First Published: Struggle, in three issues: Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1988-89; Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1989; and Vol. 5. No. 4, Fall 1989.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The direct experience of our party, the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA, goes back 20 years to the formation of the American Communist Workers Movement (Marxist-Leninist) on May 12, 1969, as a national center for the work to fight revisionism and opportunism and re-establish the vanguard party of the working class. On this 20th anniversary, the Party has called on us to learn from the history of the past 20 years of struggle. To contribute to that process, Strugg1e is publishing a series of reminiscences by Tim Hall of the very early stages of that struggle. The first section touches on the experience of the Cleveland Draft Resistance Union in 1967 and ’68. The CDRU, a militant organization of the mass movement, produced some of the activists who later formed ACWM (M-L). Its experience of struggle for a revolutionary theory and practice is still relevant today. The following sections will deal with the CDRU’s successors, the Workers’ Action Committee and the ACWM (M-L). These reminiscences are not intended to be a formal history. Some names have been changed.
The Cleveland Draft Resistance Union was formed in the spring of 1967 by four people, two of whom later dropped out. Two of us had been active in the civil rights movement in the South and one of these with the farm workers’ movement in California; the other two had been involved in various New Left activities. We saw that the War was escalating and that youth, primarily working class, were being rapidly drafted all around us. We were extremely angry at Johnson and his bestial war. I remember that I used to slam my fist down on his picture when I saw it in the morning paper. I also think that the militant Japanese Zengakuren student demonstrations, in which the students fought the police with helmets and shields on, had started by then and we were inspired by their mi1itancy. We supported and identified with the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and with the black fighters who had thrown off non-violence and risen in rebellion in Harlem, Watts, Cleveland and elsewhere.
But the immediate event that sparked the formation of the CDRU was the gigantic April 1967 anti-war march in New York and particularly our participation in the militant break-away Harlem Contingent. The four of us went to the March together and roamed among the mammoth crowds at the gathering point in Central Park. We watched as dozens of youth simultaneously burned their draft cards in the Sheep Meadow. We respected their courage but somehow felt it wasn’t the kind of struggle most needed. The march was so large that it took hours for the various contingents to leave Central Park en route to the U.N. Plaza. Although the massive numbers were inspiring, the pacifist atmosphere began to drag on many people. Then, across the Park on Central Park West, we saw a separate contingent approaching, largely Black but with many white youths among them. They were carrying black nationalist flags, NLF flags and red flags and chanting and shouting vigorously, “Hell No! We Won’t Go!” and other slogans. We headed straight for them and joined them.
After it had gathered 5-800 or maybe more people, the Harlem Contingent left the main body of the march in Central Park and seized one of the one-way avenues going downtown, running and chanting, fists in the air, banners flying. At every cross street we cut off the traffic without stopping. I think it was here that our group first heard and used the more militant slogan: “Hell No! Nobody Goes!” People were shouting back and raising fists from doorways, windows, the sidewalk and cars. It was extremely inspiring: we had seized the street and no one could stop us. The police couldn’t catch up with us since we had caught them by surprise and we blocked the entire width of the street.
When we reached Times Square we surged straight out into the middle of it and stopped everything. Hundreds of people watched, many waving support. There we turned left and headed east on 42nd St. towards UN Plaza to join the rest of the march. Here our progress was slower because now we had only one side of the street and we had to cut off major north-south avenues at every block. But we still powered straight across mid-day Manhattan, booming out the voice of revolution and anti-imperialism. At every intersection the traffic cops would push saw-horses out into our path but we would kick them down and run over them without stopping and these cops were scared to touch us. At one point we heard a siren from behind us and someone shouted, “Ambulance! Let it through!” so we moved to the right and what should come by but a school bus filled with NYC cops in riot gear, trying to head us off. But before it could pass us, its radiator burst (too much pork on board!) and we left it behind.
By the time we got close to U.N. Plaza the police managed to get a force ahead of us. We could see the U.N. building and the plaza and hear the rally but the police formed a thick wall and forced us to make a right turn south, away from the rally. They attacked us and knocked a few people down but we still didn’t stop. We tried to circle around and approach the Plaza through other streets, but found each one of them blocked by police. Our forces gradually broke up.
Unable to reach the rally, our little group of four went into a Horn & Hardart and had lunch. After lunch, we heard on the radio that the rally at UN Plaza was over, but that contingents of the march had still not finished leaving Central Park for the two-mile walk to the UN. We concluded that this was probably the biggest demonstration ever held in the U.S., much bigger than the 500,000 figure that the radio gave it. We were certain from then on that the anti-war marchers represented the majority of the American population and that militant mass struggle was the way to put that sentiment into practice in fighting against the War. When we returned to home we formed the Cleveland Draft Resistance Union.
During the Summer of 1967, the small CDRU began leafleting induction centers, opposing the war and explaining to draftees their rights. We opened a draft counseling service out of the peace movement offices and used it to meet working-class youth and discuss politics with them. At the time some of us were reading Lenin’s Imperialism, and when its explanation of the basis of the Vietnam War won enthusiastic approval from young workers we counseled, this showed us that American workers were receptive to Marxism and was a turning point for several of us in our personal search for an ideology to use to change the world.
But CDRU did not concentrate mainly on counseling draftees. This was a secondary task which we used to mobilize youth for militant demonstrations. When one of “our” inductees went for his physical, we would often picket and leaflet the induction center in support. But we were also planning for a higher level of mobilization. We were in contact with a loose network of young black and white militants around the country, associated with SDS and SNCC but mostly to the left of them. There were draft resistance unions in Wisconsin, Boston and elsewhere which also believed in militant mass action. There were Bay Area activists who had ties at Berkeley and had also worked with the SNCC newspaper The Movement when I was on its staff in 1966. This loose national network at first included Resistance, the moralistic, turn-yourself-in-to-your-Draft Board organization led by David Harris, Joan Baez’s husband. These groups held a meeting in mid-summer. After repudiating Resistance’s tactics of individual moralism, we planned a set of militant actions at induction centers nationwide in the Fall to be called Stop the Draft Week.
The actions in the Bay Area were set for late September. While these were being prepared, a wave of militant Zengakuren demonstrations took place in Japan and nightly we watched chanting lines of students armed with helmets and shields confront and successfully battle the police hand-to-hand. Then a struggle burst out at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where white students in the U.S. for the first time fought the police vigorously.
In Oakland, Stop the Draft Week began with marches of over 10,000 led by Joan Baez and following non-violent tactics. The police beat the hell out of them. But by the end of the week leadership had passed into the hands of the radicals. On the final day, thousands of youth marched into Oakland armed with helmets and shields. At first the police attacked with clubs but couldn’t move the youth. Then, realizing their strength, the youth pushed the police off the streets and occupied downtown Oakland, setting up barricades of cars and concrete tree-bases. All this won great support from the working people, who cheered from windows. Then, hearing on the radio that the National Guard had been called out, the youth dispersed without serious injuries.
The news of this struggle electrified us in Cleveland and we intensified our preparations for our own action. As the movement was much smaller in Cleveland, and because the Trotskyist YSA boycotted us, we could mobilize only 100 youth to march to the Induction Center before dawn that October morning. We had a defense guard of about 20 wearing helmets and carrying shields painted white and emblazoned with our name and: “STOP THE WAR! HELL NO! NOBODY GOES!” There was a cold wind off the Lake and walking to the site we could see the police horse transport trucks standing empty, “hidden” behind buildings.
The Induction Center had been moved to the new Federal Building by then and we marched straight to the main entrance and circled right under the overhang, our chants resounding loudly from the glass and pavement. The police were already there, standing between us and the entrance in a long line, dressed in black leather with their clubs at ready, while behind them lurked John Ungvary, head of the police red squad, and FBI officials, drooling for a slaughter but quite nervous because of our boldness. As inductees began to show up, the police got the order to clear us out and they attacked, but our defense guard held its ranks and the police were only able to force us slowly backwards across the wide plaza and out into East 9th St., clubbing and shoving while we kept up our circle and our constant, pulsing slogans. The police backed off then and we reformed on the sidewalk with only one injury, a head cut to James Finney, one of the Black CDRU members, and he continued as a defense guard even though his shield was destroyed.
