Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Will the congress resolve the debate on the programme?

by John Cleveland

First Published: In Struggle! No. 287, May 18, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The debate leading up to the 4th Congress has focussed on a single question: should IN STRUGGLE!’s programme be rejected or upheld? Unfortunately, there are many forces who, for their own ’various reasons, are proposing to block the congress from taking a clear stand for or against the programme.

The “suspend and moralize” resolution

The first grouping is the collective of 30 and their allies who until recently have called for keeping (and amending) the programme. But now they are saying the programme contains too many errors to be amended; therefore it should be suspended. If they have their way, the congress will be called upon to choose between suspending the programme and rejecting it rather than between keeping and rejecting it.

The first part of the ’suspension’ resolution argues that the programme has too many flaws to be amended. It is wrong or at least possibly wrong on women, the party, its description of the working class, the understanding of the reality of “socialist” countries, the analysis of modern imperialism etc. In short, those elements in the programme which sum up our concrete analysis (ignoring of patriarchy, seeing imperialism as on verge of collapse, idealist explanation of setbacks in building socialism etc.), our strategy for getting to socialism (based on building the single vanguard party) and our tactics in struggles (role of party in relation to rest of socialist movement and in relation to (the autonomy of) mass organizations, approach to reform struggles) are wrong or in doubt. All that remains that we can still affirm are general principles defining our revolutionary objectives (socialism, communism) and a couple of points of concrete analysis (Canadian bourgeoisie is imperialist) – and these are points that most of those for and against the programme agree on. So why not simply say so by rejecting the programme on that basis?

Is feminism “anti-Marxist”?

The answer is: for exactly the same reasons that the PB members presently in the collective of 30 originally refused to listen to the feminist critique of the programme in 1980. Because although the collective of 30 concedes that all the specific points in the criticism of the programme may ultimately prove to be true, they contend that the ideology which purportedly inspires all those correct criticisms – feminism in 1980 and “reformism” now – is anti-Marxist. Hence the second part of the ’suspension’ resolution goes on for pages detailing a very fine-sounding litany of “Marxist” and “class” principles to which all criticisms must conform. No concrete analysis, no strategy, no tactics bat lots of “clear principles”.

Erecting a wall of principles – no matter how “clear” – will not shield us from future errors, only from reality. We’ve got to face the hard, cold facts. We do not have much of a concrete class analysis of our own society, nor a developed strategy or tactics for revolution in a developed imperialist country like ours. Those of us who reject the programme are not anti-Marxist. But we refuse to allow the range of questions we pose (including ones about basic assumptions of Marxist theory) to be limited by a moralistic attitude about unehallengeable principles. And we refuse to have our practice fenced in by a “class line” which justifies opposing the struggles of women, gays and lesbians, oppressed nations etc.

The collective of 30’s suspension motion should be opposed. At best, if adopted it would create confusion as to where people really stand on the erroneous concrete analysis, strategy and tactics in the programme. At worst, it would mean choosing to take the same sectarian and dogmatic attitude towards criticisms coming from outside the orthodox ML tradition that the original ’defend the programme’ stand represented.

The “direct experience only” agenda

The second roadblock which might prevent the congress from dealing with the programme is the agenda proposal made by the Democracy collective. It calls for devoting the first 3 days of the 4-day congress debating our practice in three areas: women, mass work, internal organization. The programme would not be discussed, if at all, until the last day.

The rationale for this proposal is that congress decisions should be based on the lessons learned by members from their direct experience instead of the arguments of intellectuals based on indirect experience (experience of the struggle for socialism in other countries like Poland etc.). It is a one-sided and untenable position. What is needed is an agenda that can combine both types of knowledge, that can link the lessons from our direct practice to our more general knowledge of the lessons of the class struggle in Canada and other countries. More specifically need an agenda that enables us to deal-both with the more specific questions that we have lots of experience with (like how to improve internal democracy) and the “big questions” of strategy, tactics and class analysis in our programme which cannot be debated on the narrow basis of our direct experience alone.[1]

It is utopian to think that we can “have the (non-intellectual) debates we should have had in the last 12 months” in 3 days. There have already been dozens of national, regional and local sum-up meetings, debates and conferences, many of them focussed on our practice. Making the congress into yet another conference won’t answer the questions we cannot answer or alter the basic political alternatives we have to choose between. A congress is a place where debate must lead to decisions. The Democracy collective agenda would stop us from taking a stand on the programme after a proper political debate.[2]

The “dissolve before we debate” proposal

The third thing that might block debate on the programme is the proposal by some people from Quebec to make dissolution of IN STRUGGLE! one of the first points on the agenda. The argument is that this would enable the various tendencies to hold their own congresses to decide what if any links to maintain among themselves instead of wasting time battling one another in an acrimonious and tense debate over the programme and/or past practice.

There are in fact some valid arguments for dissolving the organization. Even an ardent supporter of continuing in some form after the congress as myself will go to the congress with an open mind on that question. [3] But dissolution must be discussed near the end of the agenda, under future perspectives, not at the beginning. After all, many people will come to the congress without being clearly aligned with any tendency. Which congress will they go to if dissolution is voted on the first day? In practice; voting dissolution at the beginning amounts to a vote to expel the collective of 30 and its allies defending the programme before we have carried through the debate and voted on that programme.

If there is going to be a split it should be on a consciously understood and publicly known political basis (the vote on the programme). And even then the minority should not be forced to withdraw. Indeed, they should have the right to exist within the majority tendency while airing their differences publicly.

* * *

Three ways in which the congress could be sidetracked from taking a clear stand on the programme – the “suspend and moralize” resolution, the “direct experience only” agenda and the “dissolve before we debate” proposal. Let’s avoid all these traps. We’ve had a long period of political crisis and debate. It’s time the membership had a chance to stand up and be counted on the major issues of that debate. The programme is wrong on most points of concrete analysis, strategy and tactics. It should be rejected so we can get on with the business of rebuilding a revolutionary democratic socialist movement.

John Cleveland


[1] One possibility is to modify the presidium’s proposed agenda to allow for the first day or so to be spent in workshops. At the end of that time straw votes could be taken on which questions (resolutions) people wished to discuss in what order. A plenary on the morning of the second day could finalize the agenda. The next two and one-half days could be spent in debating a series of questions in a format that combined plenary and workshop debate.

[2] The Democracy Collective is right to concern itself with the role of the intellectual in revolutionary organizations and the mental/manual labour contradiction. Indeed, one of the central issues to debate in the ’future perspectives” part or the encode is what measures to lake to ensure that any future organization is genuinely controlled by militants with “real involvement” in mass struggles. But if we fail to vote on the programme and our future political tasks we will never even get to the point of voting on new structures.

[3] One fact should be brought out explicitly at the congress to make the debate on future perspectives more realistic: people an all sides of the debate are “burned out” by the crisis. Any proposal for future action should take account of this. For example, we could agree to do nothing on a national or regional level for 6 months. The first meetings of the national coordinating committee could be put off until the late fall. We need a break. Time to think without being under constant pressure. Time to start up or increase “real involvement” in immediate struggles so that we can approach our work in any future political organization as militants in mass struggles.