Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Proletarian Unity League

“It’s Not the Bus”: Busing and the Democratic Struggle in Boston, 1974-1975

I. Trial by Fire

On December 30, 1974, in the midst of the most important crisis during the first year of Boston’s busing plan, John J. McDonough, head of the notorious Boston School Committee, gave a history lesson to the public. Railing against Federal Judge Garrity, McDonough said, as quoted in the Boston Globe, “Garrity’ s actions are going to destroy the city.” He added: “Reconstruction has finally come to the North, with a vengeance.” [Boston Globe, Dec. 31, 1974]

McDonough chose his reference carefully. For the white supporters of the anti-busing movement and segregated schools, the allusion to Reconstruction was designed to conjure up the image of carpetbagging suburbanites, backed by what ROAR called “judicial tyranny,” all conspiring to promote a cruel “Black rule” throughout Boston. For the bourgeoisie as a whole, McDonough offered a warning on the potentially disastrous consequences of setting the Black masses and other democratic forces into motion. But McDonough’s comment went largely unnoticed.

The Boston bourgeoisie preferred to keep the book closed on the most slandered episode in U.S. history, lest someone or some social force draw the “wrong” lessons from it. Many of the supporters of the anti-busing movement, defenders of one of the North’s most miserable school systems, doubtless missed the reference entirely. And the NAACP could hardly have been expected to seize upon any analogy to a revolutionary democratic struggle.

The Left, and the Marxist-Leninists within it, kept the same discrete silence. Some were too busy congratulating themselves on being the “backbone” of the December 14th March Against Racism. Some believed that because educational cutbacks accompanied desegregation in Boston, desegregation was therefore itself an educational cutback. They did not see that only through a struggle against white supremacy will “quality working-class education” be won, whether it be public schools in the South during Reconstruction, the teaching of peoples’ history in the North, or simply new school buildings. And some believed that desegregation through busing constituted a “sham reform” because powerful sections of the bourgeoisie advocated it. Themselves poor students of Reconstruction, they failed to recognize a reference to a situation in which the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie had intermittently provided a shield behind which the masses could organize their revolutionary democratic struggle.

So John McDonough did not capture an audience, and the single most pertinent remark in the entire Boston busing struggle went unheard. While the Black masses once again surged forward to advance the struggle for democratic rights and against white-supremacist bourgeois rule, the organized labor movement continued the apathetic traditions of Reconstruction-era trade unionism in the face of one of the strongest attacks on the workers’ movement in recent years. And the Marxist-Leninists continued to falter in the first trial by fire of the emerging communist movement. The first year now gone by, the communist movement, in our view has thus far failed to pass this trial.

We have not only failed to give leadership to the democratic forces[1], but have even failed to settle among ourselves on a theory and plan for such leadership. What the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP) has said about one meeting of Marxist-Leninist groups during the height of last year’s crisis might as well be said about the movement as a whole during the whole of the Boston situation:

It was a long discussion heated and finally exasperating because to our repeated question, “Is there one line we can take – Is there a position or action we can agree on finally.” The one thing agreed on, amidst shouts that there was no basis for unity by one set of initials with another, was to meet again to discuss joint action... [Crisis in Boston!, p. 23]

Obviously, in the absence of a unified line on how to respond to the Boston busing crisis – a unified strategy and tactics – it would be wrong to expect the various forces in the communist movement to be able to agree on substantial joint action. But the failure to conduct the most serious possible discussions toward such a unified line, and the related failure of any organization to elaborate a line which could command the allegiance of all of the forces in the democratic movement, demonstrates that the various groups belittled the importance of such unity, did not see such unity as a major task in building a new party of the proletariat.

This is the principal failure of the communists in the busing crisis, the failure to set ourselves the task of leading the democratic forces, and the failure to seriously struggle for unity in our own ranks to accomplish this task. The implications of this lack of seriousness about our movement and its tasks are obvious and will shortly be before us: three or more “Parties” in the U.S., elevating their partial and abstract lines to the level of leading lines for the workers’ movement, hacking away at each other while the white opportunists lead the movement straight into the arms of war and reaction. If the lack of unity among communist forces and the vacillation–alternate right and ’left’ errors–in tactics within each organization persist this fall, the white supremacist bourgeoisie will have won a major victory over the Marxist-Leninists, a victory whose effects will hamper the workers’ movement over the next decade.