The morning wore on but we didn’t stop. Then it was time for buses to arrive with inductees coming from points far to the east and west of Cleveland. We had sent agitators out to these towns to ride in with the inductees and speak against the war and the draft on the buses. The buses were to take a ramp down under the Federal Building to unload the draftees. As the buses began to arrive, we marched out onto this ramp and attempted to stop them. Draftees were hanging out the windows of the buses cheering. The police went nuts and rode down on us with their horses, but the area was so congested that we were able to dodge them or even stand up to them. We made it very difficult but they finally got all the buses into the basement parking structure.
We then decided to march back to the entrance of the building and confront the police again. This we did and this time they held back and did not attack, so we successfully reclaimed our place nearly blocking the main entrance to the Federal Building and shouted and marched for another hour before declaring victory and dispersing.
The success of our action and of Stop the Draft Week nationally aroused tremendous excitement among Cleveland youth and we called a repeat action for the following week. During the week that intervened, the YSA-SWP decided to get on the bandwagon, so we formed a coalition. At the coalition meeting, the SWP had their most “proletarian-looking” worker, a structural iron worker, denounce our tactics of militant resistance. He sank so low as to claim that by wearing helmets and shields (which were actually only defensive weapons) we were “provoking” the police! Speaking for us, Lisa Godoy heaped scorn on this idea and on the whole cowardly idea of pacifism in the face of police violence and accused this dog of taking the side of the police. Helmets and shields remained as our policy.
On the morning of the march, 300 youth showed up. This time we had a defense guard of about 80, all wearing some sort of helmet-and-shield combination. One youth arrived with a kitchen colander on top of a wadded-up towel tied to his head, football shoulder pads and hip pads and a circle of 2x4’s around his body running from hip to shoulder. At a rally before marching on the Center, the leading group of the demonstration spoke about its goals and tactics. While myself and Bob Turner, a black CDRU leader, were speaking for us, the third member of the group, the same traitorous SWP’er who had spoken against helmets and shields, went across the street and conferred with the police without our knowledge. He returned to tell us that induction had been called off for the day and that he had informed the police that we were not going to attack them! This combination of victory and treachery confused our leadership a little and we didn’t denounce him as a police informer right then as we should have. But we did march on the Federal Building and held a militant, two-hour demonstration. Militant mass resistance by the youth to imperialism’s criminal war was established in Cleveland, while the crimes of the YSA-SWP, which we condemned widely thereafter, contributed to a big decline in their influence in the area.
The Cleveland Draft Resistance Union was a militant fighting organization. This stood out in special contrast to the Trotskyist YSA-SWP, which dominated the youth movement in Cleveland before the inception of CDRU. One incident which illustrated this contrast took place just before the March on the Pentagon in 1967.
The scene was a plaza behind the public library in downtown Cleveland, where the anti-war marchers had assembled to board chartered buses to Washington. It was dark and the buses stood lined up, running, along the deserted streets which bisected the plaza. The college students, led by the YSA’ers who dominated the Student Mobilization Committee, had already boarded their buses and were preparing to leave, while the community groups were still in the plaza, displaying banners and placards and getting ready to board their buses.
At that moment a small gang of youth from the racist enclave of Murray Hill turned up. (That tiny Italian neighborhood, squeezed in between the black ghetto on one side, Case Western Reserve University on another and petty-bourgeois Cleveland Heights at the top of the hill, had long been used by the bourgeoisie as a base to mobilize racist and fascist attacks against Blacks and progressive people.) This fascist gang began to go through a pacifist high school section of the marchers, tearing up their banners and picket signs. The police, who were present in force, did nothing to stop the fascists. Quickly they reached the small CDRU group but the moment they attacked us, Eric Bates jumped straight at their leader and threw him to the ground, fighting. Immediately a swarm of cops jumped on the two of them and all you could see was blue butts and pants and nightsticks. On the bottom of the pile they squirted Eric in the face with mace but did nothing to the fascist.
As this took place, I stepped up to the next racist and caught him by surprise, hitting him square in the jaw with the best punch I ever threw, and set him flat on his back. Our action frightened the reactionary gang and some of them backed off, but one tried to tackle me around the legs. He drove me out into the street under the lights and right under the windows of one of the buses carrying the college students. I was kneeing him in the chest and face and punching him, trying to break free. At that moment, Charles Lewis, a Black militant formerly with RAM and then a Draft Resistance member, came rushing over carrying a red, green and black nationalist flag. He had been standing with a group of Ahmed Evans’ nationalists, many of them wearing white Muslim robes. (The CDRU was quite close to many nationalists because of our fighting stand.) Charles stuck the nationalist flag in the racists’ faces and said, “Grab this, motherfuckers!” Like dummies they did, and with a shout of anger a band of nationalists swept down on them and chased them out of the plaza, my own opponent included. The reactionaries disappeared around the corner with the nationalists in hot pursuit, white robes streaming out behind them. The YSA, we then found out, had kept the college students on the buses from getting off to help us, although I am sure that if the fight had lasted more than a few minutes, some of the students would have joined us. This incident set a serious tone for the Cleveland marchers on their way to the Pentagon confrontation.
Activists of the Cleveland Draft Resistance Union at the march on the Pentagon, October 1967. Activists from CDRU were among the founders of the American Communist Workers Movement (Marxist-Leninist). ACWM(M-L) was built by activists from the mass movements of the 1960’s who realized from their own experience the need for a Marxist-Leninist Party to organize the working class for socialist revolution.
Late in October 1967, students at Cleveland State University held their first anti-war demonstration. In Cleveland at this time, Cuyahoga Community College was where the workers went to college, Case Western Reserve was where the intelligentsia went, and Cleveland State was where people went who were very intent on climbing out of the working class or lower petty bourgeoisie. Consequently, its students took far less part in the anti-war movement than those at the other two schools.
The YSA organized the demonstration and then must have felt the backlash coming, because they called on the Draft Resistance Union to come and be a defense guard for the picket line.
The administration building was a tall building on a side street just off Euclid Avenue, the main drag. When the seven or eight CDRU members arrived, a large crowd was gathered in front of the entrance. We could tell they were hostile by the loud boos and cat-calling we could hear a block away. Debris, water and pop was being thrown down from upper stories, most of the crowd was men dressed fraternity-style, with tan rain coats and thin little ties. In the middle of this mess four or five picket signs could be seen wandering around in a circle.
We had just fought the Cleveland police two weeks before and were not going to let 100 frat rats stop the anti-war movement. So we waded through the crowd and joined the line. We did look a bit more threatening than the Walter-Mitty-style YSA’ers. There was James Finney, black worker, about 20, well-built and sporting a white bandage on his head from the Stop the Draft Week demonstration. There was Bob Turner, 300 pounds, Afro-American and not friendly towards racists and reactionaries. And there were several more men among us who were not small, plus several militant women, including a Filipino whose long black hair reached to her waist (and who probably resembled a Viet Cong guerrilla in the sick imaginations of the right-wingers). We were a sight.
When we first joined the picket line, there was a brief lull in the catcalls as the reactionaries got over their shock. Then the first wave of frat rats made their assault. Unfortunately for them, their racism led them to attack Bob Turner’s end of the line, and he took one step into them and hit them with two forearms like Big Daddy Lipscomb shedding offensive linemen and set two or three of them sprawling. This took the entire wind out of these cowards and the demonstration was able to continue. Slowly the outright fascist elements trickled away, deprived of an easy atrocity. The catcalls declined and people who had slightly more democratic methods of struggle came forward. These people wanted to defend the War by argument rather than force. We carried on arguments for two hours, and they even followed us to our cars to argue more. We did not win any of them over, but we could tell that by standing up to the outright fascists and then answering every point the others raised, we had won respect for the movement at this backwater. The YSA, meanwhile, had long since melted away, never having stood up to the fascists, nor played any part in the ideological discussion, nor even said thank you for saving their cowardly necks.
The CDRU founders and early members already had a certain pro-working class orientation, in contrast to much of the anti-war and anti-draft movement. Mine was based largely on growing up in a working-class neighborhood and on involvement in rural labor union struggles in the civil rights movement in West Tennessee and the farm workers’ struggles in California.
