Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Mary-Alice Waters

Maoism in the U.S.: A Critical History of the Progressive Labor Party


Progressive Labor’s record on the war in Vietnam constitutes one of the most shameful chapters in its entire history.

For several years the struggle of the Vietnamese people against the imperialist aggression of the United States government has been a focal point of the world revolution – an acid test for those who consider themselves revolutionaries the world over. If anything, this has been even more true here in the U. S., precisely because it is the homeland of the aggressor.

The political positions, and more importantly the actions, taken by various left-wing tendencies have had historic importance. A political tendency that has failed to come to the total and unconditional defense of the Vietnamese people, that has failed to build the largest possible and most effective, principled opposition to the war within the United States, has lost the right to consider itself revolutionary. In the early days of the Communist International under Lenin, any such party would have been barred from membership.

The Progressive Labor Party’s position on Vietnam, like its position on Cuba, can be divided into two distinct periods – pro-North Vietnam and NLF, and anti-North Vietnam and NLF. But again, as with Cuba, their “pro” period was characterized not by an orientation toward building the broadest possible defense of the Vietnamese revolution, but an orientation toward making factional gains for PL. And their “anti” period was determined not by a basic change in the Vietnamese revolution, but by the needs of the Peking bureaucracy in its factional battle with Moscow. In both cases their most fundamental error was their flat rejection of the Leninist concept of the united front.

This article will deal with several examples from the “pro-Vietnamese revolution” period, and a subsequent article will take up the later period.

The united front was a tactic developed by the Communist International and codified in a Comintern resolution in 1922. It had a two-fold purpose: 1) to demonstrate the willingness of the Bolsheviks to coordinate action, within certain limits and on specific issues, with reformist and other working-class organizations, which to a greater or lesser degree were compelled by the masses they led to oppose aspects of the policies of the ruling class; 2) to unite the broadest possible numbers in action around specific issues of key importance in order to create the most powerful force. The purpose was to win over in action those who were not yet convinced that their leaders did not act in their best interests.

As with other Leninist policies, the concept of the united front, and its utilization as a weapon of struggle against both the ruling class and the reformists was totally distorted by Stalinism. This reached its most tragic proportions in Germany when the Communist Party refused to build a united front with the Socialist Party to defeat fascism. In the guise of being “super-revolutionary,” the CP characterized the Social Democracy as “social fascism,” and abandoned the only policy which could have united the majority of the German working class behind the Communist Party and paved the way for a victorious revolution.

It is essentially this same ultraleft Stalinist policy toward the united front that PL applies today and invokes to justify its refusal to work together with other forces who are willing to struggle against the Vietnam war. Declaring they will form united fronts only with revolutionaries, they fail to grasp the fact that the united front tactic would be unnecessary to begin with were there not significant forces under the political influence of the reformists (or “revisionists” as PL refers to them).

May 2 Movement

In March 1964, a number of socialist tendencies, including the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and Progressive Labor participated in an east coast conference, sponsored by the Yale Socialist Union. Out of that conference came plans for demonstrations in several places around the country on May 2, calling for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.

A May 2 Committee was established, with Russell Stetler from Haverford College as chairman, and Peter Camejo (YSA) and Levi Laub (PL) as coordinators. Over 800 people participated in the New York demonstration, several hundred in San Francisco, and there were demonstrations in a number of other cities as well. Such numbers may sound small today, but at the time they represented a significant and encouraging first step toward a mass antiwar movement.

After the May 2 demonstration in New York, however, the PLers in the committee held a closed meeting which excluded other tendencies, particularly the YSA, and decided to continue the organization on a permanent basis as the May 2 Movement. While excluding other tendencies from participating, they still continued to use the original sponsorship list of the May 2 demonstration, falsely claiming everyone supported the new May 2 Movement.

From there PL went on to a really fatal error, one which led to the early death of the M2M. They mistakenly thought that the mass antiwar movement which was gestating could be controlled by one political tendency. They hoped that by proclaiming M2M to be the anti-Vietnam-war organization, it would become so, and since PL excluded other tendencies from M2M, the end result would be a mass antiwar organization with PL’s line.

The antiwar movement, of course, did not develop according to the PL blueprint, but according to a totally different logic determined by the political level of the student movement in the U.S. at the time, and also determined by the fact that no political tendency was strong enough to gain hegemony. Thus, while M2M participated in some of the early antiwar actions they found themselves outside the basic organizations of the antiwar movement, the campus committees. They were even less able to influence the direction of the antiwar movement than if they had not attempted in a sectarian way to capture it in its infancy.

