Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Steve Hamilton

Summation of Experience in Revolutionary Union and Bay Area Communist Union

First Delivered: As a speech to a Bay Area forum on April 7, 1976 “dealing with various comrades’ experiences with Left organizations.” This version is from a typed text.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

First, I will speak about Revolutionary Union – now the Revolutionary Communist Party, of which I was a founding member and was a member of for six years, then the Bay Area Communist Union, a local group that I was also a founding member of and was in for two years.

I’ll say briefly at the outset what I see as the main problems of these two groups and then return to each of these questions in the course of the presentation. The presentations will be in the form of a chronology because I think it is important to get a sense of the historical development. For both of these groups, I’ll touch on aspects of their development that were initially positive, or primarily positive, and try to show how, under changing circumstances, the internal development of some of these same ideas and attitudes changed the entire character of the organisation in a negative direction. In other words, I think the history of these organisations is an example of a couple of basic principles of dialectics – i.e., within every phenomenon there are contradictions that change and develop as circumstances change and what is positive, a step forward, at one point often bears the seeds of what will become backward and destructive at another stage, if contradictions are not correctly understood and resolved.

In a general sense, that which is negative in these and other aspiring M-L organisations flows from, I believe, a tendency toward left subjectivity or left idealism, i.e. a tendency to come up with some simplistic one-sided scheme or formula that is more a reflection of one’s own subjective desires or inclinations than it is a real summation of experience or real objective application of Marxist principles. For some, to a certain extent BACU and more obviously some other organisation; this takes the form of latching on to some authoritative sounding pronouncement borrowed from the approach of other periods in communist history or of simply following the lead of another party that is considered more authoritative. This is dogmatism and is one but not the exclusive manifestation of the more general tendency toward idealist formulations. Some, like RU, are quite capable of coming up with their own original version of idealism.

Various forms of idealism come easily for a movement whose base among the people is very thin or non-existent and when the mass struggle and level of political consciousness is very low. There simply is not the material basis to clearly differentiate correct policies from errors, at least on the part of the more inexperienced and also the more stubborn idealists.

Inexperience itself is not necessarily the decisive factor out can become decisive in conjunction with other factors, such as a tradition or trend of subjectivist political thinking. Another factor is class background and, regardless of the fact that these terms are lightly bandied about by some as accusations, a movement whose background is primarily petty bourgeois intellectual or ex-student is likely to have some special features, different from a more working class based movement. A group of workers will usually recognise the need for unity and are not as likely to be so overcome with the “everyone is a genius” type of individualism that they would go their separate ways rather than compromise. Neither are workers, on the other hand, so overawed by authority that they lose confidence in their own judgment altogether and become “true believers” who follow unquestioningly. Such a vacillation between ultra-democracy and ultra-centralism is a petty bourgeois, class characteristic and is expressed in the myriad of fragmented little authoritarian groups on the left.

The Revolutionary Union

For the roots of the RU we go back to the mainly student and ex-student based radical movement of the late 60’s. The founding meeting of the RU was held about exactly ten years ago to this date. Conditions for the formation of RU consisted in first, and chiefly, the more revolutionary turn of the student movement, which had happened very perceptibly beginning in ’67. In the early years of the student movement, ’64 to ’67, there had been toleration of and sort of critical sympathy with communists but a lot of illusions about democratic, non-violent alternatives. Tactically, the dominant tendency had been conservative and non-violent. The CP and SWP didn’t challenge but encouraged that conservatism politically and tactically. Progressive Labor Party won respect from more militant elements for its anti-imperialist perspective in mass anti-war activities, its bold defense of socialism and its militant, adventurist at times, tactical approach to demonstrations. In ’67 to ‘68 the tide seemed to turn as the desperate “put your body on the line to help the poor Vietnamese”, which Joan Baez was a characteristic spokesman of, was turned into the realisation that “God-damn, the Vietnamese are actually winning.” The politics of the Vietnamese, Communism, began to be taken more seriously. The Cultural Revolution was going on at the same time in China. Some were enough impressed by the direction of events and politics in China to become Maoists, a broader number embraced a generally pro-socialist, anti-imperialist outlook. In the Black and other minority movements, identification with third world, pro-socialist movements was particularly strong.