It was clear that working-class youth were acting as the main cannon-fodder for Johnson’s War, so we felt that resistance would come from them, and when they responded to our agitation and came to our demonstrations, our gravitation toward the working class was strengthened. I have already mentioned the effect on us of the positive reception working-class youth gave to the ideas of Lenin on imperialism.
It should also be mentioned that when Eric and Jean Bates joined the CDRU in the summer of 1967, they already had a commitment to organize among the workers. Eric immediately got a job in a factory and his description of conditions and workers’ attitudes and struggles greatly strengthened our interest in directly mobilizing workers.
The CDRU, consequently, took a strong part in the main strike of the time in Cleveland, the strike of the St. Luke’s Hospital workers. Eric and others spent a great deal of time on the picket line and I was arrested there for throwing a rock at a scab truck. We established a warm relationship with the St. Luke’s workers, some of whom later became contacts for the outright revolutionary work of the American Communist Workers Movement (Marxist-Leninist). At the same time, in this strike we had our first contact with the bankrupt tactics of the trade union bureaucrats in the economic struggle (we were familiar with these dogs already in the anti-war movement). The CDRU began the process, which deepened with the Workers’ Action Committee and then with the ACWM (M-L), of seeing the working class as the motive force of revolution and of going among the workers and mobilizing them for struggle.
The opposition to the Vietnam War was so intense that veterans would return from Vietnam and immediately join the anti-war movement. In the Fall of 1967 a black Vietnam combat veteran named John Howard returned from the War and joined CDRU. John and CDRU members would speak on small local suburban college campuses, where debate was still very hot. Pro-war Vietnam vets in the audience would jump up and threaten to shoot us, and my heart would kind of jump, but John would go on talking without even a single blink of his eye. No one dared to try anything. On one occasion, when CDRU was asked to appear on a local radio talk show, we dumbfounded the host, who expected white students, by sending John, two other militant blacks and a white supporter who arrived from work in his factory coveralls smelling of grease. Whenever the host tried to peddle some especially anti-communist distortion of the war, all four CDRU members would denounce him and threaten to walk off the show.
John’s brother, William, entered basic training and was stationed at Fort Knox, near Louisville, Ky., where he organized a group of black anti-war soldiers called “The Dirty Dozen”. We gave them support in leaflets and in our journal Resistance. One Spring day in 1968 I and my wife at the time, who was Filipino, along with a young black nationalist woman who supported us, visited William on base. It was comical to see the military authorities doing backflips to spy on this internationalist-looking group as we interviewed William in a VW microbus with the curtains drawn.
The CDRU made unity with anti-war soldiers part of its program of mass action. When Draft Resistance member Jerry Harper decided to enter the Army to organize rather than refuse or dodge the Draft, we held a demonstration supporting him at the Induction Center. The reporters and the police were quite puzzled by what they took to be a complete flip-flop in tactics by us, but our supporters and the general public seemed to understand us perfectly well. Jerry went on to organize one of the first underground anti-war newspapers in the Army, called FTA (soldiers’ lingo for “Fuck the Army!”). The story of FTA is best told by others.
Thus, contrary to the Big Lie pushed by the bourgeoisie today that the anti-war movement spit on returning Vietnam vets, the CDRU not only welcomed them but actively involved them in its work and actively supported anti-war GI’s still in the service.
The Cleveland Draft Resistance Union arose initially in response to the bankruptcy of the SDS Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) in organizing in the working-class Near West Side neighborhoods and in response to the refusal of the peace movement liberals, revisionists and Trotskyists to organize a militant youth movement. The ERAP project on the West Side had nearly ground to a halt when two of the later founders of the CDRU returned from the southern civil rights movement in the Fall of 1966 and moved into the neighborhood. ERAP’s politics were very narrowly and meekly reformist and its organizers were to the right of the national and campus SDS of the time. The peace movement in Cleveland was mired in the swamp of liberal SANE-Dr. Spock politics.
Meanwhile, the working-class youth, Black and white, were being drafted all around. The NLF was battling heroically and blacks in Harlem, Watts and the Cleveland East Side had arisen in rebellion. The youth movement nationally was on the rise. The Johnson administration was carrying out massive atrocities in our name. A militant response was absolutely necessary.
This was the view of the four activists who founded CDRU in the summer of 1967. In Cleveland, the Draft Resistance Union was first opposed politically by the YSA-SWP in the name of “Marxism”. They had influence among petty-bourgeois students at Case Western Reserve University and at Cleveland Heights High School – part of the social base for the liberal peace movement. According to the YSA-SWP, a militant struggle would split the peace movement and it was more “Marxist” not to disrupt the coalition with the liberals (this was a “united front” only on what we could “all agree on” – peaceful, non-confrontational tactics). This was allegedly what “the workers want” (read: “what Sam Pollack, the head of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union in Cleveland, wants” or “what a certain cowardly member of the Structural Iron Workers Union wants”). The YSA-SWP cloaked this reformism by making a big fuss that we should not refuse or dodge the Draft, but instead go into the Army and organize.
The CDRU did not have a clear Marxist stand; its members were still groping for a firm hold on revolutionary ideology. But we scorned the YSA-SWP line as a chicken-hearted evasion of the necessity to build a militant youth movement. The ERAP we saw as totally bogged down in narrow neighborhood issues if active at all.
The Stop the Draft Week activities brought the first sharp political confrontation between the CDRU and the pacifism and police-informing of the YSA-SWP. We spread the lesson of this betrayal widely and it contributed greatly to the discrediting of these characters in the militant section of the Cleveland anti-war movement.
Meanwhile, a “left” Trotskyist trend had attached itself to the CDRU. This was the Youth against War and Fascism-Workers’ World Party (yes, in those days they presented a “left” image to the Movement – these masters of groveling rightism today) in the person of its four representatives in Cleveland headed by the aged, stone-faced dogmatist, Ted Dostal. Since one or two of their youth had a spark of life to them, these people had a closer relationship with CDRU than the SWP. Their youth were present at the two Stop the Draft Week demonstrations and played a positive role. But the organization’s real role soon emerged. On the one hand, in internal discussions, Dostal offered to teach a class in Marx’s Capital. This was eagerly accepted, as the activists were searching for truth and leadership. But the first session led to total collapse when this dead-head refused to teach anything about the book itself and spent the whole time running down his hair-splitting analysis of every group imaginable. We left in disgust. At the same time YAWF-WWP proposed a bankrupt tactical line for CDRU. This amounted to calling a weekly “militant picket-line demonstration” (as Dostal blustered incessantly) at an irrelevant location (inevitably in front of the Terminal Tower where it would be seen by a large number of random people). These demonstrations were to take up whatever detached issue might have arisen somewhere in the world the previous week. We denounced these tactics as having nothing to do with building a militant movement, which required mobilizing definite sections of the people against targets which they wanted to fight.
At the same time, there was the question of the revisionists – the “Communist” Party USA. They had many older people and some youth. Their meek reformism led them to blend in with the liberals, while some of their youth took part in CDRU’s militant actions and in our organization. Even here they did not put forth their own politics but dropped away as the CDRU moved toward open Marxism in the Spring of 1968. At the same time, there was a “left” revisionist grouping, the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Communist Party (POC), represented in Cleveland by Admiral Kilpatrick (real name), an aged Black CP veteran. Kilpatrick would sit around the CP-sponsored parties which we would attend and tell stories of fighting Trotskyists. Given our experience with betrayal by the YSA-SWP, these stories struck a chord. But if you asked him how to organize he would tap you on the knee and begin in a conversational tone, “Tim, you know, the history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggles. Patrician and plebeian, freeman and slave...” and the Communist Manifesto would unfold before you, word-for-word, page-after-page. We liked the Manifesto but were not impressed with Kilpatrick’s dogmatic use of it and we learned nothing positive from him in terms of practical guidance. But his wooden approach did illustrate the need for a living theory, in touch with reality and the struggle. Contact with all these people, however screwed-up, who had taken part in the great struggles of the 30’s gave us a very living sense of the history and tradition of the working-class movement, although there was no one who could represent truly Bolshevik traditions.
