Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

PLP: A Critique


Originally Published: Old Mole. [Cambridge, MA underground newspaper]
Reprinted:The Radical Education Project, n.d. [1969]
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.

In the last year the Progressive Labor Party, a small, self-appointed vanguard of the proletarian revolution, has become the center for all ideological and strategic debate inside the largest organization of the revolutionary white left, SDS. PL has managed to give the impression that it is the only one interested in organizing the working class. Its emphasis on the working class may have filled a real void in the SDS of two years ago.

But PL has gained the reputation as sole possessor of ideology chiefly by putting forward a formula (worker-student alliance) and a tactic (left-center coalition) and calling the two a strategy. It has been convincing more because it has met no ideological opposition from the left than because of the force of its arguments. It has attracted many because the simplicity of its reasoning and its appeal to the guilt of elite students over their bourgeois origins.

As a result of its simplistic ideology, PL has taken absurd positions on many matters of immediate concern to the movement:

1) It has withdrawn support from the NLF and called the leadership of the DRV of Hanoi revisionist and “sell-outs;”
2) It has attacked all forms of nationalism as counter-revolutionary;
3) It has reduced the oppression of women in this society to a simple case of super-exploitation in the factory;
4) It reduces all struggle to struggle around immediate class issues in a devastating vulgarization of Marxist political theory;
5) As the basis of its student activities, it has appropriated the slogan “Worker-Student Alliance” to which it has given a wrong meaning by placing students in only an ancillary role and which it uses in a way which will inhibit the growth of a class-conscious student movement. In general, and particularly in its student work, it is unable to distinguish between its true enemy, the state and ruling class, and other groups on the left with whom it has political disagreements. It spends as much time attacking the one as the other.
6) It puts forward as the basis of its trade union work a tactic (left-center coalition) instead of a strategy, and fails even to speak of, much less answer, most of the key questions In the formation of a revolutionary consciousness;
7) It deludes itself about the level of unity which now exists in the movement, and refuses to let real forces within the ranks (women, blacks, students) have their own organizational expressions. It has too little faith in the people’s ability to handle those internal contradictions at the same time that they take on the state.

In summary, it puts forward plans that will neither produce a revolution, nor lead to revolutionary or socialist consciousness.

I. The NLF

For more than two years PL has been arguing that the NLF and the DRV are “backsliding” and “selling-out” the people of VietNam by entering into the Paris Peace talks, and supposedly by letting up in the political and military struggle in VietNam (See PL magazine, June 1968, May and February 1969; also The Spark (San Francisco) and Challenge (New York), April 1967). History has already shown the errors of this position. The NLF has continued to consolidate its base of support. Witness the formation of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (See Old Mole analysis in issue No. 16), and has kept up the military pressure, as a reading of any war headline in the last year will show. The NLF has made no political concessions at the talks and has won another forum in which to present the justice of the VietNamese struggle.

What ought to be equally clear is that the choice of making the revisionism of the NLF on important political issue was as much an error as the content of the position itself. At a time when the need for concrete work and actions against U.S. imperialism was and is at its greatest, PL has diverted SDS chapters and other groups such as the Boston Draft Resistance Group by engaging them in long debates about the reliability of NLF leadership. Not only did this reveal a misunderstanding of reality (PL argues that the VietNamese were selling out the minute they accepted one rifle from the revisionists in Moscow), but an incredible sectarianism and organizational chauvinism. It put building adherence to the PL line above building the movement for social change.

PL’s attitude was summed up by Bill Epton, member of the PL Central Committee, commenting on the VietNamese and their willingness to talk in Paris: “We struggle, struggle, struggle, and they always sell us outů” (Quoted from The Guardian)

II. Nationalism and Black Liberation

PL has recently decided that all forms of nationalism are to be condemned as reactionary. They have been vociferously critical of virtually all sections of the black movement, including some of the most important revolutionary groups in the-U.S. today. They have repeatedly refused to put into practice support for black liberation groups such as the Panthers and the DRUM. On campus after campus they have refused to support black students’ struggles by denouncing them as reactionary, nationalistic and “racist in reverse.” Their failures in practice start with their failure to understand racism.

