Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The Communist Movement in the United States


First Published: Science, Class and Politics, No. 8, Winter 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the last century there has been a growing movement toward communism. To be sure, this movement has not been an even, unswerving continuum. There have been advances and reversals. Nonetheless, this tendency is inexorable.

To many, perhaps most in the communist movement, this seems to be a natural trend which requires no explanation. It exists, it is good, and that is all there is to it. At the same time, problems are observed. All too often it seems that these problems are shrugged off as technical issues which will be easily resolved once we find the necessary technical mechanism to deal with them.

We argue that these observed problems are not technical but theoretical, that the basic issues which prevent the formation of a communist party in this country and, hence, retard the communist movement here and throughout the world, are of a primary nature which have their roots in our theoretical orientation. This must be recognized if we are to fulfill our functions as communists.

In this article we examine the nature of the communist movement and communists; specify some of the problems inherent in the struggle for a decent society; and address the major corrective to these problems–theoretical struggle. We argue that to be a communist, it is not sufficient to be good of heart. The core of communism is communist theory–the science developed by Marx, Engels, Lenin–and this theory requires mastery if it is to be put to practical use. Unfortunately, many of us are content to rely on the theory with which we all have been trained–capitalist theory. Such theory will not serve a communist movement; it can only assist the capitalist movement. This situation must change if the communist movement is to advance.

As the problems confronting the communist movement in the United States are not unique to this country or even this time period, we begin with a general analysis of communists and the communist movement, focussing on basic issues which must be understood if sense is to be made of current questions. This forms the basis for arguing the propositions dealing with the current situation in the United States, ’a situation which must be resolved if we are to advance toward the goal of a decent society.

What is a Communist?

Our starting point is this: there is no such thing as a “perfect communist”. In fact, such a creature would be a contradiction in terms.

Two reasons exist for this statement. The more fundamental reason is that to be a perfect communist one would have to have perfect (complete) knowledge. This is an absolutist proposition. From the standpoint of science (dialectical materialism), such a position is untenable.

But to acknowledge this fundamental thought in words and to apply it in reality in detail to each domain of investigation are two different things. If, however, investigation always proceeds from this standpoint, the demand for final solutions and eternal truths ceases once for all; one is always conscious of the necessary limitation of all acquired knowledge, of the fact that it is conditioned by the circumstances in which it was acquired. On the other hand, one no longer permits oneself to be imposed upon by the antitheses, insuperable for the still common old metaphysics, between true and false, good and bad, identical and different, necessary and accidental. One knows that these antitheses have only a relative validity; that that which is recognised now as true has also its latent false side which will later manifest itself, just as that which is now regarded as false has also its true side by virtue of which it could previously be regarded as true. (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, p. 620)

That is, rather than being perfect, communists are always in the process of development, the “perfect” finality never being achieved. To accomplish such an end would mean the completion of history, the end of all motion.

The second reason, linked to the first, is that all communists have erroneous ideas about some aspects of society. These incorrect notions may be significant or not, they may be relatively unimportant in waging the class struggle or they may retard that struggle or cause actual retrogression, but they exist. The major question is whether such errors result from ignorance (the lack of careful study) or from an incorrect class basis–bourgeois ideology.

To some extent these basic causal factors promoting ignorance are intertwined. All communists in capitalist countries are taught to have a pro-capitalist outlook. This can be obviated somewhat by certain environmental conditions such as having communist parents, but none can totally escape the “educational” influence of the capitalist class. When one subjectively decides to adopt an anti-capitalist outlook, however, that individual must undergo a retraining process in which old (capitalist) ideas are replaced with new (communist) ideas. In the course of this transition to becoming a communist objectively, ignorance will be lessened and replaced with science–correct knowledge concerning the workings of society. Nevertheless, some ignorance will remain.

The more insidious and, therefore, dangerous basis for erroneous ideas is that of subjectively and objectively maintaining a capitalist bias. In this case the individual may claim to be a Marxist, may learn some phrases and shout them or write them at the appropriate time, may claim to stand for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but all the platitudes in the world cannot conceal that the practice of this type of person is always pro-capitalist, anti-working class.

There is good reason for distinguishing the two bases for error. Those committing errors on the basis of ignorance, whether the ignorance lies in the early training of that person or is the result of not properly investigating a phenomenon, can be assisted in their transition to communist ideology. Those who hold erroneous ideas because they are pro-capitalist both subjectively and objectively cannot be assisted in this process. They will fight such a development tooth and nail.