These experiences with opportunism took place by the Spring of 1968. Revealed before us was the bankruptcy of the right social-democratic wing of SDS, the right and “left” Trotskyists, and the right and “left“ revisionists. A reporter asked me in one of our press conferences during Stop the Draft Week if we were communists and I answered, “No, but we’re studying it.” Within a few months of struggle we gained a rich experience with a variety of opportunist trends and felt very strongly the need to make such a study in a serious and disciplined way.
By early 1968 U.S. politics began to enter into an over-all crisis. Racism, the War in Vietnam, the oppression of youth, and the exploitation of the workers had combined to provoke massive struggles and this was pushing the militants toward an all-sided struggle against the rich. At the same time it made identifying the agent, the force, for change and the method and goals of change crucial. The militants realized that fighting on any single issue such as the War or racism was not enough.
In June the French workers rose in near-revolution, showing that the proletariat was beginning to come to the fore of the movements.
The Cleveland Draft Resistance Union activists responded by making closer ties with the workers and by taking up the study of Marxism. But the course of this study and the move into the working class was not smooth. The growth of the militant youth movement in 1967 had signaled the “big-shots” of SDS – Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, etc. – to jump back into the youth movement. They represented the right wing of SDS and had laid low during the militant actions of the previous year. Now they began forming new cliques and re-activating old ones to organize demonstrations under their control at the Chicago Democratic Convention. Because Hayden and co. had reputations as “Founding Fathers” of SDS, and since they had not been exposed in the militant activities of the previous year, many youth had illusions in them.
Even the CDRU activists had some hopes of being able to work with the local ERAP-SDS cohorts of Hayden and Davis. (ERAP stood for the Economic Research and Action Projects of SDS, set up under the leadership of Hayden and Davis and quite reformist in politics.) Sometime early in 1968 we in CDRU had formed a coalition with the Cleveland ERAP-types to engage in a three-way combination of community work, draft resistance and work in the workers’ movement, the latter two activities to be carried on by us. We created the Workers’ Action Committee as the third leg of this coalition and it became our main vehicle for work among the workers and, later, for study of Marxism. This coalition with ERAP gave us a good education in the reformism of the right wing of SDS (and the anti-Marxism of the future Weathermen terrorists). It also brought us into contact with some young workers on the Near West Side who later carried on a lot of the early activity of the ACWM (M-L) in Cleveland.
By the spring of 1968 interest had dropped in the draft resistance movement, and the loose national coalition we were involved in for Stop the Draft Week had never re-formed. Our efforts became concentrated in the workers’ movement and in the study of Marxism. We were in touch with a number of collectives similar to ourselves around the country who were beginning to study Marxism and enter the factories. Some of them sprang from militant anti-draft groups. We used to hold informal discussions with them on the fringes of SDS conventions, which we attended but did not directly participate in. Despite our efforts to unite with these groups, most of them ended up in one neo-revisionist group or another. A section of youth was moving toward genuine Marxism-Leninism, but at the same time another section was retaining revisionist politics while rebottling it as “Marxism-Leninism.” This neo-revisionist trend resulted in such organizations as the Revolutionary Union (presently the Revolutionary Communist Party) and the October League.
In the coalition in Cleveland, we insisted on the necessity to study Marxism. Despite screaming from a certain foul-mouthed “community” reformist, a group was started and was attended by four or five CDRU members and four ERAP-SDS’ers, among them Karen McEldowney, Terry Robbins (later to be blown up in the Weatherman Greenwich Village bomb factory) and Kathy Boudin, later a Weatherwoman terrorist and still in jail today. The CDRU members who were affiliated with Workers’ World Party-YAWF or the revisionist DuBois Club had dropped away by this point.
At the first meeting of the study group, the CDRU section proposed studying Marxist theory while the ERAP section demanded we study a book critical of American foreign policy by SDS guru Carl Oglesby, Containment and Change. Long argument failed to resolve the dispute, so the CDRU section agreed temporarily to read Oglesby on condition that Marxism came next. At the next meeting all the CDRU people had read the assigned first chapter of Oglesby but the main Oglesby advocates, McEldowney and Robbins, had not even read it! We expelled them from the group and voted to take up the study of Marxism. Some weeks later Kathy Boudin and the other remaining ERAP person confessed that they did not agree with Marxism but wanted to part ways on friendly terms. We then began to seriously dig into Marx and Engels and later Lenin. Our theoretical weakness led us to approach some of Marx’s concepts through the writings of Paul Sweezy, not realizing that he was an opportunist and not a faithful popularizer of Marxism. But as the year progressed, we became better able to master Marxism. We concentrated on Wage-Labor and Capital; Value, Price and Profit and Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, followed later by State and Revolution and What Is To Be Done?
The struggle against and expulsion of the SDS rightists, and later the departure of the future Weatherwoman and her friend, set the stage for our serious study of Marxism. Our worker contacts from draft resistance work, our entry into the factories, and our participation in the workers’ movement gave us the chance to mobilize workers into the study of Marxism. This we did and soon several, including a truck driver, a utilities worker and others, joined our study group. At the same time we attracted a few working-class youth who had gravitated towards our draft resistance work and became more serious as we took up Marxism. We also attracted elements of the left wing of SDS who knew us from draft resistance and who were seriously turning towards the working class.
The study sessions were very lively. Without having planned it, we ended up concentrating on grasping the basic contradiction between labor and capital, the role of the state and the role of the party. One truck driver recalls that Marx’s Wage-Labor and Capital hit him like a ton of bricks, that his whole experience of exploitation was summed up there. We would take the shorter works and go over them almost paragraph-by-paragraph, sometimes word-by-word. The concepts were new and extremely exciting to all of us. A sentence or paragraph would be read aloud and then experience given by many present, or perhaps a clarification would be needed and it was given by whoever was capable of doing so. Often there was an intense grappling with the text to understand what was meant, a struggle which was difficult for all of us. One member would lead the session and might be somehow better able to clarify the work than others, but we had no expert Marxists“ who could “answer” everything. The membership of the group had constant input and raised constant questions, many of which would not immediately be answered and were held over, sometimes for a long time, or never answered. I remember that the labor theory of value and the basic core of capitalist exploitation were discussed over and over again, with the special aim of proving that the capitalists had no justifiable claim to their profits. This, of course, led to discussion of socialism, of which we had a loose concept in those days. I also think we concentrated on the question of exploitation because it was key to grasping the nature of the working class as the most revolutionary class. In our everyday political work we came up against every kind of justification of capitalist and denial of the possibility of revolution, and the high level of the mass movement lent all these questions great urgency. We felt we had to refute every fallacy and that to do this we had to master every basic concept of Marxism firmly.
The best debates took place over State and Revolution, especially its early sections on the role of the capitalist state and the necessity of smashing it and replacing it with a state of the armed workers. We had attracted to the group a worker named Dave who was, I think, a painter. Dave was an active member of the Socialist Labor Party (believe it or not), the anarcho-syndicalist sect still rotting from Daniel DeLeon’s days. (At Dave’s invitation, we attended one SLP meeting. But their leaders wrote off the entire 1960’s youth movement as “incorrect” and we felt this was a hopelessly intellectualist standpoint.) Dave, however, was a lively fellow, already learned in SLP “Marxism” but also a master at illustrating simple Marxist concepts with barnyard examples. Dave was hostile to the union bureaucrats, but his anarcho-syndicalism gave him a reformist view of the state and revolution. When we studied Lenin’s book, early in in every meeting Dave would give a vigorous and pungent harangue declaring that socialism would come about via a general strike and the election of a workers’ government. For several weeks, at each meeting Dave would present this analysis and for the remainder of the time the rest of us would take his arguments apart piece by piece, getting better and better at clarifying the class nature of the state, how it was an armed body of men defending the bourgeoisie, and how it had to be smashed, not reformed by elections, and replaced by a state of the armed workers, by the dictatorship of the proletariat. We directly asked Dave: what would he do about the Army? How could we have socialism if it was left intact? Wasn’t a revolutionary war necessary? We did not oppose a general strike but said it would have to lead to an insurrection if socialism was to come about. And by the end of each meeting, Dave’s class instincts would come to the fore and he would agree with us. But then, at the next meeting, the same thing would happen all over again. We got very good at defending the Leninist theory of the state, but we never succeeded in getting Dave to make a lasting break with the reformist ideas of the SLP and he finally left our group.