Racism has its ultimate roots in the economic structures of the society and in the predecessors of those structures. It will not be possible to uproot racism until those structures have changed. But to move, as PL does, from these two truths to the position that national minorities are oppressed only as members of their class (Blacks are super-exploited workers) is to deny the fact of the culture of racism which has been spread deeply among members of all classes. To allow blacks to struggle only around their class exploitation, and never around their oppression as a people, is to close off to the revolutionary forces in this country the energy which springs justly from the rage of blacks at their oppression as a social group.

The first and most simple mistake which PL makes is in failing to understand the distinction (stated by Lenin among many others) between nationalism of the oppressed people and the nationalism of the populations of the imperialist or oppressor nation. There is simply not one position on one “nationalism.” In some cases nationalistic consciousness of even an oppressed group can be channeled in unproductive and false directions. Black capitalism/pure anti-white sentiments and separatism are to be fought, for they are in the interests of neither blacks nor other working people. Even in these cases, however, the point to be made to the people of this country is that even these false directions come from a rage that is more than justified.

Nationalism which points to the economic roots of racism in the last analysis, and which sees as long range goals the building of a working-class movement for the control of the means of production and for the re-casting of the culture: these forms of nationalism are clearly revolutionary. They will emerge with greatest ease and with most force in movements of working-class blacks – not in movements composed of and led by the black bourgeoisie.

The forms of nationalism which are progressive and those which are reactionary will also depend upon the stage of development of the movement. Even the nationalism of Malcolm X as close to anti-white as it sometimes came, as unclear in its class analysis as it always remained, was crucial at its time to the development of a revolutionary consciousness among key sectors of the black population. To have attacked Malcolm rather than to have spread the basic import of his teachings would have been to curtail rather than advance the movement. Similarly as the black movement grows and the level of political consciousness raised by the political culture rises, then forms of nationalist struggle which are necessary today may become unnecessary or counter-productive. Black shop organization caucuses and black student organizations may shed some or all of their importance.

PL now attacks nationalism in all forms as a matter of principle. It is wrong to do so. Even PL has been forced sometimes to go against its own line in practice – although only after damage has been done. Take for example the recent incidents at the Ford plant in Mahwah, New Jersey. The plant employs 4000 men. It is the largest Ford assembly plant of any kind of the country. In late April the United Black Brotherhood, a black caucus which had existed in the plant since the fall, called a wildcat strike. The immediate issue was the action of a racist foreman. The UBB called SDS and the Panthers. For the next ten days, 20-40 SDS members – sometimes as many as 150 – helped man picket lines, distribute literature in parking lots, and produce leaflets. Inside the shop, the PL “organizer” came not once to the wildcat meetings, and, according to the UBB, spread among other white workers the rumor that the wildcat, was a management plot to split the union. This was exactly what the UAW said, too.

During one day of the wildcat, one car full of PL members from NYC came to the plant. Jeff Gordon (PLP) was forced then, by the reality of the situation (and SDS support), to say that PL supported the action. To patch over the hole such support left in PL theory (which condemns nationalist organizations and specifically condemns separate black shop organizations), the formula was “nationalist in form, but class in content.” And then the carload went away.

In other cases where PL has been in serious error in practice on the race question it has not even made concessions in theory. At Queens College this spring, when SDS supported black demands for Black studies, PL attacked the Blacks for asking for changes in the curriculum: you can’t get anything from the university except what it wants to give you. At the same time PL launched a campaign to protest the firing of a PL teacher – apparently the rehiring of someone from PL is something the bourgeoisie might want to allow...

The basic point is this: PL seriously misreads the role of various forms of nationalism, and therefore when the race question arises, as it does everywhere, PL is seriously out of touch with reality.

III. Sex and the Oppression of Women

PL theory makes the same assumptions in the case of women that it does in the case of Blacks. From the correct premise that oppression of women is caused by the economic structure, PL jumps to the conclusion that women’s struggle should be aimed at “demands that improve wages and working conditions for women workers and are in the interests of all workers.” (From the WSA position on women’s liberation at the SDS convention 1969). As to male chauvinism: “We can defeat male chauvinism within ourselves and in workers by mobilizing student support for working women’s struggles.” (ibid)

Such a position implies that male supremacy is simply an attitude which can be changed by ideological struggle. In fact, male supremacy is the structural basis prior even to a class society, and demands a far more serious and historical analysis than PL provides.