What is to be done in this situation? First of all, the majority of forces in the communist movement both inside and outside the major organizations, must oppose premature efforts to draw this or that section of the movement into a party, and must resolutely press for thoroughgoing discussion of the questions which our movement has not resolved. Secondly, the majority of forces in the movement must oppose unity around partial or abstract conclusions about the application of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete conditions of a revolution in the U.S. and must press for development and broad discussion of strategy and tactics for our revolution, discussion which will no be complete until one line on strategy and tactics becomes the unifying line for the overwhelming majority of the movement. Third, all forces must oppose the line of “the only ’honest’ revolutionaries are the members of my organization and its close sympathizers,” and adopt instead the line that “90% of the cadre are good.”

We view this pamphlet on the past year in the busing situation in this light. First of all, it is a self-criticism, along the lines that V.I. Lenin ran in his pamphlet, “’Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder:”

A political party’s attitude toward its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification–that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses...

[LCW 31 p. 57]

We would like to acknowledge some of the mistakes made by the communists during the past year in the busing struggle, ascertain some of the reasons and conditions that led to these mistakes, and thrash out some of the means of rectification. We do not pretend to recognize all the mistakes, or their causes, or, most importantly, all of the ways in which these mistakes can be corrected, but we feel we have some answers to some of the problems that kept the movement as a whole (ourselves included) from giving more resolute support and leadership to the struggle of the working class for the democratic rights of the oppressed nationalities.

Some of our conclusions may have relevance nationwide, in the many struggles that have erupted this fall; some of our conclusions are peculiar to the Boston area.

A second purpose of this pamphlet is to offer some elements of a “concrete analysis of concrete conditions,” i.e., a concrete analysis of the forces which came together to produce the Boston busing crisis of the last year. Where we can, we try to indicate the failures of ourselves and other communist groups to be concrete, the places where our analyses have relied on general recipes or general principles, and to indicate how this failure to be concrete has resulted in poor tactics or no tactics at all. We have also tried to indicate the places where our success in making a concrete analysis has led us to formulate tactics for the struggle. We do so for two reasons: first, because we believe our line, on the nature and strategic significance of white opportunism and white supremacy, on the existence and function of the system of white-skin privileges, represents a first step towards a concrete analysis of U.S. society and the strategy for revolution in this country; but second, because we believe that putting forward and debating such “concrete analyses” as the one in this pamphlet is the only way in which the movement as a whole will improve its ability to make such analyses. This ability, as all of our organizations admit, is not well-developed. We hope, by putting forward our tentative results, to “learn warfare through warfare.”

Third, we have tried throughout to tie our analysis of the failures on the part of the movement in Boston to incomplete or incorrect features of the political lines of the various groups. We try to establish a link between the alternate right and ’left’ errors of the different groups I with the vagueness or mistaken conclusions that are present in their theoretical formulations. We feel that even the most painstaking efforts to correct our practice will be inadequate unless our various political lines are also rectified. We feel frankly that this is not the usual practice in the communist movement in the U.S.: much more typical is the line that “our political line is OK, but we failed to practice it correctly.” We would argue that if a political line is so general that it permits errors to be made, that if a political line is so ambiguous that it permits several tactical interpretations, then the line itself must be examined and overhauled.

One final note. Our own size has limited our organizational presence in the struggle in Boston. In addition, we have committed our full share of errors. Thus we cannot and do not offer these criticisms and self-criticisms in the spirit of “our organization is the only bearer of the Red Flag,” but rather in the spirit of seeking to unify the movement as a whole. Ultimately, the test of the correctness or incorrectness of all theories will be the practice of revolution in the U.S. But closely tied to this ultimate test is the test of how formulations are received by the tens of thousands of revolutionaries who are also wrestling with theories for revolution here and abroad. It is to these revolutionaries that we advance these results.


[1] We use the term democratic forces or democratic movement throughout this pamphlet to describe a multi-class alliance, defined by all those supporting the democratic rights of the oppressed nationalities. This alliance includes workers of all nationalities, the democratic petit-bourgeoisie, bourgeois elements among the oppressed nationalities who will fight national oppression, and leftists of all nationalities who join in the struggle for democratic rights.