Our grasp of the necessity of a revolutionary party of the working class came over a period of time and was brought to clarity by study of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Practical experience in the movement for several years had shown us the absolute necessity of organization and of discipline. At the same time we refused to capitulate to the anti-communist stereotype that to build a militant party would be necessarily to give up all democracy; we were determined to build a revolutionary organization employing democratic methods. The 60’s were still close to the 30’s, and the revolutionary activities of the CPUSA in the 20’s and early 30’s still lent considerable prestige to the concept of party, despite the degeneration and betrayal of that party during the interim. Party concept was widely discussed in the youth movement, with a militant section increasingly accepting it. Even during 1967 the idea of a party had become accepted by most CDRU members, but some felt they already had one, while the core of CDRU pressed ahead with its search for revolutionary ideology and organization. The fact that the heroic Vietnamese struggle was being led by a party which professed to be Marxist also lent prestige to the party concept, as did the Chinese Communist Party’s apparent leadership of the Cultural Revolution. Finally, our own experience in building the CDRU and later the Workers’ Action Committee confirmed the Leninist thesis of the necessity of a stable core of revolutionary leadership. Consequently, when the Workers’ Action Committee studied What Is To Be Done?, it summed up our experience and gave us a clear idea of what kind of organization should be built, while at the same time introducing to us the overwhelming importance of propaganda and agitation.
Two activists working with us at this time began to show their hostility to the Marxist theory of the revolutionary role of the working class. They left the Workers’ Action Committee to work with the White Panther Party, claiming to try to find a way of building a revolutionary working-class youth movement without relying on the workers in the factories. This effort collapsed before long.
Another consequence of our study at that time was a leaflet that we issued in the name of the CDRU directed against the McCarthy campaign, which sought to bring the anti-war movement back under the domination of the Democratic Party, even though it was the Democrats who were, in fact, waging the war. I don’t recall the precise content of this leaflet, but I know it was an attempt to attack this reformist influence.
Essentially, our study of Marxism during the Workers’ Action Committee’s existence gave us an initial grasp of some basic questions, reinforced our commitment to build the movement based on the factories and gave us a beginning idea of the necessity of a Party.
The Workers’ Action Committee never solved the problem of how to go into the factories and still lead the militant youth movement. Although we still maintained a presence in the youth movement, and developed some strong ties with working-class youth, this movement became fragmented in 1968. In the Cleveland area various factions of SDS vied with the declining Trotskyist groupings of the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers World Party for leadership.
At the same time, our move into the factories brought us face-to-face with the savage truth of capitalist exploitation. One member was learning the machine tool trade and held a couple of jobs at tool-and-die shops. Another went to work at Union Carbide where he was promptly given the hardest job in the plant, handling hundreds of 60-lb. trays of batteries a day while keeping a machine running. He found that this bad luck turned into good when the workers accepted him rapidly due to his ability to master the job.
The factory work encouraged us to be disciplined. The looseness of Movement life promoted unscientific thinking. The requirements of factory life, if one could get accustomed to its hardships, taught one to be concise and to the point, to be reliable and to think collectively. The camaraderie of the Black and white workers just in ordinary events like goofing off and hamming it up across the machines showed the depth of feeling, the good-humored nature, and the progressive sentiments of most of the workers. And even though the struggle was not raging at the plants where we worked, we were able to see the militancy of tile workers in little ways. For example, one young Black worker and I, working about 50 feet apart amidst loud machinery, would pantomime the stupid foreman behind his back and mime all the various fates we wanted to bring to him. As a group, we already had the experience of the St. Luke’s Hospital strike under our belts, and several of us had participated in workers’ struggles in the southern civil rights movement or among farm workers in California. Our recognition of the militant spirit of the working class was being strengthened.
While we were getting our initial experience in the factories, the Workers’ Action Committee participated in the local workers’ movement. One of the manifestations of it in late 1968 and early 1969 was a support movement for the farm workers’ struggle in California. At that time, this was a large and militant mass movement featuring hard-fought strikes and a dramatic 250-mile mass march from southern to northern California through the heartland of California agriculture. (I marched on the second half of this march.) Workers and youth across the country took a great interest in this movement and many participated in solidarity actions. This activity was beginning to get organized in Cleveland. Chavez’s United Farm Workers’ Union was calling for a boycott of table grapes and certain juices. While we did not develop a critique of Chavez’s reformism, we did put forward a sharply different tactical line for the support movement in planning meetings in Cleveland. I remember one such meeting with maybe 100 supporters present on the working-class Near West Side. This meeting was presided over by Bob Weissman, then president of the UAW local at the Chrysler Twinsburg Stamping Plant and later a major figure in the flabby reformist hack opposition to the national UAW leadership, and by the president of the gigantic, three-plant Ford local in Cleveland. We put these hacks on the hot seat by vigorously arguing for a series of mass picket-line demonstrations to close the largest supermarkets in the city every Saturday. This got a warm response from many present and would have been quite possible. We were already carrying on one such action ourselves, virtually stopping all business at one market each Saturday with a militant picket that rocked the neighborhood all afternoon. The hacks at the meeting, I think, were only able to defeat our proposal by threatening to withdraw their support for the movement if it was adopted. These dogs were so shaken that Weissman offered one of our spokesmen, Eric Bates, the presidency of a UAW local if only he would “put his socialism in his back pocket.” Weissman proposed to get Eric a job at a plant and then manage his career all the way to a local presidency! Of course, we had no intention of “putting our socialism in our back pocket” and Eric just laughed at this bribe. This was the end of our contact with Bob Weissman. But the incident was a dramatic illustration both of the gross opportunism of the hacks and also of their vulnerability. If our first battle with them frightened them enough to make them want to co-opt us, why couldn’t their leadership of the workers be overthrown?
The Workers’ Action Committee also participated in a strike of electrical utility workers, drawing one of them into the study group, but I wasn’t close enough to this activity to tell its story.
Although the workers’ movement was fairly quiet in Cleveland in 1968, this period saw the Workers’ Action Committee gain experience in the workplace and the workers’ movement while getting an initial grasp of Marxism. While we took the temporary loss of the leading position in the local youth movement, the Workers’ Action Committee marked our decisive turn towards the social force capable of the revolution – the proletariat – and towards the grasp of Marxist-Leninist ideology as the guide to the revolution.
In the summer of 1968, the second Black rebellion of the’60’s in Cleveland took place. As I recall, this struggle did not have the level of involvement of the first (the 1966 Hough Rebellion) and the activity of the masses was over fairly quickly. The police immediately cordoned off the area, I think, and we weren’t able to go to it. The National Guard was called in and patrolled the East Side ghetto for several days. An armed stand-off between Ahmed Evans’ nationalists and the police went on for a couple of days after the mass activity died down. Jointly through the coalition with the ERAP reformists, the Workers’ Action Committee issued a leaflet supporting the rebellion aimed at the National Guardsmen. The leaflet explained to the Guardsmen that they as young workers were being used against their own interests to fight against poor and working black people in the interests of the rich. We distributed the leaflet widely to the Guardsmen, where it got a generally favorable response. Some Guardsmen even tried to organize a secret meeting with us, but it didn’t pan out. Our coalition called for a demonstration in support of the rebellion. 50 or so people turned out to picket militantly in front of City hall downtown. This was one demonstration that was a bit of a shocker to the local bourgeoisie. An open demonstration in support of this horrible “riot”? What was the world coining to? And on the picket line – mostly white workers? Unbelievable! One of the white working-class youths we were working with from the West Side was the spokesman for the demonstration. He did the proletariat credit by unflinchingly defending our support of the Black struggle in the face of vicious questioning from the hostile reporters.
While the Workers’ Action Committee was not able to play a major part in the Black movement, we did maintain the anti-racist traditions of the CDRU and helped keep the Black movement from being isolated at the time of the 1968 Rebellion.
As the Workers’ Action Committee became increasingly clear about the need for a Leninist party of the working class, we began to look into every left organization then existing to see if such a party existed.