In a society where a minority of women work for wages, PL reduces women’s liberation to a struggle in the shops for wages and better working conditions. Although these struggles are important and central, they are not even a full list of issues in the shop – separatism of work (where men and women doing the same job are segregated in different work places) and the use of women as a scab labor pool are problems they don’t touch on. Moreover, PL does not touch on another kind of work which is as oppressive and affects more women than does factory work: housework and child care. This work is not paid at all. It is a system of coerced labor property. One in which women serve to produce, maintain, and socialize an exploited work force. Women’s role in the family keeps them in the position of a reserve labor force and provides additional work which must be performed after wage labor is done.

PL’s active opposition to the building of an autonomous women’s movement reveals not only its contempt for the oppression of women as a whole, but also its lack of flexibility in dealing with new objective conditions, for the women’s movement exists and is growing all over the country because people have a need for it.

PL’s argument that women’s liberation would divide the working class is based on their lack of faith that anyone but themselves really wants a socialist revolution as soon as possible. The women’s movement is no more likely to take the path to integration in this society than are the Panthers. The women’s movement will divide the working class only if male workers refuse to give up their roles (direct and indirect) in the oppression of women. Some strategies for struggle will divide the working class; some won’t. It is clear to all of us that women cannot be liberated outside of a socialist society – though they will not be liberated even within it unless they are a strong and autonomous movement.

IV. Reductionism

In both of the previous major areas, the oppression of blacks and of women, PL reduces the question to one of struggle around the point of production over issues raised directly by the primary contradiction (class differences). If capitalist culture did not distort and limit consciousness; if it did not itself become a force for oppression, then PL would be right. But then, too, there would be no need for PL; people would know the ultimate causes of their oppression, would be sure of their own strength, and the revolution would be simple, sweet, and instantaneously successful.

In regards to both blacks and women, PL displays a vulgar Marxism distorted beyond belief. At their worst, they talk of racism and male chauvinism as devises to split and divide the working class, hatched at a meeting of some executive committee of the ruling class. In fact, both are part of an economic and social structure that has evolved through an historical and dialectical process. Undeniably the ruling class in all its forms benefits from, and often fosters (consciously and unconsciously), both racism and the exploitation of women. But these problems are rooted in a structure, and because of the history of the U.S., have achieved a dynamic of their own. Since PL believes that they are only devices to split the working class, they deal with them only be arguing for the unity of the working class. That simply is not sufficient.

But there is one other point to be made. These problems and many others will not be solved simply by the public ownership of the means of production. They can only be overcome through a transformation of the consciousness of the population through the struggle to change the structure that produced them. That is why the form of struggle, including separate organizations, is crucial for the liberation of women and blacks. The fight for socialism must embody that understanding.

V. The Worker-Student Alliance

PL follows through the logic of its position on the oppression of blacks and women in putting forward its principle for building a movement: a worker-student alliance. That PL only permits the women and black questions to arise inside the student and worker movements is already clear and clearly wrong. But the worker-student alliance framework in which these other movements are subjugated is hardly a perfect or a sound one:

1) An alliance is a tactical relationship between independently organized and functioning groups; a revolutionary alliance is one between revolutionary groups. The WSA alliance, however, does not exist since there is no independently organized radical working-class movement in this country now, except for the Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which the WAS refuses to ally with!
2) A worker-student alliance is a tactical necessity in a developed struggle situation or revolutionary situation (e.g. S. F. State or France, 1968), when students are clearly operating as a significant political group in a general struggle to seize bourgeois power. However, in America at this time, the overriding strategic problem is not how to make the general assault on bourgeois power, but how to build the revolutionary working class movement which will perform this task.
3) The WSA, however, inhibits this strategic task by affirming the false definition of students as a small, privileged bourgeois-oriented elite, and preventing the development of class consciousness among students as future workers with future and current interests opposed to institutions of bourgeois education.
4) The WSA denies the real ability of students to aid directly in the creation of the working-class movement through work in shops and communities (this is based on PL’s rule that only its qualified cadres are capable of ”organizing” working people).
5) The WSA strategy undercuts the revolutionary potential of students and struggles around student issues, failing to understand the centrality of mass education in the modern capitalist political economy and the anti-capitalist impact of struggles around educational issues such as open admissions, working-class studies, community and student control over discipline, curriculum, faculty, finances.
6) The WSA is therefore a harmful and inadequate substitute for a strategy for the student movement which can (i) realize the vast potential for revolutionary activity by masses of students around issues of direct concern to them; (ii) aid in the development of the revolutionary working-class movement, directly and upon the graduation of class-conscious students entering the work-force and the army; (iii) assist the growing revolutionary movement among black students; (iv) begin to define the problems of the revolutionary seizure of power, and (v) provide in theory and in actual struggle, some substance to socialism as popular control of society in the interests of the people.