M2M also had other false policies. For example, they refused to build antiwar actions which did not from the very beginning have the line of withdrawal of troops–even if they could participate in them with a withdrawal line. They refused to build the broad antiwar coalitions that developed in virtually every city.

The contrary course was followed by the Socialist Workers Party, which went into the antiwar committees and participated in the broad coalitions, fighting for these organizations to adopt the line of withdrawal. If the SWP had followed the same line as PL, it would have meant abandoning the overwhelming majority of the antiwar movement to the reformist, pro-negotiations forces, rather than winning virtually the entire antiwar movement to the withdrawal position.

On the question of the Army, M2M adopted a position favoring individual draft refusal. They circulated a rather startling petition that stated, “We the undersigned are young Americans of draft age. We understand our obligations (!) to defend our country (!!) and to serve in the armed forces (!!!) but we object to being asked to support the war in South Vietnam.” Such a position turned M2M into a most curious animal – a supposedly anti-imperialist organization which proclaimed the obligation of American men to defend the imperialist homeland. Who they were to defend “our” country against was never mentioned.

As the mass antiwar movement became larger and larger, PL decided that M2M had obviously failed. In February 1966, the east coast chapters of M2M held a conference and decided to dissolve. The Free Student, the M2M paper, announced that this was ratified by other regional meetings. M2M had decided to “build the existing radical organizations” and “throw all [its] energies into their development as the radical ’student movement’ in America.” (No. 7, Free Student)

The Silberman campaign

Anyone who hoped that this meant PL had decided to participate in building broad united-front antiwar organizations was soon to be sadly disappointed. Their new orientation was to join the antiwar committees that existed and open up factional battles to convert those committees into organizations with PL’s political line on a broad range of questions.

Perhaps the most striking example of this occurred in New York in the Queens Committee to End the War in Vietnam during the summer of 1966. The Queens committee, based primarily on students at Queens College, was one of the largest and strongest antiwar committees in the New York area, often drawing 50-70 people to the regular business meetings.

The PLers proposed that the committee run Leslie Silberman, who was one of the leaders of the Queens committee, for office in the 7th Congressional District in Queens, on an amorphous Independent Party ticket. YSAers and many others in the committee opposed the project. The committee was made up of very diverse forces politically, and all members of the committee agreed on only one point: withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.

But in order to run a candidate, the committee would have to work out a full political program, and it was precluded that all members, or even a majority, of the committee could agree on any common program. The end result could only be to split the committee and destroy it as an effective force for mobilizing people against the war in Vietnam.

The prediction could not have been more accurate. For weeks the committee argued over the political platform, and the membership dwindled further with each discussion. In the end, all that was left of the Queens committee was a small campaign committee for Leslie Silberman who was running on a program of radical capitalist reform. PL had succeeded in capturing the Queens Committee, but ended up capturing little more than itself.

The episode also casts light on PL’s unprincipled approach to electoral politics. The PL “communists,” who are so disdainful of the reformism of the American Communist Party, received their political training in the same school of Stalinism. The CP considers it a tactical question whether or not “communists” cross class lines in elections. For more than three decades the CP has supported Democratic Party candidates and liberal capitalist third party candidates. PL, which did not break with the CP until one decade ago, also considers it a tactical question. In addition to supporting campaigns like Leslie Silberman’s, and the Peace and Freedom Party, PL has also indicated that even support to some campaigns inside the Democratic Party –such as one run by Robert Scheer in Oakland in 1966 –is permissible.

While they opposed the Scheer campaign at the time, in a later self-criticism, one of the PL leaders, Jeff Gordon, stated that PL’s boycott of the Scheer campaign had given undue weight to the “moderate and revisionist forces who do not want to see a radical movement built in Oakland and Berkeley.” He stated that radicals must participate in the struggle to transform organizations like Scheer’s into independent groups. (PL, Vol. 5, No. 5, Oct.-Nov. 1966, “Elections, A Method of Struggle”)

PL’s various attempts to impose its political program on the broad antiwar forces brought them little success, and did even less to help build the broadest possible defense of the Vietnamese revolution, to create a mass movement of opposition to the war within the United States.

Bad as their early policies may have been, however, they almost look good by comparison to what happened later.