Around ’67 to ’68 a consciously revolutionary pro-socialist leadership developed in the Black movement – elements in SNCC, the Detroit League, and the Black Panthers Organisation – that seemed to gain a sizeable base in the Black community for a time. The militant revolutionary tone set by these forces had a strong effect in the white radical movement as well, those who had developed communist politics on the basis of the already, prolonged anti-war struggle.

Nationally, SDS took a consciously revolutionary direction, the non-PL elements of its leadership evolving by early ‘69 into the RYM 2 and Weatherman factions.

The Bay Area had its own organisational history to a certain extent, generally paralleling national developments. The first really mass campus explosion was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of ’64. Beginning in ’65 with the huge ant-war teach-ins, Berkeley was a strong center for the anti-war movement. Stop the draft week demonstrations in Oakland in ’67 were the first mass demonstrations that used barricades and mobile resistance tactics and reflected the turn toward militancy and, indirectly, the turn toward anti-imperialist politics. The Berkeley movement had a reputation for being militant, activist, having a mass character and having little concern for the theoretical complexities that engrossed SDS chapters in other parts of the country. The Panther Party started in ’67 in Oakland and the Peace a Freedom Party developed a fairly broad united front character in California in ’67 to ’68.

The RU was pulled together in early ’68 out of some of the Left elements of the local Peace and Freedom Party, particularly those who were active in Panther support work, activists from the anti-war movement, a few ex-PL people and even a few ex-CP and ex-PL veterans, and student groups from the peninsula. The two strongest centers politically were the Richmond and Palo Alto groups. In Palo Alto there was a large Maoist student group at Stanford led by Bruce Franklin, called the Red Guards. There were also student croups at other college and high school campuses that provided recruits for the RU. Some Panther oriented community work was done in the peninsula area. Two police agents were recruited and because they were working class in origin and showed great interest and expertise in guns they were quickly put on the central committee.

The Richmond group (initially Avakian, myself and another person, later about three collectives) also had close ties with the Panthers but were somewhat more connected with a growing tendency at that time nationally toward getting a base in working class communities. This group in the RU was most clearly tied to the ex-CP and PL elements and generally reflected more of a traditional Marxist orientation.

At this stage the RU contained both the romantic adventurist tendency that had been influenced by the Panthers and was to eventually culminate in the Weatherman line and the almost equally naive (although politically less destructive) “build a base in the working class” perspective that was to become the programmatic perspective of ML groups over the next several years. There were differences around these questions almost from the beginning but there was also a shared perspective to a certain extent. For example, much of the working class oriented work in Richmond stressed support for campaigns of the Panthers. On the other side, even the most adventurist elements supported the generally working class orientation because the conception of going to the working class at that point rested on the assumption that a mass revolutionary movement was rapidly building, that it was bound to and had to break out of the campuses and minority ghettoes and effect the great mass of working class people. There was very little conception of the protracted patient work that communists would have to do before gaining any significant foothold in the working class. Certainly there was not, nor could there have been, the realisation that at that time we were at the crest of the mass movement of resistance to a period of sharp contradictions for U.S. Imperialism which, after the end of the Vietnam war and after the ebbing of the Black Liberation struggle for a variety of reasons, would give way to a period in the ’70s of relatively little mass political activity. There was little doubt in 1968 that any revolutionary organisation worth its salt would have some sizeable base in the working class in five years. It was once rumored that Franklin and Avakian had argued with Franklin contending that revolution could happen in five years if we did our work right while Avakian maintained that such thinking was pure adventurist fantasy, that it would take longer than that to build a base in the working class, that we should think more in terms of 7 to 10 years.

Such over-estimation of the revolutionary nature of the situation was still very strong when the ’70-’71 recession occurred and unemployment reached one of its highest peaks in the post war period. The RU began its Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee’s in this period and, of course, hoped to have the kind of success that the CP had in its unemployed campaigns in the early ’30s. The reality was that scarcely an unemployed worker was recruited that I knew of after countless demonstrations and leafleting every day for years at unemployment offices. By ’72 this lack of success was becoming clearer to the RU leadership and, I believe, occasioned significant changes in their orientation. First, a few more comments on the RU outlook previous to that change.

