First Published: Theoretical Review No. 13, November-December 1979
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This article will trace the beginnings of the Revolutionary Union (RU), later Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and outline the history of the RU during its first six years (until 1974) commenting along the way on elements of that history that seem relevant to the party building efforts of today’s movement. Clearly the principal purpose of this article is to contribute to a more thorough understanding of the history of “left” errors in the party building movement. In my opinion, the strengths and weaknesses of this period have never been summed up in any unified and more than superficial way, even within the new “independent” trend. By and large the same conditions that facilitated the development of these errors continue to exist. Therefore, one can be almost sure that if the source and nature of these errors is not understood history will be repeated.
If the reader is even more inclined towards discouragement after reading this article, it may be timely to make this observation: it seems to be a fact of life, actually a fact of dialectics, that problems have to mount to the level of becoming qualitatively uncomfortable enough and the present solutions clearly unworkable enough that a point of crisis is reached, then we are ready to make a radical reappraisal and to change. Fortunately, our movement is at that point of crisis. It is in the nature of things that such reevaluation and openness to new directions cannot go on indefinitely. Some consensus will be reached and the movement will settle into a groove for several more years to see if those solutions work. Therefore the quality of our analysis now and the viability of our solutions are likely to be of decisive importance to the communist movement in this country for many years to come. So, with that awesome responsibility, letís examine the past.
For the roots of the RU we must go back to the mainly student and ex-student based radical movement of the late 1960s. The movement of this time underwent a change in about 1967, a turn toward a more revolutionary orientation.
In the earlier years of the student movement, say 1964 to 1967, there had been a sort of toleration of communism by most movement participants but anarchism and utopianism more correctly described the dominant ideology. There existed underlying illusions about the viability of non-revolutionary alternatives but the intense activism and hostility against the system of the Vietnam War period allowed little room to put forward perspectives based on reformism and compromise. Tactically, the dominant tendency before 1967 had been conservative and nonviolent. The Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) didn’t challenge but encouraged this conservatism both tactically and politically. Progressive Labor Party, however, won respect from some elements for its bold defense of anti-imperialist and communist politics and its militant, at times adventurist, approach to tactics.
In 1967 as I indicated the tide seemed to turn as people realized that the Vietnamese were actually winning the war. Also, the war had gone on long enough that the lessons were sinking in, anti-war activists became anti-imperialists, anti-imperialists (influenced by the Vietnamese and other national liberation struggles, and by the Cultural Revolution that had started in China) became communists.
In the Black and other national minority movements identification with the pro-socialist third world movements was particularly strong.
A consciously pro-socialist leadership developed in the Black movement – particularly from the Black Panther Party, SNCC, Detroit League – that gained a sizeable base and influence in the Black community. The militant tone set by these movements had a strong influence also at that time on the increasingly politicized student movement.
As the student movement turned towards a revolutionary perspective, Students for a Democratic Society became the national expression of that developing perspective and at once the forum for contending political tendencies. The major division between 1967 and 1969 was between PLP and its supporters (making up perhaps half the national organization) and the remaining elements that increasingly came to define their politics in opposition to PLP.
Let me digress a bit on PLP because this is also an important element of the development of RU. Considering that PLP has long since degenerated into an irrelevant sect, it may be hard for the reader to realize the significant role that PLP played during this period. PLP had been the almost uncontested organization of the pro-China anti-revisionist Left. It had made enough adventurist and left sectarian mistakes that many who generally sympathized with its politics had kept their distance organizationally. It was the one well organized cadre group operating nationally within the growing revolutionary student movement with a fairly clear political perspective and thus won many followers to what seemed to be its more avowedly Marxist perspective. (SWP also had quite a following but this was among a somewhat separate group of those who stayed within the framework of mass anti-war politics.) No small number of the independent communists of this period had been in or around PLP at one time or another. (I was a PL organizer on the Berkeley campus in 1965 to 1966).
In the period of 1967 to 1968 PL took a turn sharply to the left on two key questions: they began attacking the Vietnamese for accepting Soviet aid putting forward this position in such a forceful and sectarian way as to undercut the anti-war work of the period. They also took a position generally that “all nationalism was reactionary” which set them in opposition effectively to all national liberation struggles. This purist ultra-left attitude carried over to their relationship with the Black and other minority movements in the U.S. and particularly in respect to the Black Panther Party who were coming under intense attack from the government during this period.