The communist movement in the United States as everywhere else contains both types of individuals and we must be very clear as to their distinction and how to deal with each type.

The Communist Movement

What is a communist movement? A communist movement is not simply a movement of communists. As communists are a small fraction of the population under minority-ruling-class societies, such a movement would be ineffectual. Unfortunately, such a position has a following in the United States. It is believed that all one has to do to effect socialist revolution is to develop a group of dedicated, hard-core cadre who through dint of effort will cause the transition to socialism.

Such a position is the result of elitism; this is a particular aspect of a bourgeois class position. Such individuals have no real concern for the working class as a whole. To them, workers are incapable of realizing their objective interests; they are stupid, racist, sexist, absorbed in their petty concerns. Thus, workers are not a revolutionary force. Revolution must be made for them and they must be coerced into accepting a socialist society in their own interests. In other words, with the only difference being that between a “socialist” society and capitalist society, these individuals view the working class exactly as do the capitalists.

This position has historical precedence. Both the Utopian socialists and the anarcho-syndicalists held similar positions. Both were elitist, objectively pro-capitalist, and both were proved wrong by the course of history.

The communist movement begins, though in unconscious form, with the development of capitalism. Capitalist society necessitates the creation of a working class, a body of individuals who by virtue of losing control over the means of production are forced to sell their labor power (mental and physical ability to produce) to the owners of the means of production for a wage or salary.

Yet we know by experience that a circulation of commodities relatively primitive, suffices for the production of all these forms. Otherwise with capital. The historical conditions of its existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It can spring into life, only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence meets in the market with the free labourer selling his labour-power. And this one historical condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from its first appearance a new epoch in the process of social production. (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 167)

The essence of this historical development was the process of primitive accumulation, a process by which the peasantry in particular was driven off its land and forced to find an alternative means to make a living–by selling its collective labor power to those who now owned the land peasants previously worked as their own.

In addition to the peasantry, the other major source of labor power was found among the craftsmen, particularly in rural areas where guild organizations were weak or didn’t exist. (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, part 8)

Thus, capitalism establishes a society in which two major classes, workers and businessmen, face each other as antagonists.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 36)

Why is this? Simply because the basis of the class relationship is exploitation. As this is so, then capitalists have an interest in promoting the highest rate of exploitation possible. It is through exploitation that they maximize their profits and maximization of profits is the basis of capitalist production. Thus, businessmen have an interest in paying the lowest wages consistent with capitalist reproduction (they cannot kill off their working class). They have an interest in a longer working day, poorer working conditions (safety, ventilation, etc. are all costs of production). In other words, they have an objective interest in promoting a situation that makes the life of the worker increasingly intolerable.

Workers, on the other hand, have the opposite point of view. They prefer higher wages and salaries to lower; safer working conditions to unsafe; a shorter working day to a longer one. Hence the two classes have conflicting interests and, as they are conflicting, they must be resolved through a fight, sometimes open, sometimes concealed, but a fight nonetheless.

In this fight, the capitalists have the state to assist them.

According to Marx, the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it creates “order,” which legalises and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the collisions between the classes.... (Lenin, The State and Revolution, p. 9)

Workers have themselves and their organizations. To the extent that workers are organized and aware of their objective interests (have working-class consciousness) they are able to advance their interests. To the degree that they do not meet these requirements, they allow the capitalists the upper hand.

But what is the result of this struggle? There is only one possible long-run resolution: the destruction of capitalist society and the creation of socialism, where the working class controls the means of production, operates the factories, land, etc., in its own interest, and controls the state machinery which assists the creation of socialist society through oppressing capitalists and other anti-working-class elements.

Why is this the only possible long-run solution? There are two basic reasons. Initially exploitation is an injustice–the basic injustice. As long as there is this injustice with its attendant effects (racism, sexism, etc.) there will be a movement to eliminate it. Thus, only with the elimination of the injustice can the movement be put to an end. As workers are (eventually) the majority of the population, they are in a position to end exploitation; they have sufficient power (if understood) to accomplish this end.

Second, capitalists cannot exist without workers, but workers can exist without capitalists. As it is workers who actually do the producing, they are quite capable of undertaking this activity in their own interests. Hence, the logical conclusion to the struggle under capitalism is the elimination of capitalism and the long-run transition to communism.

But this cannot be accomplished unless workers are aware of their objective interests and are organized to achieve this long-run goal. Before Marx’s time, this was impossible.