The RU itself, ironically enough, arose amid a fair amount of anti-sectarian sentiment; many of RU’s founders were only prepared to start a new ML organisation after giving up any hope for PL when it took its anti-Vietnamese position in ’67. The RU leadership felt that PL had given communism a bad name by its sectarian politics and practice, hence the defensive sounding article in Red Papers I called, “Against the Brainwash, A defense of Marxism Leninism.” In that article the statement was made that if we, the RU, begin to act as authorities a swift kick in the pants would be appreciated. One other RU member and myself were sent to Chicago as a peacemaking delegation when the Weatherman and RYM 2 split was brewing in SDS in ’69. As sweet as that sounds, the RU was never in fact a model of anti-sectarianism. It developed the habit from very early of branding those independents and other organisations who were critical of its approach as petty bourgeois elements, movement hacks etc. and rather than struggling for unity with these people (many of whose criticism was in fact incorrect) preferred to go it alone with the masses, i.e. working class people who were not political and therefore didn’t raise such annoying questions.

Prior to the ’72 period there had generally been a fair amount of modesty in regard to recognising that we certainly had no blue-print on how a movement was to be built in the working class, that a careful summation of successes and defeats in what modest activities were undertaken was of the utmost importance.

Until ’72 the accepted analysis was that the principal task was integrating ourselves with the working class, that the principal obstacle in that regard was carryovers from petty bourgeois student movement leftism, and that if a few economist mistakes were made in the course of getting to know the workers and their struggles, it was certainly no disaster.

This attitude had been bolstered by the split that occurred at the end of ’70 with the Bruce Franklin led forces who had followed a Weatherman type line, with slightly more Maoist terminology. A fairly extensive political debate occurred at the time of that split and those who stayed were, for a period, more seriously committed to the strategy of gaining a ’base’ in the working class and from a more informed Marxist perspective than in the initial period (’68 to’70) and more aware of the destructive effects of left idealism. From that period the RU developed a critique of the type of leftism very current in the movement at that time(and still typified by groups such as Prairie Fire) that romanticises and maintains a totally liberal attitude toward third world and women’s struggles. The RU’s concern for a presence in the working class was always attacked by these forces as an abandonment of political struggle, as economism. In my opinion the RU played a positive role for a time in combating this type of leftism. Within a correct position, however, lay the seeds of a different and more subtle form of ultra-leftism which was to bloom by ’72 to ’74 into a classical purist ”only the working class struggle is important” position that ended in, in fact if not in theory, liquidating the minority and women’s struggles altogether, along with all forms of united fronts. By ’74 you have the disgusting spectacle of a communist organisation supporting racist anti-busing struggles and opposing the Equal Rights Amendment.

The struggle against the Franklin group also laid the groundwork for deterioration in another sense. Prior to that time there were recognised political differences in the RU and internal political debate was tolerated, often to the point of failure to maintain a functioning centralism. After the Franklin split was consolidated, there were no strong opposition elements for a time and the respect of the membership for the political wisdom of the leadership had risen enormously. There was an article in Red Papers 4 signed by me, summarising the struggle for democratic centralism against the Franklin group, while again the main content of the position at that time was, I believe, correct, the seeds were laid for a very strong over-emphasis on centralism by establishing such principles as “no right to minority reports”, which meant that if a minority on a leading committee was in disagreement with a position they were duty bound to keep quiet and implement it throughout the org., reserving their objections to the leading committee. That’s the only way policy can be tested so the rationalization goes, in fact that’s a great way to bottle up and contain criticism.

The question of attitude was perhaps even more decisive, whereas once it had been fashionable to maintain one’s independence; now any criticism, began to be suspect as individualism, destructive of the unity of the org. etc. The leadership was now not only able to but expected to provide authoritative direction. By ’72, the org. had grown nationwide to far outstrip any of its rivals.

It dawned on the RU leadership in ’72 that very little progress had been made in recruiting workers. Rather than making an analysis of what difficulties in the objective situation stood in the way of this goal, how in fact the political perspective might have to be readjusted to fit itself to the actual state of affairs and the type of more long-term patient work that would flow from such a perspective, instead they took an easier path more in line with their subjective need to make some short term gains.