The anti-PL forces were understandably aghast and galvanized into an anti-PL coalition that was both anti-revisionist and anti-ultra-left. (Keep reading, plenty more parallels to come.) The unity of this new “genuine Marxist-Leninist trend” consisted chiefly of the following: 1) strong support to the national liberation movements internationally and to the Black and other national minority movements within the U.S. as contrasted to PL’s Trotskyite like ultra-leftism on these questions and 2) a commitment to expand beyond the student movement to build a revolutionary movement based on the working class, at least among “working class youth.”
Immediately two trends developed, called “Weatherman” and “Revolutionary Youth Movement 2” (named after respective position papers) which differed on the weight they accorded to these two points and in their interpretation of these points.
The Weatherman people emphasized support for the more intensely revolutionary struggles of the period, those referred to in Point 1, gave lip service to the working class orientation (except in hoping that working class youth and minorities and the semi-lumpen elements of the working class might get turned on to their politics) and tended increasingly towards an anarchist “politics of heroic example” adventurist trend.
The RYM 2 people were those who tended towards a more traditionally Marxist perspective and who were more serious about this “base in the working class” issue. The upshot of these disagreements was that SDS disintegrated as these two tendencies became antagonistic so soon after the break with PLP (1969). I’ll have more to say on the left adventurist tendency when we encounter the same issues in RU a bit later (end of 1970) but for now let’s examine the origins of the pro-working class orientation in more detail because this perspective was to have a decisive impact on the anti-revisionist movement in the next period (we’re really still today addressing the same issues). It was particularly at the heart of the early RU’s outlook and I believe it is fair to say that it was the precursor of the present “fusion” strategy.
There had been some SDS-related community organizing ” projects maintained intermittently for several years. The best known were probably the Newark, New Jersey project and the “Join” project in Chicago. These projects held a certain amount of fascination for leftists because they challenged the dominant attitude that the working class was hopelessly unorganizeable. Sometimes the success of such projects was more movement hype than reality but they showed some promise. The Marxist-oriented groups had always given some lip service to the importance of the working class and PL had in recent years gone into high gear attempting to orient the entire student movement toward the working class in a way that, under the circumstances, was bound to have both an economist and sectarian effect (economist because more significant political issues of the time were subordinated to supporting campus maintenance workers, etc, and sectarian because students were encouraged to believe that their own struggles were unimportant). Nevertheless PL’s pro-working class rhetoric probably served to raise the issue of the working class in such a way that other forces could also no longer ignore it.
The prospect of finding some way to reach out to the working class also struck a cord in the activists of the time in terms of their sense of frustration at the limited parameters and therefore limited effectiveness of the movement they had been building. The existing mass movements had a fairly extensive base among students but the support for these issues off the campuses was almost negligible. Some Black and other minority activists had begun work in minority communities around anti-racist issues and in some cases seemed to have established an impressive base of support. White as well as minority working class men were being drafted to fight in Vietnam and as a result there was broader anti-war and anti-draft sentiment. The taunting red-baiting that had greeted anti-war activities in working class communities a few years before had given way to at least passive sympathy. (Perhaps passive in part because the style and form of student-based activities was so foreign to current working class experience.)
There was then both a sense of urgency that the perimeters of the movement’s base had to be extended, somehow, to working class people and a great deal of optimism that it could be done. After all, the student-based movement had grown in 3-4 years from scattered handfuls of radicals to a mass phenomenon that had affected, to some extent, the entire youth of the country.
Some activists projected and began working on anti-draft centers in working class communities and others argued that the approach should be more multi-faceted and deal primarily with more immediate community or workplace issues. Projects of both sorts were attempted and the success of course depended greatly on the style, contacts and experience of the local work. The anti-draft projects probably as a rule remained more isolated and short-lived but some did attract a base of interest and support in working class youth. The multi-faceted projects provided the basis for several ongoing local collectives of communists that were important building blocks for the party building efforts of 1968 and 1969 that spawned RU as well as the October League, Communist League, and several other groups. In order to get a sense of the political flavor of the time let’s look briefly at one example of this work, that which I was involved with in Richmond, California, and out of which the RU to a large extent developed.