Communism is not a mere “natural” outgrowth of capitalism. The communist movement without a working class is impossible. But a working class which does not have the necessary knowledge to effect its transformation will not spontaneously evolve into a revolutionary force. For this to occur, workers in large enough numbers must develop sufficient knowledge concerning the nature of capitalist society, the nature of the state and the necessity of revolution to “change the world”.

The communist movement is, therefore, the merging of the working-class movement (which if left to itself merely ameliorates conditions under capitalism without destroying the basis of the problem) with the scientific ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, et. al. These two aspects of the communist movement cannot be separated if there is to be transition to communist society.

In order to bring about this merger, an instrument must be forged to both develop ideas and disseminate these ideas among workers in order to change their political consciousness–a communist party. Such an organization has two primary responsibilities. It must first educate the working class under capitalism to its objective interests; a revolutionary consciousness must be created. Second, it must lead the revolutionary struggle and direct the working class to the goal of communism.

In order to carry out these responsibilities a communist party must not be ideologically separated from the working class. The party must take the problems confronting workers, then clarify the issues at hand, synthesize them and develop the proper theory to take back to the workers for implementation. To do this requires that the party be of and for the working class.

All too often, however, we observe that such an organization is of and for itself–it sets itself apart from the working class and begins to view itself as a sacrosanct institution. If this occurs, then the organization ceases being a communist party; it ceases being an instrument forged for the purpose of helping to bring about the goal of communism. In the long-run, the purpose of the party is to assist the establishment of a society in which it is no longer needed–it must seek to eliminate itself. When everyone is a communist, then no special communist organization is necessary. If it views itself as an institution for itself, however, then it cannot persist in this direction. Such a goal would mean the elimination of the organization and deprive it of its “hallowed” position.

Class Problems in the Communist Movement

In the United States, we face several problems which hinder us in both developing a party and, thus, achieving the goal of socialist revolution and transition to classless society. Many of these problems are not unique to the movement in the United States but are the results of capitalism in general. Given the specifics of United States’ society and the history of the working class struggle in this country, there are areas, however, where either these problems are unique or greatly exacerbated.

The first general problem is that not everyone in the struggle to build a communist party is a communist. Regardless of what we think of ourselves, we find that in this period there is great divergence in political perspective. All claim to be Marxist-Leninists; few are.

There are two essential requirements for an individual to be a communist: a thorough understanding of Marxism (dialectical materialism or science) and a commitment to working toward the dictatorship of the proletariat. No matter how much one professes to stand for the latter, such protestations are meaningless unless one understands the science upon which such a society must be built. Without such an understanding, one is actually working against the transition to communist society, for the perpetuation of capitalism.

In one way or another, all official and liberal science defends wage-slavery, whereas Marxism has declared relentless war on wage-slavery. To expect science to be impartial in a wage-slave society is as silly and naive as to expect impartiality from manufacturers on the question whether workers’ wages should be increased by de-’ creasing the profits of capital. (Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, p. 3)

There are three basic reasons why we observe and experience failings in our attempts to master Marxism. Initially, we are taught to hold a non-scientific approach to the study of society; we are educated to a capitalist perspective. When, for whatever reason, we turn away from capitalism, we begin an intellectual and practical movement carrying with us a non-Marxist approach. Thus, even though we believe we are anti-capitalism, to the extent that we are burdened with this intellectual baggage, we are objectively pro-capitalist. To overcome this, we must be constantly engaged in the study of Marx, Lenin, et al. and must constantly evaluate all positions and ideas which we are taught to hold. Generally, if we do not subject our ideas to critical analysis, we are going to hold anti-Marxist ideas. And, giyen that we are constantly bombarded with pro-capitalist ideas, we should expect that this process is a constant struggle, one which will not be totally successful. That is, in this period of history we should expect to find some capitalist ideas being held up by even the best of communists. A study of the history of the communist movement in other countries supports this argument. One can find anti-communist ideas held by Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. The basic question is to what extent such ideas disrupted the transition to communism and to what extent they were not corrected in practical work.

The second basic reason why we tend to hold incorrect ideas is that in the world communist movement, incorrect ideas have periodically been produced out of this movement and at times have even been predominant. We are here addressing revisionist ideas–ideas which claim to be Marxist but are in fact anti-Marxist.