Some short term gains would have to be made if the cadre were not to be discouraged and if the RU were to establish itself as the undisputed ”party of the proletariat.” How could you, after all, make any claim to being the party of the proletariat if you hadn’t recruited any workers or if you couldn’t even show a sizeable percentage of workers at your demonstrations etc.

A little volunterism was clearly called for to save the face of the org. The line that then developed went as follows: There’s nothing wrong with our analysis or political line, the cadre are simply not trying hard enough. In fact they’re too involved in low level trade union work and not looking for the ways to bring workers directly to communism and our org. Left student baggage is no longer our main problem, after all we have been in the working class two or three years, the problem is economism. The key link now is to build anti-imperialist workers organisations under our leadership.

This was an incredibly classic left mistake, looking for an approach to avoid the long term difficult task of fighting for the support of the great masses of people. Such a task would imply involving ourselves in and trying to influence mass orgs. There’s no time for that, so the theory goes, better to have some flash in the pan success here and there and win who we can. It was called the “single spark strategy.”

Several others and myself strongly objected to such a strategy, pointing out that it was a dual unionist approach and a significant step toward left-sectarian isolation. Most cadre however, including most of those who initially objected, were brow beaten by charges of economism and individualism (for going against leadership). Some raised questions at various times about certain aspects of the strategy but by this time there was such a fixation with security that any real political debate was deadened in a cloak of security and respect for proper procedure.

Other classical left errors followed, such as complete contempt for any form of united front work, the tendency to downplay work around various reform issues, the women’s movement was entirely written off as hopelessly petty bourgeois. Eventually the RU was unable to work with minority nationality orgs, that had previously been close to them. These orgs, were told, “we’re ready to form the party, join it or you will be exposes as bourgeois nationalists, bundists.” Already other orgs, such as October League had been clearly written off as opportunist. The Chinese created a problem about this time by suggesting the RU and OL consider merging. OL initiated some discussion and the RU leadership went through the motions of having discussion until a clear case could be made that OL was indeed Browderites of the worst stripe because they at this time believed in fighting for influence in the trade unions and reform movement. OL has since repudiated this line in order to better expose the RU’s economism.

Why would sensible people make such outrageously stupid mistakes? I’ve already indicated that I believe some of the essentials of such a political line were called for by the opportunist push to establish the hegemony of the org., to be the big fish in a small pond as Avakian himself used to say. The RU had made significant contributions at an earlier stage when it was a matter of combating more obvious forms of left adventurism such as the Weatherman line. They had combated the Communist League and the early CL’s type of book-bound dogmatism. When it came to more difficult questions such as how are we actually going to build a base in the working class they were on their own and the impatient purist tendency to look for easy short-cut formulas was too tempting to resist. I don’t feel this was inevitable. There were some even less politically developed members who maintained enough of a sense of reality to recognise that their ties with the masses were suffering because of these policies. The factor of ego and refusal to admit mistakes at no matter what cost plays, I believe, no small part. Given the burocratic structure of such an org. and the authoritarian respect for leadership the subjectivity and limitedness of perspective of leadership can be decisive, and disastrous.

The Bay Area Communist Union

The RU’s split with Black Workers Congress and Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Org. at the end of ’73 caused the disaffection of several groups of cadre in various parts of the country. This split had clearly signalled a different emphasis toward national minority struggles. The best example of the new line was the position the RU took on the Boston Bussing Crisis in mid-’74, that of siding with the white anti-bussing forces.

Most of the people who left the RU around this issue had no clear framework within which to understand this mistake. A superficial conclusion was drawn that this proved the RU leadership had all along been racist and therefore those who all along been saying the RU had been rightist and economist must have a point. Many independents in the movement came to similar conclusions and a mood developed, ox’ getting back to understanding the classics to avoid such opportunist deviations from Marxism in the future. Also, these events had coincided with the increasing awareness by many independents of the need for a party. The Communist League had a heyday for a time with its rhetorical emphasis on “party building is the central task etc.” until it isolated itself because of its own opportunist jockying for position, along with the exposure of some of its more outrageously sectarian positions. OL, sensing the new dogmatist mood, changed its positions very gradually, without saying so or being self-critical. Previously OL had characterized the RU as left sectarian, now it denounced the RU as economist. All sorts of new organisations arose, each more 100% Bolshevik than the next, during this period of New Orthodoxy of ’74 to ’75, including MLOC, ATM, RWL, the Revolutionary Wing. Sectarian groups such as Workers Viewpoint gained their greatest popularity. These were, in my opinion, the darkest days of non-thinking that the movement has experienced yet.