Bob Avakian (now RCP Chairman), one other person and myself moved to Richmond at the end of 1967. (Richmond is an industrial concentration in the Bay Area close to Berkeley.) We had little strategy other than the sort of generalized commitment and optimism in regard to “integrating with the working class” that I’ve described. Various strategies were tried at one time or another. Initially we focused a great deal on building social ties in the community. We began to try to infuse the young workers we got to know with enthusiasm for the projects undertaken by the Black Panther Party and for the style of somewhat adventurist rhetoric common in the movement at that time. We worked with a local section of the Peace and Freedom Party around issues such as community control of police and for a militant perspective within an anti-poverty agency.
I wrote an article in the December 1968 issue of the Movement newspaper that publicized our efforts and approach (later reprinted in Red Papers 1) and because of the interest we aroused in the movement (so scarce were such efforts at the time) and because the RU had formed during this period (1968), the number of communists in Richmond grew into a considerably large collective. Some of us became more involved in strike support work and began to try to do base building work in plants. Generally the workers we met and the ties established in plants came to be considered a more steady and reliable base of support, involving deeper ties to other sections of the community, than the less rooted, often unemployed younger workers among whom we had initially concentrated. The work with the younger people continued for a time however in a group called “Young Partisans” that also combined contacts from the local community college. The cadre more geared to workplace organizing formed a mass organization called “Richmond Workers Committee” which included contacts from workplaces and workers we met during strikes.
The Richmond Workers Committee’s highest achievement was its involvement in the Standard Oil Strike of spring 1969. During that strike an alliance for mutual support was established between the Richmond oil workers and the students at San Francisco State who were striking for an open admissions policy for third world students. Many Berkeley and S.F. State students joined the oil workers picket lines and the oil workers actually on occasion sent delegations to join the S.F. State picket lines. This was perhaps the most successful “worker-student” alliance to come out of the movement in that period. The Richmond Workers Committee people played a key role in bringing this alliance into fruition because of their own involvement with the strike.
Earlier I had referred to the two developing tendencies within the Marxist-Leninist movement of that period, the adventurist trend and the “integrate with the working class” trend. During this period, however, there were many, including the early RU people, who to a certain extent contained both tendencies rolled into one, (which was probably why the split between these tendencies came later in the RU.) In Richmond, the “Young Partisans” became the vehicle for our more adventurist approach geared more toward youth (the title of the group’s newspaper was “Today’s Pig is Tomorrow’s Bacon”, this you won’t get in official RU histories) and the Workers’ Committee, while making adventurist mistakes at times, probably veered more towards economism in the very different task it set for itself. It should be realized that this was a period generally when practice was not very much influenced by clearly developed theoretical perspectives, which was painfully obvious in the trial and error nature of the work. Yet in all honesty, I like this period better than some later periods because there was enthusiasm for what could be accomplished on a mass level and a sense that once a correct approach, tested in practice, could be developed toward these tasks a mainstay would exist for the unfolding of a correct overall orientation. There was also great modesty and flexibility in these early efforts that seemed to evaporate later, for reasons we’ll get to shortly.
Several months after the Richmond group began working together we began discussions around the feasibility of calling for a new Marxist-Leninist organization. (Processes are often not as formal as they sound, actually the idea arose amidst the grandiosity created by a few too many beers one evening.) After some initial investigation of national contacts we decided that there was no political readiness for such a move on a national level. It seemed that most people we had contact with nationally had little sense of the requirements of working class organizing. Those who had experience in community organizing on the other hand tended to be the most pragmatist and did not see their work as directly relating to the broader political needs of the movement at that time. (Pragmatism in these pragmatist days meant virtually disregarding ideology altogether in favor of a kind of populism with a Marxist tinge.)
We believed it was possible to combine the best aspects of both of these perspectives, i.e., working class base and orientation with a recognition of the importance of the broader anti-imperialist issues that the student movement continued to raise and of the need for political unity and coordination between these areas of work. We decided that such a perspective would have to be initially developed on a local level in order to argue convincingly and concretely that a combination of these commitments was possible. (The development of a slightly more consolidated Marxist-Leninist trend nationally in opposition to PL that I described earlier materialized about a year later, in 1969.) RU contributed politically to that development because it was able to put forward its more thought-out perspective as a local organization.
The initial perspective toward party building was to 1) build a local organization, 2) popularize the work and perspective of the local organization nationally, 3) encourage the formation of like-minded “collectives” elsewhere, 4) then encourage efforts toward national coordination.
