Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Clay Newlin

Party-building: PWOC view of the Proletarian Unity League

Political line and party-building (third in a series)


First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 4, No. 2, February 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the second article of our critique of the Proletarian Unity League’s (PUL’s) book, Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type?, we pointed out that their party-building strategy makes an unwarranted concession to the ultra-left trend. By failing to see the essential task of party formation as the forging of the vanguard relation in embryo, but rather reducing it to a question of uniting Marxist-Leninists, PUL adopts the perspective of the dogmatists.

In their discussion of how to wage the ideological struggle for the rectification of the communist movement, PUL compounds this error. Attempting to avoid the pitfalls of sectarian debate that have characterized much of our history – particularly in the past few years – they advocate the subordination of contention around political line to the struggle over organizational line. “In our circumstances,” they write, “. . struggle over political line (must) be subordinated to the fight against ’left’ opportunism in party-building line.” (Two, Three, Many Parties, p. 48; emphasis in original)

At first glance, there may appear to be nothing wrong with this statement. It is certainly true that the struggle for a correct line on party-building must receive central focus in the overall struggle against the ultra-left line. Those who do not carry their critique of dogmatism through to criticism of the voluntarist line on party-building are indeed doomed to repeating the errors of the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist).


Unfortunately, PUL is saying more than this. Their use of the phrase “party-building line” serves to obscure more than it reveals. Most Marxist-Leninists would take party-building line to include the ideological, political and organizational aspects. The ideological component would express the proletariat’s general outlook on the need for and the nature of the vanguard party.

The political component would sum up the main tasks for building such a party, identify the forces that can bring it about, and outline a strategy for unifying those forces. And the organizational component would set forth the concrete organizational steps that would have to be traversed in order to develop such a party.

For PUL, however, “party-building line”, reduces itself to a question of organizational line. While at times their book, in typical ambiguity, seems to approach the broader conception outlined above, for the mo t part what is called “party-building line” is the line of various forces on organizational questions.

This is particularly the case when they discuss the relationship of “party-building line” to political line. For example, consider the following discussion of the pre-sent state of our movement:

Debate over political or ideological line among the major groupings has given way to organizational initiatives aimed at consolidating parties around existing political lines... Instead of further theoretical struggle, the drafting of party programs and other efforts allegedly directed at ’reaching broad unity among Marxist-Leninists’ around the particular political lines of particular organizations have become the order of the day.

The formation of parties by vote of the membership of former leagues, unions, and other organizations is the dominant line among the organized forces. The most acute struggles of the communist movement today center on this passage between ideological and organizational unity. . .

If the struggle at the organizational level has this pivotal importance, then we need to take line on organizational matters as the main focus of the fight for the Party. . . Unless the communist movement concentrates on its weaknesses at the organizational level, it risks confining itself to a covey of propaganda sects at the margin of the working class movement. In other words, party-building line is the key in the struggle for the Party at this time. (Ibid. pg. 44)

Thus for PUL the burning question facing our movement is that of how to effect a “passage between ideological and organizational unity”. That means that we must concentrate our struggle “at the organizational level”.


Now it would be hard to argue that the burning question facing party-builders is not that of how to make the transition between ideological and organizational unity. Generally speaking, it is true that broad unity exists on the ideological level. Marxist-Leninists are agreed on the most fundamental principles of scientific socialism (e.g., dialectical and historical materialism, class struggle as the engine of development in all class society, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the vanguard party, proletarian internationalism, etc.), even if we often cannot agree on their concrete application in the US. While our concrete assessment of the communist movement differs from theirs, PUL is also correct that “sufficient ideological struggle has occurred to serve as a base for much greater unity than exists today.” (Ibid, p. 37)

However, PUL is incorrect to imply that effecting a transition from ideological to organizational unity necessarily implies that we must concentrate our struggle on organizational questions. As we will see later in this article, unity on the organizational level becomes possible only after unity on the political level has been thoroughly prepared.

PUL’s arguments that efforts to rectify our movement must subordinate the political to the organizational are extremely weak. Basically, they make three points. First, they call attention to the fact that disorganization and disunity are damaging to our theoretical work and undermine our ability to fuse ourselves to the working class. Undoubtedly fragmentation has both these effects, but then it would in any period of party-building. In and of itself, this argument does not indicate that organizational line is key.


Their second argument is that the initiatives of the largest organizations in the party-building movement are concentrated on organizational line. This is true. But these initiatives rest on an important assumption: sufficient unity on program, strategy and tactics for the US revolution exists to focus on the organizational unification of all genuine Marxist-Leninists. Even PUL must acknowledge that this assumption is false.