Revisionism is a variant of the first argument, but it is considerably more virulent in its effects than the former. It is much more difficult to recognize a capitalist argument when it is clothed in the respectable veneer of socialism and when it emerges from a socialist organization or country. Moreover, it comes in various shades from ultra-leftism through Trotskyism to overt Bernsteinianism. Revisionism is part of our intellectual heritage and it has an insidious way of permeating a great deal of socialist thought. Hence, part of our “socialist” training has been, in fact, training in revisionism. This must be recognized and fought.

Third, at the moment there is no Communist International; there is no international leadership and guidance which can assist us in sorting through the various problems we face. The significance of this cannot be underestimated. The communist movement is an international movement. Without international direction, it is very easy to fall into a nationalist perspective, and this is a capitalist perspective. We then think only in terms of “what is good for the United States” ignoring the fact that we cannot separate the United States from the rest of the world. Such a development gives greater vent to any capitalist ideology which we carry with us.

The second general problem, an aspect of the above, is that within the communist movement there are communists, anarchists, social democrats, liberals, Trotskyites and a host of variations of the above themes. Here we refer to individuals who believe themselves to be Marxists (we exclude those consciously anti-Marxist) but have been influenced by ideas alien to Marxism-Leninism.

Again, the communist movement is not a “pure” movement consisting only of “pure” communists. The fact that it contains and houses individuals and groups who are anti-communists must be recognized and fought.

Over the past number of years, we have observed an increase in the number of organizations claiming to be Marxist–including the formation of several “parties”. To claim that one is Marxist means nothing in itself. Now, of course, “everyone is a Marxist”. The term is no longer useful in distinguishing individuals or organizations. So, what we observe is a host of “Marxist” (communist) organizations and individuals, each claiming to have correct theory, each claiming to be the true communist organization or person. Just on superficial evidence, however, this cannot be correct. As there is a wide disparity in the theories dispensed by the various groups and individuals, not all can be Marxist. At best only some can be (which is not to say that any are).

Yet, in the communist movement in this country, we observe little theoretical work that is directed toward distinguishing among the various groups, little in the way of communist debate. To be sure, we do have a great deal of name-calling. Yet this does not help in developing the necessary theoretical perspective necessary to form a real, communist party.

What we have then is a communist movement which contains, in our opinion, very few communists. The majority of individuals and groups in this movement are either out and out anti-communists or are so confused by the erroneous and contradictory theories they carry around with them that they are objectively non-communists. And yet, we observe that–on this basis–some call for “the formation of the party”.

The third basic problem, one that most recognize and comment upon, is the petty-bourgeois outlook which most in the communist movement carry with them. This, of course, is the product of being raised and trained in a capitalist environment and absorbing, mainly unconsciously, its reigning ideology–individualism.

Individualism is an ideology which all of us have to some degree. This must be recognized. The basic questions are to what degree we have it and how can it be fought. Obviously, a petty-bourgeois perspective is the very opposite of that required for the formation of a communist party. If individualism is permitted to exist to any great extent, then we shall have a party of individualists–a group comprised of people who wish to advantage themselves at the expense, if necessary, of others. Such is not the stuff out of which a communist party is constructed.

A major problem of individualism within a party or organization lies with those who wish to use the party to advance their own careers. For some reason it is the case that the left movement attracts some elements who view that movement as an opportunity to “get a good job”. The money might not be all that great, but, if one plays correctly, one’s name is advanced, one acquires a certain amount of prestige, finds his or her name on pamphlets, etc. And, given that such individuals are careerists and, therefore, hustlers, they will usually find ways to avoid the costs generally associated with being a communist.

How can such people be dealt with in both the formative and developed period of the movement toward a communist party? Any overtly careerist types should not be permitted into the party. That is clear. When an organization is formed, though, all kinds of jobs open up, some of which allow vent to individuals who have this outlook but who have not had the opportunity to allow it full flower. Party jobs, therefore, must be rotated; no individual must develop the attitude that he or she is absolutely indispensable to a particular position. Those in leadership positions must be constantly supervised by the rank and file; criticism must be especially directed toward them.

Individualism pervades the ideology of more than party functionaries, however. As it is a perspective common to us all in greater or lesser degree, the organization itself must establish mechanisms to push this perspective down to a minimal level and substitute a collectivist perspective in its stead. This can only be accomplished in the course of party study and practice. In communist organizations, everyone is responsible for everyone else. The education and development of a single individual is the responsibility of all. Only with such an attitude can the petty-bourgeois mentality be reduced to an insignificant level–eventually, of course, to be eliminated altogether.