Although it is nowhere set down as PL theory, sectarianism shows up so often in PL practice in the student movement as to be a guiding principle. Having decided that they are the vanguard of the revolution, the fact of their leadership becomes the chief goal. Thus, only hours before the occupation of University Hall at Harvard, non-WSA leaders in the Harvard SDS chapter were told by PL: “We will use the strike to smash you.” Asked if it wasn’t more important to smash Harvard, the answer was: “No, you and the Administration are the same thing, and we will smash you both.” Leadership by PL was more important than the fight against imperialism or racism.

Not only does the leadership by PL become the chief goal; it becomes the chief criterion for excellence. The work-study group in Boston (factory work and discussions) was attacked by WSA. That attack was not around differences in policy, but along the line that since the organizers of the work-study were not in WSA, they must have bad problems may go back to the primary antagonisms (between classes at the point of production), but there are secondary antagonisms between people and institutions of class oppression outside the workplace around which struggle must be waged: the authoritarianism of high schools and the army; the exploitation by social services (from welfare to rapid transit); and the absense of public facilities (from schools to parks to housing). A strategy must indicate the tertiary antagonisms (between groups of people inside the class of the oppressed), around which movements and organizations must be built in order to begin their resolution so that the primacy of the underlying class antagonism will become more evident to everyone. A strategy must indicate at what points the links are to be made between these movements and a movement by the whole class. These two kinds of lesser antagonisms must not be denied or simply reduced to the primary one.

Therefore, in opposition to PL’s tactic, the castes of blacks and women must be encouraged to develop with autonomy, provided their class analysis is clear and they are based in the working class. The student movement must be encouraged around the secondary contradictions which produce authoritarianism and intellectual sterility, both in high schools and colleges. Even at elite schools, among students not from the upper ranks of working people, we must still work around the contradictions which produce among many of them a radical international consciousness.

In the shop the issues of racism and women’s oppression must be tackled head-on from the beginning. The struggle must be aimed not at power in the union (although that is an intermediate goal), but consciously for the control of the plant.

We must also realize that the consciousness of the people can be strengthened by fighting against their real oppression outside of the shop, in the community as well, in struggles for decent housing, against highways, for better and cheaper transportation, for parks, for daycare centers, against taxes and exploitation as consumers. Any working-class movement in the shops and in the community must also strive to build and express an anti-imperialist consciousness, not through words alone, but also through actions. We also feel important organizing can go on against and inside the instruments of oppression caused by imperialism, such as the army.

We differ from PLP in our understanding of socialism, of history, of culture, and therefore in our understanding of the dialectics of the struggle for human liberation. These disagreements must be debated, for they run to the heart of our battles and our goals.

* * *

The Progressive Labor Party was formed in 1964, primarily by ex-Communist Party members and sons and daughters of CP members. Most were dissatisfied with the CP because of its increasingly moderate stance. The major group was the Progressive Labor Movement in New York and Buffalo, which split with the CP over trade union questions. They criticized the CP for supporting the AFL-CIO merger, and for depending on reform action within the AFL-CIO to revive a radical labor movement.

Besides the New York PLM, there were dissident CP members in California and the state of Washington who were expelled in the early sixties. Their differences with the CP emerged daring the Smith Act trials of 1951-54, when the party leadership based the defense on the First Amendment and on denying the revolutionary nature of the party. The split also reflected disagreement with the party’s growing emphasis (even before Khrushchev) on peaceful coexistence and the possibility of a peaceful transformation of the US economy.

