Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Dennis O’Neil

Some Lessons from the Family Tree of the New Communist Movement

First Published: The Freedom Road Socialist Organization web site, February 22, 2000
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Our younger comrades and other young revolutionaries of the present day who check out the family tree of the new communist movement tend to be either fascinated or appalled, or both. They see legendary organizations they’ve heard of or read about or seen movies about – groups such as the Panthers, the Young Lords, I Wor Kuen. Along with that, though, it’s easy to say, “My god, what a mess!”

In learning from our history, we have to deal with the ugly parts as well as the good parts. In that spirit, the following points are offered to help people start thinking about the NCM.

1. White supremacist bourgeois rule will always generate new revolutionary socialists. This is especially true during times of great upsurge in the mass struggle. As Mao Zedong points out, “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.” When people resist, they learn more about whose system this is and how to fight it. And they look for new ways to organize society – like socialism, the idea that “The working class makes all of society run, why shouldn’t we run all of society?”

The great upsurge of the 1960s began with the civil rights movement and by the end of the decade had spread to every section of the American people. Literally tens of thousands came to view themselves as revolutionaries. And as people turned to revolution and socialism they began forming organizations to fight for their goals. As one slogan of the period said, “There is no such thing as one communist.”

2. Over-reliance on historical models and foreign mentors is an expensive error. These new revolutionary forces had few ties with the long history of class struggle and revolutionary socialist organization in the U.S. For starters, we were working in a deeply ahistorical society and culture. Further, the continuity of the movement had been largely broken by savage repression in the Red hunts of the 1950s and by the degeneration of the Communist Party USA into revisionism and reformism. Because of this, people tended to turn to the historical record of the International Communist Movement and particularly the “classics,” and to parties which had successfully seized state power to understand how to move forward. This is not only natural but absolutely necessary.

However, many groups found themselves trying to make revolution by analogy: for instance, were the 1970s more like the Third Period of the Communist International, with its emphasis on class vs. class, revolutionary unions, and attacks on Social Democrats, or were they more like the later era of the United Front Against Fascism? This cookie cutter approach steered people away from what has been called the living soul of Marxism, the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. Similarly, organizations vied for the coveted “China franchise” – fraternal relations with the Chinese Communist Party.

One particularly vivid example of the costs of such an over-reliance can be found in the explicitly homophobic policies adopted by the great majority of groups in the new communist movement. This stance claimed to uphold the revolutionary tradition of the Comintern and follow the leadership of Chinese and Cuban communists. In practice, it trashed the lives of who-knows-how-many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans fighters who had to choose between staying closeted to remain in their groups or being open and getting dismissed by the movement they believed in as “a product of the degeneracy which characterizes bourgeois society in decay.”

The line was disastrous for the organizations that held it as well. They were totally unable to draw on the enormous practical and theoretical contributions of the gay liberation movement that erupted as part of the ’60s upsurge. Instead of practicing dialectics and the mass line, they tailed and reinforced backward sentiments among the people. (For more on this, check out the Proletarian Unity League pamphlet, “Lesbian and Gay Exclusion: The Policy That Dares Not Speak Its Name.”)

3. Revolutionary organizations must be able to adjust to big changes in the objective situation over the long haul. Over the course of decades, you’ll see the overall struggle and level of people’s organization go through different periods – periods of struggle, of upsurge, of consolidation and institution building, of defensive battles, of setback, of lull. Different periods put different tasks before revolutionary socialist organizations. Groups have to make big adjustments in strategy, in tactics, in concentration policy, in organizational structure.

Ironically, one of the greatest problems of the new communist movement was the fact that it was born of one of the largest and broadest upsurges of struggle in the history of this country. Those who came up in the midst of this upsurge, who grew up with the struggle, unsurprisingly came to think that this was the natural order of things, the whole tide of history.

To understand what happened to the new communist movement, a very useful concept is what is known in film as the Cartoon Law of Gravity. Anyone who has ever spent a Saturday morning glued to a TV set knows how this works. The Roadrunner ducks behind a rock and Wile E. Coyote goes running off the edge of the cliff and just keeps on running. . . until he looks down. Only then does the Cartoon Law of Gravity take effect. The result is a coyote-shaped hole in the desert floor.