The fourth general problem that is particularly severe in the United States communist movement is pragmatism, a particular variant of the petty-bourgeois outlook. As we have analyzed this elsewhere[1] we shall only highlight the problem as it faces those in the communist movement who are attempting to build a communist party.

Pragmatism teaches that we should develop our actions on the basis of what is expedient; pure pragmatic opportunism. Pragmatism is the very opposite of principled thought and conduct, and as such, serves in preventing the formation of a party which must base itself on principle.

Pragmatism is the most straightforward and virulent form of imperialist ideology and is particularly centered in the United States, the capitalist country most free of previous ruling-class ideologies. Although pragmatism exists elsewhere, the U.S. is its principal domain and U.S. workers its principal target.

Fifth, at this time in the United States, those in the advance of the communist movement have little impact within the working class in general. We have few ideological roots there, little organization and little influence. Not only does this mean that we can do little to help educate workers in general, but we do not learn as much from workers as we should. There is little reciprocity, which is necessary to assist the movement in this country. At the same time, the capitalists and revisionist organizations have developed a large, though temporary, base within the working class. This, obviously, mitigates against the movement toward the elimination of capitalism.

To a large extent, this is a problem connected with the current fragmentation of the various communists in this country. As we are disorganized we are not very large, efficient, or well organized to carry out our tasks. Thus, we tend to do things badly or not at all. Even when we have some success in our practical work, we do not reach the number of workers that we would like to; and those that we reach, we have trouble holding onto.

These and other problems face communists in the United States as they struggle to form a party. What can be done?

Basically, what is required is prolonged and extensive theoretical debate, debate which is necessary to sort out the true communist forces and to rid ourselves as much as possible of anti-communist views. We are aware that the building of a party in this country is an urgent task. We are also aware that there is a strong tendency to build the party as quickly as possible. The construction of a communist party is impossible unless there is first ideological struggle. Let us take the extreme. We could construct a party tomorrow by just developing a plan which would organize all those who declare themselves communists and who wish to form a party. But this would not be a communist party. It would be a hodgepodge in which various shades of capitalist ideology would be represented along with, perhaps, a communist perspective – in the decided minority. Obviously, this would not be a communist party.

Before such a party can be built, those who are to form it must be clear as to what their views are; must be clear as to what a communist outlook is; must be clear as to what communist theory is. This end cannot be realized unless there is struggle over ideas. What is necessary is the development and consolidation of ideas which will allow the eventual overthrow of capitalism and the creation of socialism. Those ideas are now in the minority and are, at best, confused.

We observe resistance to such a position. People want action; they want to build the party now and worry about ideological differences later. They observe that a party is necessary and, therefore, believe that the development of a party will solve the problems facing us. They are resistant to learning and debating theory in order to arrive at a correct view.

This is a general problem in the United States as well as elsewhere. One thing that most of us recognize is that much of the theory we have been taught is wrong.

We then easily jump to the conclusion that all theory is wrong or at least inconsequential. What we do not recognize is that even though we may observe that the theory we have been taught is incorrect, it is, nevertheless, the theory which we have. That is, we see that some forms of the general capitalist theory are wrong, but we do not understand that we have all absorbed the theory in the main. Failing to realize this, we see no apparent reason to wage a long struggle against incorrect theory and for correct theory. We are all Marxists, are we not? All one has to do to become a Marxist is to declare it!


Theoretical struggle is absolutely necessary at this period in the history of the communist movement in the United States. Our heritage is not only the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, but also Rockefeller, Dewey, Bernstein and Trotsky. To rid ourselves of capitalist ideas, regardless of their form, and to separate out real communists from communists in name only, we must know what our ideas are and which class those ideas represent. Form a party, to be sure; but form a communist party. Without a clear understanding of correct theory, we shall rely on the theory with which we have been trained–capitalist theory. This theory serves only the capitalists. It is not their dictatorship toward which we work.


[1] Science, Class and Politics, Spring 1979, No. 5.


Engels, F., “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, (N. Y., International Publishers), 1970.

Lenin, V.I., “The State and Revolution” in Selected Works, Vol. VII, (N. Y., International Publishers), N.D.

Lenin, V.I., “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” in Selected Works, Vol. XI, (N. Y., International Publishers), 1943.

Marx, K., Capital, Vol. 1, (Moscow, Progress Publishers), N.D.

Marx, K. and Engels, F., “The Communist Manifesto” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, (N. Y., International Publishers), 1970.