Locally many of the ex-RU people were caught up in this trend, forming a local chapter of the Black Workers Congress. The burn out occurred after about a year of studying the classics and searching for advanced workers who were ready to study “What is to be Done.”

BACU was formed in early ’75 of ex-RU and others with a certain level of agreement based on at least some common experience of the destructiveness of sectarian errors. There was generally agreement on the analysis of the RU I have outlined and on the need for a modest approach to the longterm task of gaining a base in the mass struggles of the working class. There were two trends from the beginning however because some of BACU’s leading members were never completely convinced that the deviation to left rhetoric on the part of the dogmatist groups didn’t have some merits, that if approached correctly and not mechanically some workers could be won directly to communism, without wasting a lot of time in mass struggles. They had never tried it, but theoretically they were sure it was true.

Shortly after publication of BACU’s first pamphlet criticism mounted in regard to economist tendencies in BACU, in particular the line I and a few others put forward that was reflected in the BACU pamphlet. I had the effrontery to write a paper on party building suggesting that the conditions under which Lenin wrote “What is to be Done” were so different from our own that much of the approach from that period is not very applicable and doesn’t tell us, in our circumstances, how to get a base in the working class.

Next, there was even sharper struggle when I submitted a paper on Black Liberation that was very similar in approach to the PWOC pamphlet on the same subject, repudiating the Black Belt Nation theory but emphasizing the importance of the struggle for Black Liberation. To some in BACU, repudiating some of the traditional rhetoric around the Black question had to only mean that we were embracing an RU denial of the Black question as having any significance outside of the class question.

As we got into discussion around the International situation and China’s foreign policy a polarisation developed on these questions as well. BACU, unlike OL, grappled seriously with what the Chinese were saying and, like Bill Hinton, came to the conclusion that to accept the Chinese analysis meant to accept that a world war was coming, that the second world countries of Europe must prepare to defend themselves against Soviet aggression and that the U.S. Imperialists must be relied upon to defeat the more dangerous Soviets in what could be analogous to the world war two situation.

Without elaborating on this debate, I’ll only say that some of us felt that there was no basis for the international communist movement choosing sides between the Imperialist powers, that it was the U.S. Imperialists who were still the enemy of most liberation struggles and certainly were still a match for the Soviets in contention for world hegemony. Basically, it was a question of whether communists are duty bound to support the position of what they consider a leading socialist country. I don’t believe the correctness of China’s position was ever really the question for people who have such an emotional stake in following the authoritative party. With no discussion of the Gang of Four Incident, a position was adopted as we left denouncing, of course, the Gang of Four as capitalist readers etc.

The polarisation nationally around China’s policies also implied for BACU no possibilities of working with other independent forces, particularly the PWOC and other forces of the Independent Trend, that were critical of China. The tendency had already developed to retreat back into leftist orthodoxy that was the common language of most of the U.S. Maoist groups. Alignment on international policy settled these issues decisively.

I think here again, like the RU, the basic mistake is left subjectivist idealism. For RU the immediate motivating factor was to establish itself as the vanguard party of the working class, while for BACU it was the more timid motive of not alienating itself from China, and not trusting its own judgment in the face of the preponderance of left rhetoric coming from other Maoist groups. If you find it difficult for whatever reasons to stick to an honest evaluation of the real situation and the real tasks of the moment, you find yourself repeating empty idealist rhetoric, quoting authoritative pronouncements from leading parties or from the writings of Lenin, sticking to the way questions have always been handled supposedly by the communist movement, even if that experience is not really understood. Often this tendency toward subjectivity takes a left form in our movement because it is easier to kid ourselves than to recognise our relative isolation and powerlessness and the immensity of the task ahead of us.