossroads

A right turn of such proportions is bound to result in demoralization when it fails to bring the expected masses of recruits. In recent months–while the Spartacist League and also several centrist organizations have experienced rapid growth–sympathizers and members have been dropping away from PL in large numbers. Now the crisis is affecting some of PL’s long-time cadres. It was this situation which prompted Rosen to go on his recent cheerleading tour. But the PL leadership, armed only with impressionism, finds itself unable to cope with a crisis whose cause is political bankruptcy. Rosen had to fall back on petty-bourgeois moralizing:

The fight for revolution transcends all other important things. It is more important than getting married, more important than having children, more important than having a job or getting a degree. Not that these things aren’t important. Obviously they are. But the fight for workers power is most important. ... it would seem to me that to be a good parent, friend, and devoted to your entire family would require the highest commitment to your class... No, to be a good parent means being a staunch fighter for your class.” [emphasis in original] – “The Struggle for Socialism–A Matter of Life and Death,” PL, January 1973

We have known for years that PL considered the family a fighting unit for socialism, but now it seems the party has become a fighting unit for the family!

This substitution of moralism for program is the only recourse of an organization which substitutes idealism for Marxism and perpetual sharp line shifts for the historic interests of the proletariat. Blocked off by the CP and SWP from finding a niche as the dominant party of American reformism, PL can only play a pathetic and episodic role on the stage of history, ultimately disappearing and dragging a certain number of potential revolutionaries down with it.

If PL’s subjectively serious cadres are not to be simply dissipated, they must be regrouped around the banner of authentic Trotskyism, the only program which provides a consistent revolutionary answer to the decisive questions which are tearing PL apart. In the past, PL has been able to insulate its supporters from much of the impact of criticism from the left by an implicit two-stage theory of organization which allowed it to pose itself as a hard communist party while at the same time pushing outright reformism in so-called “mass organizations,” from the unions to SDS. This schizophrenic approach allowed PL to conciliate union bureaucrats and academic liberals without noticing the resulting tarnish on its own “revolutionary” credentials: to press for minimum reform demands in the unions under the rubric of the “left-center coalition”; to insist, when confronted by Spartacist League supporters in SDS, that SDS should not be a socialist organization, but rather a “mass organization” orienting to non-socialist, even liberal, students.

This line of reasoning is apparent in Rosen’s speech:

In this period, our party has estimated that what is vital to build this center [a revolutionary party], in addition to open socialist agitation, is to launch mass movements for ’30 for 40,’ and against racist ideology and its manifestations on and off campuses. We have deduced for many reasons (which we have spoken of at other times) that this is the next step in the class struggle. We deem it crucial for the workers’ lives, and our own, that we try to launch these movements. Eventually we will win the leadership of the mass movements.” Thus, the job of communists is not to fight at all times for communist leadership of formations engaged in struggle, but to build “mass movements” which are implicitly understood as reformist. Operating in the vacuum of Stalinist “theoretical” tradition and therefore rejecting transitional demands in favor of the old Menshevik/Stalinist concept of the “minimum/maximum” program, PL, as “the party,” gets a monopoly on the “maximum” program; everything else must embody the “minimum.”

If PL’s subjectively communist elements are to play any part in building the party of the proletariat in this country, they can do so only by transcending this typically Stalinist alternation between outright reformism and “Third Period” ultimatism in favor of authentic Marxism-Leninism, i.e., Trotskyism.