Socialist Workers’ Party and the Workers’ World Party Trotskyists had already been exposed in our eyes in the struggles led by the Cleveland Draft Resistance Union. The same was true of the Communist Party USA and the Provisional Organizing Committee. SDS had not yet spawned its neo-revisionist groupings.
In the summer of 1968 we attended a conference in Detroit of various New Left and Trotskyist types who were involved in rank-and-file caucuses at various workplaces around the country. Some of the theoretical positions held by the participants were bizarre. One such was the theory of “white-skin privilege” advanced by Noel Ignatin, who pointed to the existence of a slight relative advantage in conditions for white over Black workers and then concluded that white workers must give up such privileges – like, say, a house in a working-class suburb – before they could wage a common struggle against the exploiters. Also present were Art and Edie Fox, prominent leaders of the ineffectual official hack opposition to the UAW leadership.
At the conference, to our surprise, even our weak level of consolidation on Marxist theory and brief experience in the working-class movement left us clearer on revolutionary work than these characters, and we dominated many of the discussions. I don’t remember the issues, but we were amazed at the shallowness of these characters’ grasp of their own positions and their lack of discipline, in contrast to our initial grasp of Marxism which we all shared almost equally and could defend militantly. As in the encounter with the Cleveland hacks during the farm workers’ campaign, we were encouraged to press ahead with our struggle.
The Progressive Labor Party was then calling itself a Marxist-Leninist Party, the center for anti-revisionist struggle in the U.S. They did indeed print the international anti-revisionist literature, together with other articles of general analysis. Some of us had been reading their propaganda over the years and were positively inclined toward much of it. But doubts had been created in our minds by PL’s crude denunciation of the Vietnamese participation in negotiations with U.S. imperialism (they opposed negotiations in principle) and by their crude and narrow approach to a “worker-student alliance”, which they saw as taking up only the short-term economic interests of workers and students and evading most of the broad political questions. PL was opposed to the anti-draft struggle, played little role in the most militant youth actions and in the anti-war movement in general and no role at all among GI’s. So we were quite doubtful about the PLP.
The PL trade union director, Walter Lindner, heard about us from the Detroit conference and we soon received a letter from him accompanied by a copy of PL’s Draft Trade Union Program. We studied this document carefully. It was all about “center-left” coalitions within the unions. Over 100 pages – in small print. But nowhere did it even discuss how such coalitions would bring revolutionary consciousness to the workers or develop their struggle in the direction of revolution. Revolution was absent from the most detailed plan for working-class work by a party that claimed to be Marxist-Leninist! We wrote Walter Lindner a letter questioning him about this gross omission but received no answer. So much for PL.
By the later winter of 68-69, we had found no party we could join. We were moving toward the inevitable conclusion that we had to take up this responsibility ourselves.
The Workers’ Action Committee was conducting one of its militant pickets at “our” supermarket on the Near West Side of Cleveland in support of the striking California farm workers. One Saturday a blue-eyed, short-haired fellow with a kind of a determined stare came up and introduced himself and his comrade as representatives of the Canadian Communist Movement (Marxist-Leninist). We had never heard of this organization, nor of him, but this was Bob Cruise, second in command to Hardial Bains, both of whom we would see a lot of in coming years. Cruise explained that they were touring the U.S. looking for revolutionary groups to participate in an international conference in Regina in May. They had heard of us but had spent several days among the SDS-ERAP people, denouncing them and trying to extract our address from them. These folks didn’t want to give it; they had donned quite a “left” guise after our split and didn’t want the Canadians helping us tear it off. Cruise regaled us with tales of their attempts to get the ERAP types to take up Marxist-Leninist politics. Some of these people had adopted anti-imperialist rhetoric but were dead against taking Marxism to the workers and building a revolutionary working-class party. They were quite vicious towards the Canadians, giving all the neo-revisionist slanders of the working class as non-revolutionary, but Movement etiquette forced them to give the Canadians housing. Other members of this clique had sunk so low as to consider bathroom-sharing between men and women in a collective to be a great political advance and didn’t like the ridicule this brought them from the Canadian comrades.
We strongly liked the Canadians’ open struggle against these opportunists and we eagerly conducted long discussions with them on all the struggles going on in the world. They were the first people we had met who were both informed on the world struggle and revolutionary in their attitude towards it (that there were many flaws in this attitude which would grow into blunders we could not see at the time). From the Canadians in these discussions we learned a great deal about the national liberation struggles and the Cultural Revolution in China (in which we had long supported the left, but actually knew little about). We also gained a much greater sense of the importance of building a party, and a better idea of the necessity of an open struggle against all currents of opportunism.
The Canadian organization looked much more orthodox Marxist in those days than it does today, especially in contrast to the American opportunists of the time. Their visit placed quite a challenge before us: to mobilize for and attend the conference, and move openly toward building the revolutionary party in the U.S. We accepted this challenge and promised to attend.
After Cruise and his comrade left Cleveland, they contacted other possible participants at Regina in other American cities. They approached Mike Klonsky and Les Coleman, then running the SDS National Office in Chicago and later to become founders of the RYM 2 neo-revisionist faction (ancestor of the October League), but these worthies refused to come. Another comrade, an American who had already had contact with the Canadians, approached the Communist League (forerunner of today’s Communist Labor Party) and the Revolutionary Union (predecessor of the Revolutionary Communist Party) in California. Both of these refused to attend. The “great Marxist-Leninists,” who in later years were to shower the ACWM (M-L) with accusations of “sectarianism,” were already revealing themselves as great sectarians. We also tried to mobilize groups and individuals in the Midwest and gathered an activist, a worker and two students.
Early in May we made the long drive to Saskatchewan and arrived in Regina late in the evening. We met an organization filled with militant rank-and-file members who strongly reminded us of ourselves. Over succeeding days we had many discussions with them and established strong bonds of solidarity. The first impression we had of Hardial Bains, leader of the Canadian organization, was, however, a little bizarre. He was conducting a meeting lying flat on his back and wrapped in a sheet, every so often uttering some pregnant remark, at which everyone would either murmur agreement or stare straight ahead and silence would reign once more. This method was probably one example of the unhealthy organizational methods used by Bains, but we were accustomed to much stranger things on the U.S. left and we did not let this faze us. In fact, such practices were at that time overshadowed by the generally militant atmosphere of this organization.
Much of the content and structure of the conference was carried on among the Canadians while we held intensive discussions as a group with a few of them, Hardial Bains occasionally included. In these discussions we summed up the experience of the CDRU and WAC as best we could. We saw that the mass movements needed revolutionary leadership and that this could only come from a Leninist party. We could progress no further without taking bold steps towards one. But the refusal of all the groups claiming the mantle of Marxism-Leninism to attend the conference or even to respond to our approaches in a serious manner forced us to the conclusion that only we were willing and able to build such a party. The revolutionary, openly communist character of the Canadians “turned them off,” while it was precisely this character which attracted us.
We saw the boycott by these groups as revealing that they only wanted to build reformist cliques. It was at this conference that our small number of comrades actually decided to launch open efforts for the party. The Canadians strongly urged that we do so, and their own open proclamation of Leninism, their bold red newspaper and their participation in the workers’ movement gave us an example that it could be done in a situation somewhat resembling our own.
There was also considerable discussion of other theoretical questions, such as the Black national question, the nature of the Soviet Union (which we already saw as capitalist) and the role of Stalin, but I will leave it to other comrades to comment on our early stands on these questions. One debate we had I will mention, however. At first we were inclined to launch our efforts by creating a state-wide organization, to be named the Ohio Communist Movement (Marxist-Leninist), fully intending to rapidly transform it into a national structure. But after further discussion we rejected this alternative and decided to signal from the very beginning our national party concept and our opposition to the patchwork method of small collectives advocated by those who refused to come to Regina. We selected the name American Communist Workers Movement (Marxist-Leninist) because there already existed an “American Communist Movement (Marxist-Leninist)” – which may have been a police organization and which disappeared not long after.
So on May 12, 1969, we announced to the cheering Canadian delegates the formation of the ACWM (M-L) and read out our short, militant declaration of formation. We all rose and, for the first of many, many times, we American comrades sang “The Internationale” as a part of the international Marxist-Leninist communist movement, followers on the path of Marx, Engels and Lenin, the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik Revolution.