Moreover, it would be a profound mistake to allow those who have demonstrated their marriage to opportunism to define the key question on which the future of our movement turns. Is it not precisely the opportunism of these groups that encourages them to attempt a premature consolidation of the communist movement by focusing on organizational questions?

PUL’s third contention is that the past focus of the ideological struggle on political line necessarily had a sectarian character. Our ability to develop political line, they argue, is strictly limited by the lack of a vanguard party.

Political line guides the proletariat ’in the field’ in the struggle to build up its own forces, weaken and eventually overthrow the bourgeoisie. From this it follows that for political line to develop beyond a certain rudimentary level the proletariat must take the field. (Ibid., p. 45)

Since the proletariat needs a party to even “take the field”, focusing ideological struggle on political line necessarily diverts our movement from unifying around its essential tasks.


It is true that there are strict limits to our ability to elaborate political line prior to the development of the Party. The political conclusions of a movement confined, for the most part, to local circles, and un-fused with the class struggle are necessarily preliminary.

And it is equally true that much of the ideological struggle that has characterized the history of the party-building movement did not properly take this fact into account, and thus served to enhance sectarian tendencies. Differences over questions of tactics were often elevated over more fundamental questions of strategy and program. Disagreements that could only attain practical significance at a more advanced stage of the class struggle were held to be dividing lines between the “Marxist-Leninists” and the “opportunists”.

However, while the limitation on our ability to develop political line must be recognized, that does not mean that political line should be subordinated to organizational line. If the struggle around political line is limited to fundamental questions of program, strategy and tactics for the US revolution it will serve a positive purpose. Our movement can only advance towards a viable Party to the extent that it forges unity around these questions. While the class needs to “take the field” in order to elaborate a full political line, it will never even succeed in developing a viable “general staff” without agreement on program.

For the duration of the party-building process there will be constant interaction between organizational and political line, but over the long run political line will be decisive. Our ability to fuse ourselves to the class struggle of the proletariat will turn primarily on the maturity of our political line.

The advanced elements are not attracted to Marxism-Leninism primarily on the basis of its general principles, but on the basis of the political line elaborated from these principles. Furthermore, no matter how unified and organized our forces, we will never establish our vanguard character unless we prove capable of developing a correct political line, even if a rudimentary one. What does the history of the RCP and the CP M-L demonstrate if not this fact?

The development of the Bolshevik Party provides an historical example of the primary role played by struggle over political line in preparing the way for uniting revolutionaries. As Lenin wrote:

Unity on questions of program and tactics is an essential. . .condition for Party unity, for the centralization of Party work. . . As long as we had not unity on the fundamental questions of program and tactics, we bluntly admitted that we were living in a period of disunity and separate circles, we bluntly declared that before we could unite, lines of demarcation must be drawn; we did not even talk of the forms of a joint organization, but exclusively discussed the . . .problems of fighting opportunism on program and tactics.

At present, we all agree, this fight already produced a sufficient degree of unity, as formulated in the Party program and the Party resolutions on tactics; we had to take the next step. . .working out the forms of a united organization that would merge all the circles together. (Works, Vol. 7, pp.387-8; emphasis in original)


The problem with PUL’s attitude towards the ideological struggle is not just that it leads to a reversal of the proper relationship between political and organizational line. Even more importantly, applied in the concrete context of our movement, it could only have the most disastrous consequences.

The dominant historical trend in the development of our movement has been one of progressive consolidation of an ultra-left line on fundamental questions of program, strategy, and tactics, (e.g., the relationship of reform to revolution, of democracy to socialism, the united front, international line, etc.) The impact of this line has not only made joint work among revolutionaries extremely difficult, but aggravated our isolation from the working class.

In face of the prevailing opportunism on program and strategy, to focus our struggle on organizational line will only enhance ultra-leftism. Left unchallenged politically, dogmatism will continue to advance, feeding on the very disunity and isolation that it, itself, produces.

It is only to the extent that we make progress in defeating opportunism on program, strategy and tactics that we can turn our attention to organizational matters. Prior to such a defeat, organizational unity would only serve to obscure and cover over fundamental differences that will make our advance towards the Party impossible.

That PUL could make the error of calling for the subordination of political to organizational line stems from two facts.

First, since PUL sees communist unification as the primary task for party-formation, organizational questions naturally take on special importance. If the “uniting” of Marxist-Leninists is your key task, then certainly the “struggle at the organizational level” will indeed have “pivotal importance”. And if fusion becomes important only after the Party is formed, then there is little immediate need for unity on program, strategy and tactics.

The second reason has to do with the shallowness of PUL’s critique of ultra-leftism. Because they have essential unity with the very linchpin of the dogmatist line, PUL cannot help but underestimate the importance of ideological struggle against that line. That, however, is a topic for our next article.