First Published: Guardian, November 29, 1969.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This columnist first ran into the Progressive Labor party at an SDS conference in 1965. The theme of the conference was something about the future of the movement, which proved to be prophetic given that the “heaviest” people were there from PL. I had been asked to lead a panel on Africa and during the discussion found myself being frequently outmaneuvered by a sharp PL woman who knew as much as I did on Africa. Even more, she could put her points in the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of revolution which overwhelmed most of the participants. It was impressive to say the least. Following that experience I went to one PL study group class (on China) but for many reasons (some beyond my control), I never became close to the party.
But the people I met then and the many others in years following, their politics aside, were not bad folks. They did not have horns or tails and under different circumstances would have been quite likable. There was something else too. There was a concern in PL for new people, for their belonging, which was much better than many movement organizations where new members are often intimidated by “heavies” or leader-types. There was also a style of self-criticism which built the cadre and did not make people feel worthless, alone or rejected.
Added to this, there have always been some people outside PL who have respected it. Some people in SNCC fell into this category. The reasons were simple: PL was Marxist-Leninist: they openly espoused communism; they were a disciplined cadre and could hold to a political line: PL understood the essential need for publication of its views via newspapers, magazines, leaflets, etc., that was from its own media.
All of this is to say that PL has the ability to impress people. Not to understand this is to fail to see why the Worker-Student Alliance faction has grown in the past two years, or why SDS for so long could not rid itself of the cancer that was in its midst. It is also to argue that PL’s past in the movement has not been all bad. PL was clear on the U.S. Communist party and its role of reform and revisionism (some groups still are hung up). PL pushed the concept of imperialism very early and gave it historical perspective by linking it to Lenin’s analysis. It also pushed the idea of working-class politics into the student movement (though others did this also) and for a brief time the May 2nd Movement was the most aggressive antiwar group in the white new left.
Most of all PL’s rhetoric was so simple and clear that it seemed to contain basic revolutionary truths. PL criticism of struggles that did not live up to that rhetoric seemed always correct. We even made a slogan that PL was “correct” but never quite “right.” Correct because what PL said had to be done, but it wasn’t right because at the level organizers found people such revolutionary sounding demands weren’t possible for successful organizing. We said PL had sound politics, but that they were a little rigid and not flexible enough for people’s reality. But PL was respected because it had a hard revolutionary line, despite its style or method of organizing.
But that is not true. A time comes when one must evaluate what is real and what is not. What is really happening as opposed to what one wants to see happen. And this new evaluation came not from any internal danger from PL, but from developing an analysis of the total movement.
What is wrong about PL is not its style or its “correct politics,” but that those politics are fundamentally wrong and come from a mistaken view of 20th century struggles. PL says imperialism is a paper-tiger and that the workers are ready for revolutionary organization. Yet these workers and their present or potential leaders are always “selling out.” Nothing in PL theory explains why this happens. And this comes from PL’s inability to put Marx and Lenin into a modern context. PL cannot comprehend what we call “corporate liberalism” which is everything since the New Deal of FDR.
Secondly, the worker-student alliance of PL is a farce. Workers in the U.S. (and PL is talking about white, male, industrial workers) are more a rear-guard than a vanguard. Those workers are incapable of revolutionary thought until they no longer allow themselves the rewards they receive from caste and colonial privilege. And any strikes or consciousness which avoid the question of black and women’s liberation are necessarily reformist and ineffective. Black and white students are much more perceptive of America’s contradictions than workers and have no reason to subordinate their struggles to so-called “workers’ demands” simply to fit into some outdated position of Marxist-Leninist theory. PL has shown where it stands by attacking black worker groups (DRUM, etc.) and women’s liberation and student groups that are trying to organize around this consciousness. The effect of those attacks is to support the status quo.
On the question of nationalism, I would strongly guess that PL opposition has nothing to do with Marxist principles. They oppose it for opportunistic reasons just as they earlier supported it for similar reasons. (They thought national struggles might be a good way to organize blacks into PL.) PL does not send white cadres into Harlem or Watts and they still try to organize within third world groups. (If all forms of nationalism are reactionary, then all forms of nationalist struggle are reactionary too.) PL opposes nationalism because it is mostly a white group. Given today’s realities a white group cannot be the vanguard of black and brown struggles (especially when those groups have their own self-appointed vanguard organizations). Many white activists identify with these nationalist-oriented struggles against racism and try various ways to support black and brown groups. This, of course, swings activity into an arena where PL cannot organize. To remain a “vanguard” PL must undercut the force that is behind this activity which is “nationalism.” It does this by showing how nationalism splits the “unity” between black and white workers and that under Marxist-Leninist theory “workers power” is the key force needed to smash the state. Thus PL can claim to be the vanguard of the “workers struggle.” It is a very clever use of Marxist-Leninist theory to smash all real revolutionary struggles, if one falls for it.
Enough has been written elsewhere about the PL slander of Ho Chi Minh and the NLF to make a long statement here unnecessary. I would only ask who is PL, a predominantly white group, in New York, Boston and San Francisco to sit in their comfortable apartments in the oppressor nation and tell the Vietnamese–who have fought and died for 50 years–anything about anything? That arrogance, racism and cultural chauvinism is exceeded only by their ignorance of any real struggle that they see in the U.S. every day before them. He who attacks the Vietnamese NLF at this time in history, given who the real enemy is, actually helps the case of the U.S. There is no middle ground. By not totally supporting the PRG and the DRV, PL ends up supporting the U.S. which is using every method (including “leftist” fifth columnists) to discredit Vietnamese revolutionaries.
In the end PL contradicts the “thought of Chairman Mao.” The essence of Maoist thought is practice and struggle. If an ideology is not picked up by the masses in struggle, then that ideology is useless. Every struggle that has a mass base, that “fights, and fails and fights” PL opposes. There is no mass base of workers, blacks or women who follow PL. Who then has learned from Mao?
To say that PL is counter-revolutionary is not enough, because we overuse those words. It is “the enemy within,” a destructive, wrecking force within the movement that uses revolutionary phrases to confuse, misdirect and slander people working for causes that challenge power and serve people’s needs.
There are some who will think this column unnecessary because PL has been discredited and thrown out of SDS. But that is to reflect only one stage of the struggle. The practice of PL in attacking the NLF, Cuba, DRUM, Black Panther party, SNCC and Latin groups and its recent practice in groups such as the Harlem Committee for Self-Defense, Asian-Americans for Action and some third world student groups makes it a consistent threat to us all internally. To potential revolutionaries and radicals on the question of PL, we say “beware”!
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Phil Hutchings is past national leader of SNCC, however this column does not necessarily reflect the political views of SNCC.