The bourgeoisie was not sleeping while we were meeting. On the way home our cars were tailed across every Canadian province by either the Mounties or each province’s police and I was arrested and ordered out of Canada. Thus, fittingly, the ACWM (M-L) was born at a militant conference and immediately aroused the opposition of the capitalist state.
(In later years, weaknesses in the positions of the Canadians were not remedied by them, and they degenerated into petty-bourgeois nationalist politics parading as Marxism-Leninism. Our party has waged a systematic struggle against them. )
To carry out our role as a national center of Marxism-Leninism, we adhered to Lenin’s line on the necessity of a communist newspaper. Upon returning to Cleveland, we made plans to publish one. Our conception from the beginning was that it would be openly communist, discussing revolution and socialism while at the same time dealing with the actual struggles of the workers and broad masses and promoting militancy among them. For the name we looked back to left-wing papers of the workers’ movement in the 19th century in the U.S., taking The Workingmens’ Advocate as our source (which had published Marx’s works in the U.S.) and purging it of its sexual exclusionism by changing it to The Workers’ Advocate. By the second issue we had moved from a mimeographed to a printed tabloid format, establishing the militant masthead and form that we have boldly laid before the workers for 20 years.
On the masthead of the first issue the star with the hammer and sickle inside appeared in black and from the third or fourth issue on it appeared in red for a long time. At the time this was a very controversial issue on the left. The neo-revisionist view was then widespread that the American worker’s were anti-communist. We disagreed and held that an openly communist paper, which deals with the pressing issues facing the workers, would attract those workers who were already pro-communist and educate the others that the Marxist-Leninists are fighting for their true class interests. And this is what we did. Under the star with the hammer and sickle, the main headline and story of the second issue supported the Cleveland city workers’ strike, and the third issue hailed the successes of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and showed how it was fighting a common enemy with the American workers.
The new WA was received eagerly. We sold it on the streets at plant gates and near open-air markets patronized by workers and their families on Saturdays. This was the acid test, the moment when the budding neo-revisionists predicted our ass-whipping. I think the second issue had a small press run and disappeared quickly, especially among the striking city workers, so it was the third issue that brought the real test of public distribution. I remember clearly that each of us selling that one – with its bold star and hammer and sickle and the headline: “People’s Victory in Vietnam Aids U.S. Workers” – were able to sell at least 50 copies each in 3-4 hours at the markets!
One of our distribution points was the West Side Market, on the Near West Side of Cleveland, a poor working-class area with many Appalachian whites, large numbers of East European workers, and a smaller number of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. This market and the small square across the street were a historic landmark of the left in Cleveland, known as “Red Square” in the 1930’s for all the Communist Party-organized rallies held there. Here and at the Central Market, with mostly Black proletarian customers, we got our best reception. The reception of the newspaper reflected the movements of the time. Young workers and students, especially national minorities, influenced by the mass struggles, were the most enthusiastic readers, but we had expected that. Also significant were the many mature and older workers who were attracted by the open communism of the paper and who related to us various experiences with the revolutionary workers’ movement and the militant economic struggles of the 1930’s. They had had little contact with the left in recent years. The opportunists who considered the working class backward did not even know these workers existed! By refusing to raise the red flag, the opportunists strengthened their conviction that it could not be raised.
There were, of course, some backward workers. But the biggest opposition to our propaganda came from reactionary small businessmen and the police. Some fascist scoundrels, often nazis helped by U.S. imperialism to escape the workers’ vengeance after World War II, would stage a provocation – start screaming at a comrade, trying to prevent him or her from talking and trying to incite backward people to beat us up. But we got pretty good at exposing these characters and using the presence of an audience to clarify our politics. Usually the reactionary would then call the police. We would stand up to them, too, often to the point of arrest, and we physically fought them and the nazis on numerous occasions. Many comrades were arrested in 1969 and 1970 but we generally managed to establish our right to sell the paper on the street in Cleveland. The reactionaries did not give up, however, but went on to mobilize a so-called “hard-hat movement” to attack us, which I will discuss later. The launching of The Workers’ Advocate and the battle to win the right to distribute it openly among the workers’ of Cleveland was probably the first significant achievement of the ACWM (M-L) after its formation.
In early January 1970 the Canadians called a second conference, at Vancouver. This was, in part, to provide another opportunity to try to unite the American Marxist-Leninists. This time representatives of the Revolutionary Union attended. The stand they took was quite revealing of the economism, as well as sectarianism, which lay beneath the surface of the revolutionary proclamations of many calling themselves Marxist-Leninists in the U.S. In discussions between the RU, the Canadians and ourselves, we put forward the necessity of a single Marxist-Leninist center and a national newspaper along the lines of The Workers’ Advocate. The RU claimed not to have any political differences with us, but opposed our centralism and the form of the newspaper we proposed. The main struggle took place around the question of the paper. We held that it must openly raise the red flag of revolution and Marxism-Leninism among the workers while at the same time dealing with the practical problems of the workers’ movement. Against this, the RU promoted their method of a single national newspaper (it was then called Revolution) which discussed revolutionary politics but was clearly aimed at and sold to the intellectuals and Movement activists. For the workers there was to be a network of local papers which avoided revolutionary politics and promoted vulgar reformism concentrating on economic problems. The RU had already begun producing such papers and they were notable for their assumption that the workers would not understand anything but pork chops. The RU also opposed building a single national Marxist-Leninist center and instead justified the long-term existence of a patchwork of local “Marxist-Leninist collectives.” Basically, it meant “everybody do their own thing,” so that they could pursue their economism. We got nowhere trying to convince the RU to change its stand on these points, but the struggle did clarify our own position and strengthen our belief that it was correct.
The early ACWM (M-L) continued the work of the Workers’ Action Committee of entering the factories and of participating in the local workers’ movement in Cleveland, while beginning to link open communist agitation to the actual struggles. (From the Regina Conference on the organization began to have a presence in other cities, notably first in Providence, then in New York, northern New Jersey, Buffalo, and still later, in Detroit, Louisville, Seattle, Des Moines and elsewhere. Some of this was work in the student movement. But since I am only writing reminiscences about activities I was directly familiar with, I cannot deal with these other areas.)
One big blunder took place in the work at the factories. Eric Bates and I had both gotten hired at the gigantic Republic Steel plant and were both put in the Bar Mill. The first issue of WA carried an article on conditions at the plant and called on workers to contact us at my phone number. I guess we thought that the number by itself would be too hard to trace. The company had its flunkies look through the phone numbers of all 10,000 workers in the mill. They fired me first, searched the locker which I shared with Eric, and then fired him. It wasn’t as if we had had no prior experience with keeping security in the face of the capitalists; we had faced more difficult security problems during draft resistance work, so obviously we should have known better. It just showed how easy it is to make a mistake if you relax your vigilance. Fortunately, in those days it was possible to get another job in a major plant quickly and we did. We denounced our firings, did self-criticism on security, and we sold the paper at the steel mill gates successfully over a long period. (That Bar Mill is closed now, but every time I pass it I wonder what struggles we would have taken part in if we hadn’t gotten fired. In that mill you could almost feel the movement of the ’30’s.)
Other comrades were working in various plants and hospitals by then. Still, no major struggles had broken out where we worked. But the ACWM(M-L) participated in two important workers’ struggles of the time. The first of these was the Cleveland city workers’ strike in the early summer of 1969. We gave this strike firm support, and comrades spent a great deal of time on the picket line, where we became well-accepted and held a great deal of political discussion. The second issue of WA featured this strike as its lead story and used the struggle to expose the capitalist nature of the state. This was a strike with almost constant mass picketing, and we learned the importance, in such cases, of spending a lot of time with the workers, taking part in the actual motion while holding discussions and making contacts. The newspaper was extremely popular among these workers, and this reinforced our belief in the correctness of producing a Leninist paper.