The great tidal wave of the 1960’s was already beginning to subside as the new communist movement took off. The Black Liberation Movement had been subjected to savage repression and a systematic and desperate program of co-optation. The end of the draft and of the policy of Vietnamization, which withdrew U.S. troops from Southeast Asia, predictably lowered the intensity of the anti-war movement. The collapse of SDS deprived the student movement of its largest and most radical force.

Other movements were still growing – the Chicano movement, the modern women’s movement, new labor insurgencies, and more. The upsurge, however, was ending.

The cadre and the organizations of the new communist movement did not understand that this was what was happening. For one thing, the battles and the turmoil of the previous decade had thrown forward a whole layer of advanced fighters among workers, veterans, communities of color and petty bourgeois white youth. Through most of the 1970s, folks from this section provided the base for growth in Marxist-Leninist collectives and organizations.

But by the middle to late ’70s, the huge struggles which had produced this layer of advanced had mainly faded. For example, in place of the union insurgencies which had earlier produced many fighters, the organized industrial working class was under massive attack with the abandonment of “rustbelt” industrial plants by the bourgeoisie.

So sooner or later, all the organizations, which had been propelled by the tidal wave of the ’60s and early ’70s and surfed ahead on a crest of advanced workers and other fighters, looked down. The wave wasn’t there and the Cartoon Law of Gravity kicked in. Few groups were prepared for the grueling process of adjusting their line and practice to the new situation. Many collapsed. Others were crippled. Those which survived tended to be those which started out with or had developed a sharper sense, a more realistic sense, of their own limitations. A sense of humor was helpful too.

Many former members of these now-extinct vanguard parties and communist groups continue making enormous contributions to the struggle as activists, as organizers, as educators, as thinkers. Some have gone on to join the remaining revolutionary socialist groups. Still, the loss of thousands of Marxist-Leninist fighters has been an enormous setback for the long struggle against exploitation and oppression in this country.

4. Ultra-left and left opportunist errors were the main factor in the massive collapse of the new communist movement. They took such forms as arrogance, sectarianism and dogmatism. Buoyed by the upsurge that was already receding, in the early ’70s a lot of groups grew rapidly in size and did successful organizing among the masses. This seemed to them proof that their path was correct and everyone else was misleaders. Groups whose ranks numbered in the hundreds, if that, and had only the most limited ties in the working-class and in oppressed nationality communities nonetheless confidently issued Programs (or in the case of the RCP USA, a “Programme”) for the revolution in the US. The CWP declared that its principal leader “has creatively solved the problems of making revolution in an advanced industrial country.”

Savage polemics were the order of the day, “proving” that rival organizations were racist to the core, objectively served the interests of the ruling class, and consciously sought to betray the people’s struggle. The goal was not to clarify differences or seek unity, but to crush the opposition.

Some organizations sought to counter this trend. One of Freedom Road’s predecessor groups, the Proletarian Unity League, led the way in analyzing and struggling against these ultra-left errors during the ’70s, starting with the book “Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type?” (We plan to publish this and other related PUL works on this web site.)

5. There has always been a powerful trend toward unity. Because the family tree is so crowded, it is possible to miss the fact that organizations have continually been impelled to overcome differences and unify forces. In fact, it is very difficult for small groups to survive for anything any length of time, let alone have a real impact on the class struggle in this country.

At its beginning, local collectives and pre-collectives served as basic building blocks for the new communist movement. The problem of splits and disunity grew rapidly with organizational arrogance and the unjustified certainty that your group’s line and practice was 100 percent correct.

Thus, the trend toward unity warred with the trend toward sectarianism, and in the crucial years of the mid-’70s was the secondary aspect of the contradiction. Even then, the larger organizations claimed to stand for unity, and there were several grandiose efforts to unite multiple organizations into a single party. All failed.

The trend toward unity reasserted itself as the main trend again after the high tide of the movement crested, and major organizations started to shrink or collapse (in other words, when the Cartoon Law of Gravity took effect).

Our own group, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, is the product of a number of principled unity struggles. In a whole ’nother section of the Left, Solidarity developed along similar lines as a regroupment of several organizational fragments of American Trotskyism.

6. The only real way to embody the hard-won lessons of past struggle is in a functioning, disciplined organization that uses Marxist theory and the mass line in building the ongoing battles of the people. No words on paper (or computer screen) can do it as well. And no written sum-up can adjust to changes in objective conditions or the level of struggle. (This lesson is something of a cheat. It does not flow directly out of the family tree but is the most crucial lesson of all.)