Some of the expelled California members joined the Progressive Labor Movement which then organized the Progressive Labor Party as a vanguard revolutionary party on the Leninist model at a convention in 1964. The Washington dissidents criticized the formation of a party, because they felt that there was no mass working class base for such a party, and did not join in its formation. They did join several months later. The Washington and California groups provided the major working-class membership in the Party.

Progressive Labor (Movement and then Party) was active in organizing the first trip by American radicals to Cuba and in helping to launch the May 2nd Movement, which was the first organization to oppose the VietNam war on a political, anti-imperialist basis. The Party also prepared a trade union program (much different than the current one) and an electoral program.

Whatever defects PL may have had at the beginning, the specific turning point which led to its current state came in October of 1968 when the Central Committee prepared a draft of the strategic position paper, “Road to Revolution II.” The draft included condemnation of the National Liberation Front for accepting arms from the Soviet Union.

At this time, also, the position on nationalism emerged. Though the Party had never taken the position that blacks were a people as well as members of the working class, it had, at its founding convention, recognized a distinction between revolutionary and bourgeois nationalism, and had given especially independent status to its black liberation section. In 1966, however, party chairman Milt Rosen said in a speech in New York that “all nationalism is reactionary,” and this has been the position ever since.

Representatives from the West Coast criticized the VietNam position, but it was not changed. In addition, Chairman Milt Rosen maintained that the draft of “Road to Revolution II” should have been submitted only to the State central committees, though the Washington arid California committees had immediately submitted it to members because of the position of VietNam. The national Central Committee, in violation of the party’s constitution, sent out a directive for discussion and implementation of the paper, without calling for approval by the local clubs.

When the Washington central committee refused to carry out this directive, the state chairman was expelled and from then on the national committee simply refrained from contacting any of the Washington members. In addition, 15 or 20 members in California were expelled, dropped out, or were pushed out over disagreement with the VietNam position.

The expelled members included the bulk of the members working in trade union and other non-student work. Among these were the organizers who had led the most successful labor action, a wildcat strike which shut down a West Coast paper’s printing operation for 5 days.

From this point on, PL concentrated more and more on its work in SDS. May 2nd Movement had been dissolved shortly before the split over the VietNam position. Though the party officially emphasized the importance of young people working in industry for another year or so, very few did. Within SDS, PL members ceased to support Cuba, but did not until recently push their positions on VietNam and black liberation, or the position of students in the revolutionary movement.

PL’s trade union work, from 1966 on, developed more and more in the direction of factional attacks on union leadership. Also PL did not raise anti-imperialist issues in its trade union work the way it had in student work. For instance, the PL organizer in a warehouse strike in Oakland put out a leaflet attacking the union leadership for not demanding a high enough wage increase but refrained from criticizing the fact that the strike exempted military cargoes, despite the fact that the union was on record against the war in VietNam.

It is difficult to say much with assurance about PL’s size at the moment, though it is probably in the hundreds. Starting with a small membership concentrated in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, and Buffalo, it has expanded geographically to several more cities, primarily by the recruitment of many more members from the student movement.


PL on Black Liberation: PL has complained that its position on Black Liberation groups has been distorted. This is partially true. On several occasions PL has praised aspects of the Panthers. However they have also said the following:

The goal of both groups [The Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers – ed.] is the same: a piece of the profit pie for a small number of black “leaders”... Despite continuing references to Mao Tse Tung, the Panthers increasingly put forward a line that sounds more and more like Martin Luther King or John Kennedy. August 1969 PL magazine Editorial

.. .Although masses of black students are obviously willing to fight racism and imperialism, the basic character of the black student movement is reactionary. August 1969 PL magazine

Despite the frequent waving of ’The Quotations of Mao Tse Tung’ it is quite apparent that the Panthers have no class outlook and believe they are out to fight a war against white people in general. PL magazine, February, 1969

To criticize the Panthers is one thing. To so distort their positions while claiming to support them is another.

* * *

Though people’s war has beaten the U.S. military machine in Vietnam, the negotiations process is turning this victory into a defeat for the revolutionary forces in Vietnam and in the world.

U.S. Imperialism, with the cooperation of the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese leaders, will use negotiations to achieve its goal of keeping a troop concentration based in Vietnam. It can use this huge army against other revolutionary risings in Asia. PL magazine, June 1968, p. 8.