Bob Avakian wrote a political perspective that was circulated among local contacts and provided the basis for initial discussions. The paper drew heavily on the language of Lin Piao’s “countryside surrounding the cities” imagery popular with Maoists at the time, i.e., that national liberation struggles would weaken imperialism so that its internal contradictions would become more severe and clearly apparent. Avakian argued that within the U.S. the Black and other minority struggles were particularly key and these struggles, in alliance with the most oppressed and generally the more youthful sections of the white working class, would provide another “countryside” that would expose further the contradictions of capitalism to the point that the better paid sections of the working class and middle class elements would also “abandon” their support for the system.
Needless to say, this perspective reflected many of the romantic adventurist assumptions of that period. Although it was only the more ostensibly adventurist trend that split from the RU a couple of years later that would hazard a guess that revolution was only five or ten years away, it’s fair to say that the dominant assumption of the period was that we were moving into some sort of “pre-revolutionary period.” The initial document was received well because it embodied some of the incorrect prejudices of the time as well as for the correct and timely advance that it represented.
The earliest organizational meetings brought together the Richmond group, the ”Red Guards” group from the Stanford campus led by Bruce Franklin, independent communists including some who were CP and PLP veterans and contacts from the left of the Peace and Freedom Party. Only the Richmond and Palo Alto groups had a previous history of functioning as collectives. Both groups were products of the revolutionary turn of the student movement, both had a history of working closely with the Black Panther Party.
Beyond that the Richmond group had already played a role in the trend toward working class concentrations. The Stanford group had a history of some of the most successful student work in the area, work that had been characterized by a bold, militant style and openly revolutionary orientation. They also had contacts at other college and high school campuses in the peninsula area that came with them into the RU. Local organizations were formed in San Francisco and the East Bay that were an amalgam of the elements mentioned.
The RU had its first split when some of the East Bay people, ex-student movement intellectuals, detected a tendency almost immediately to accept wholesale the “tradition” that they labeled “Stalinism”. This trend was opposed and labeled rightist and these people left the RU. In the intervening years I’ve also come to be generally critical of much of this “tradition” and aware of the strength of the tendency toward dogmatism. At the time I was one of the people who labeled this stance “rightist”. I think basic communist principles were also called into question, although if the RU leaders had the flexibility from the beginning to deal with this sort of criticism the subsequent history might have been quite different. But such has not been the tendency of our movement.
In preparation of this article I had written a section on RU organization but I want to intentionally be sparing and general in description of internal organization for the reason that RCP might with justification resent violations of their security. Organizational history is not too exciting anyway; every organization learns to coordinate its organizational affairs in somewhat different ways and in organization perhaps even more than politics there has been too much modeling after already ineffective “traditions.” I do want to comment later on the abuse of democratic centralism. Suffice it to say for now that a leading committee was established to coordinate and lead what remained a bay area organization from early 1968 until 1970 when collectives from other parts of the country began to affiliate in the Northwest, but, because there was no national structure as yet, decision making centered in the bay area.
The leading committee commissioned work to begin on a basic statement of principles and an orientation to communist history and current trends that was later titled “Against the Brainwash.” These documents served to establish us within the Lenin-Stalin-Mao tradition and included the usual defense of Stalin both non-committal in actual content but conveying surety in its tone. The statement put out what was probably the best critique of PL’s politics to that time from a Marxist standpoint and this critique among other elements in the statement served to establish RU as a leading force in the then unfolding struggle against PL among anti-revisionists. Curiously, the document also attempted to maintain unity among the anti-PL forces by stressing the positive contributions of both the Weatherman and RYM 2 factions although RU generally was placed within the RYM 2 orbit.
Especially considering the subsequent history of RU/RCP, one is struck by the modest and non-sectarian quality of these early statements. Partly this was in response to the arrogance and rigidity of PL, partly it was a result of some intelligent calculation that we were a part of a growing but unconsolidated and fragile trend nationally that needed some sense of common unity if it were to win the battle with PL and survive a resolution of its own internal contradictions.
Also, there was genuine modesty. We did believe that much broader efforts than our own would be needed to reestablish a Marxist-Leninist party. We were impressed with the immensity and complexity of our task and really believed that we had few of the answers. We often look despairingly at the past, but frankly I would be impressed if I could see within our movement today either the genuine modesty or, failing that, the shrewdness to know when to unite and not to split that characterized this period of the RU. The publication of these documents in Red Papers 1 in the spring of 1969, one year after RUís formation, established it as a leading force within the newly emerging national Marxist-Leninist movement.