In the spring of 1970 a strike wave broke out across the U.S. One of its main manifestations was the Teamsters’ wildcat, with Cleveland as one of its flash points. This was the high point of truck-driver militancy in recent years, with roving pickets of trucks halting scabs, and militant mass meetings. At one union meeting in Cleveland, attended by 2000 or so drivers, the workers rose up, chased the mafiosi union hacks out of the hall and made their own plans for the strike. We worked together with our truck driver contact, who had been active in the Workers’ Action Committee, and wrote a leaflet supporting the struggle, filled with details of the strike and comparing the workers’ action at the meeting to the revolution and their takeover (though temporary) of the union hall to the dictatorship of the proletariat. A bit wild, you might say, but the reception of the leaflet at the next huge meeting was extremely positive. The workers widely accepted it as the true story of their struggle. The impression it created was so strong that the rank-and-file leaders, by no means the most friendly to us among the drivers as a whole, addressed each other humorously as “comrade” in the meetings. Jackie Presser, the bloated hog of a mafia don who headed the Cleveland Teamsters at the time, even waved the leaflet on the national news and accused the ACWM (M-L) of organizing the strike from San Francisco to Cleveland! Unfortunately, we were unable to broaden our contacts with the truck drivers during this struggle. Our contact was unwilling to go beyond giving us information, the pickets roamed the area in their trucks and cars stopping scab trucks, making it impossible to spend time with them, and after we had distributed to the second and final large meeting, the mafia thugs used the fact that the workers were inside to make very serious threats against us and keep us away from the hall. Unlike the city workers, we could find no definite section that was immediately receptive to working with us. But our work raised the prestige of our organization among workers generally in Cleveland and gave us new experience in the movement. Thus, early ACWM (M-L) activity in the workers’ movement in Cleveland was marked by an expanding presence in the workplaces and open communist intervention in some major struggles.
Early in 1970, with the workers’ movement rising and the Black struggle and the student movement both raging, the Nixon administration gave the go-ahead to all the fascist elements in U.S. society to attack the rising mass movements and the revolutionaries. Agnew jetted across the country making Goebbels-type speeches. Black students were shot down by police in cold blood in South Carolina, Louisiana and Jackson, Mississippi. The Kent State students were slaughtered by the National Guard. Clearly, fascism was on the rise. The question was, who would fight it and how?
The bourgeoisie did its best to get a section of the workers to be a fighting force for fascism. In New York, not long after a large anti-war mobilization of workers took place, the corrupt building trades union hacks carried out a provocation against the anti-war movement. Calling a pro-war rally, they forced workers to come by threatening to take their day’s pay, then mobilized a few hundred construction hacks, foremen and workers out of the thousands present to attack some long-haired anti-war protesters. This was the launching of the so-called “hard-hat” movement, a movement which was aimed at “proving” that the workers supported reactionary war and fascism and at physically smashing the anti-war and revolutionary movement. Soon after this event a “hard-hat” rally was organized in Denison, Ohio.
In June Agnew came to speak in Cleveland. The Ohio “hard-hats” announced their intention to hold a support rally there. At about the same time they also announced their intention to march in July from the West Side Market (our distribution site) to downtown. We were then sure that our work was a target of the “hard-hat” fascists. The nazi elements at the market on Saturdays began to act more boldly.
Against the opposition of the Trotskyist SWP, we fought for the left to hold a demonstration with a militant character against Agnew. There was considerable dissatisfaction with the pacifism of the SWP; at the behest of the Democrats, they were playing a dirty role of helping the police control demonstrations (a photo was circulating in the movement of an SWP marshal riding in a police motorcycle sidecar, using a bullhorn to control demonstrators). We put out an independent leaflet for the Agnew demonstration, declaring: “Denounce Agnew, Mouthpiece of Fascism!”. This leaflet was very well received at our usual places plus a Black housing project where we had begun work. Several hundred people came out to the demonstration, including a number of workers we had mobilized. The “hard-hats” never appeared. The police sat on their horses on one side of the main drag on Public Square outside the building where Agnew was speaking, and the SWP and liberals held a rally on the other side. We agitated among the crowd to cross the street and confront the police. Finally, we and our supporters did so, and shouted slogans in the face of the police for half an hour while the Troskyist marshals physically held the rest of the crowd on the other side of the street. When we crossed back again we denounced the Trotskyists and called on the militants to come to the West Side Market to confront the “hard-hats” and block their intended march.
We did intensive work prior to the “hard-hat” battle. We issued a leaflet exposing the “hard-hats” as nazis and racists, not workers, exposing their intention to smash the anti-war and revolutionary movements and linking them to the Hitlerites. I believe the leaflet not only called for a militant struggle against the fascists but also showed the necessity of a revolution to rid the world of them. This leaflet was also very popular and circulated widely in the Black and Puerto Rican-populated housing project near the Market. We took the leaflet to our usual locations, plus to construction sites, where we got a fairly positive reception, with many real hard-hats declaring these nazis to be phonies and some promising to come and fight them.
The “hard-hats” had called their march for a Sunday, no doubt since the workers would not be at the Market then to be mobilized by us against them. We considered our distribution at the Market the day before their march to be a crucial first round of the battle. By this time the local media had gotten wind of the event and they showed up to film our work. We did our customary vigorous selling of WA, with its red star and hammer and sickle, and got our customary good response, but the reactionaries had mobilized too. Halfway through the afternoon they incited a gang of eight or nine white youths to attack a former YAWF member who was working with us (he was a veteran of all the CDRU actions). He was surrounded and in trouble but I was able to charge at a run and knock down one of the attackers and scare several of them away. When I returned to the comrade, a big knot of wrestling people had gathered, many helping us, and I plunged into the middle of it. The cops “broke it up” finally and we came out of it a bit bloody but went back to selling WA again. The evening news showed a picture of me selling the paper with blood dripping down my face and the reporter told the audience that the communists had vowed to beat the hell out of the “hard-hats” the next day. We were told later that this stand of ours frightened away a lot of reactionaries who saw it on the news and that it convinced some workers that the “hard-hat” movement was not what it
We didn’t dare send all of our forces to the fight the next day, because we expected arrest, but we still had 10 or 12. Not a single opportunist group showed up (perhaps they were too busy writing articles about how we were “sectarian”), but a variety of ordinary people came at one point or another due to our agitation. The “hard-hat” turnout was 50 or so – miserable compared to the 2000 they had predicted. They had assembled in the street in front of the Market, right in the middle of “Red Square”, when our comrades rounded the corner from behind them carrying red flags mounted on 2 x 2’s and shouting “Death to Fascism! Down with the Fascist ’Hard-Hat’ Movement!” The fascists really quaked as our comrades marched straight at the rear of their gathering. They quickly parted like the Red Sea before Moses and we cut right through the center of their group. None of them dared touch us. After marching straight through these cowards, the comrades headed across the street to where a small crowd of onlookers was gathered – mostly workers and youth from the neighborhood. At this point the police attacked us and a veritable donnybrook took place. Comrades whaled away at the police with the 2 x 2’s. There is a photo of the ex-YAWF’er about to clobber a blue butt with a home-run swing, red flag aflutter. A young comrade, a local working-class youth weighing 130 lbs. tops, threw two cops to the ground (recorded in a photo that circulated internationally). Several Black neighborhood youths joined the fight, got in some licks on the police, and then split. One man even left the “hard-hat” demonstration to take our side. The battle went on for quite a few minutes before the cops managed to subdue and arrest most of the comrades. Finally, the pitiful “hard-hat” march began, its last ounce of confidence gone, and headed downtown, under a heavy police guard. But the minority youth jeered and threw rocks as it passed the project, and when it reached downtown it was greeted with a hail of bottles from a crowd of aroused long-hairs.
We had many comrades arrested but the line of fighting the “hard-hat” movement was established, and when it did try to organize elsewhere it was also beaten. And it was thus that our Party’s predecessor, the American Communist Workers’ Movement (Marxist-Leninist), began creating a fighting, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist tradition.
At this point I will end these reminiscences. By this time, the ACWM (M-L) was established as a Marxist-Leninist force, with its propaganda organ, The Workers’ Advocate, a small but determined band of cadres, and a militant fighting tradition. The problems it faced from this point on were broader and very complex, and the story of some of the major events, such as the defense of the Foster Center in Buffalo, can only be told by others. The aim of these reminiscences was to bring to life some of the events and developments leading up to and including the launching of the American Communist Workers Movement (Marxist-Leninist), predecessor of our Marxist-Leninist Party, USA. I hope I have succeeded at least partly in this attempt.