Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Steve Hamilton, Larry Harris and Danny Harris

Breaking with RU’s Ultra-’leftism’

First Published: The Guardian, December 18, 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following contribution to the Radical Forum is a criticism of the Revolutionary Union by three former members of that organization in the Bay Area. Two of the authors, Steve Hamilton and Larry Harris, were among the RU’s founding members. The article here is a slightly shortened version of a longer paper that appeared a few months ago and which now includes a short postscript.

* * *

We are former members of the Revolutionary Union, two of us founding members. We left the RU over the “development” of its line on the Black national question, although we’ve had differences with many aspects of the RU’s line for some time. Many of the questions being discussed by communists who want to build a new party are affected by what analysis is made of the RU. This is because of the relative influence the RU has had on the development of the new communist movement and, unfortunately, because of RU’s increasingly divisive role.

There are many people today who realize a party is needed and that it must be based on Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-Tung Thought. However, there is a lot of mystification on the subject. One view of “party-building” is that work should be limited or almost limited to doing propaganda for communism among advanced workers. Those holding this view are quite sure that this was the view of Lenin and the summation of communist experience.

Nothing could be further from the truth. “Propaganda” has sometimes been used in the broadest sense of the term, as in Stalin’s “Strategy and Tactics,” to describe the work of communists prior to the stage of preparing for mass insurrection and fighting for political power. Consolidating the most advanced into a party has also been described as the key task of such periods. But even a brief look at communist history shows that this task was never seen in opposition to, or in isolation from, building broader forms of mass struggle. Nor has it been held that communists could be developed without gaining some experience in mass struggle, at whatever level it exists. Nor, as the “History of the CPSU(B)” makes clear, could a party develop regardless of advances made in the mass movement. The relationship of propaganda to practice was summed up in a 1928 Comintern report as follows:

“Even in the ranks of the German party there existed certain tendencies partially to replace the much more difficult revolutionary work of developing partial struggles in a genuine sense, by a propaganda for radical slogans such as a people’s revolution. No, we emphasize, on the contrary, that it is one of the basic conditions which must be perpetually kept in view in our work, that the proletariat is not revolutionized by propaganda and agitation pure and simple, but first and foremost by its own experience, which it wins in the partial struggles of the present day (Emphasis in original).”

“Left” dogmatism, which is much of the basis for making this sort of mistake, lies in the fact that there is not yet a very developed level of mass struggle to which communists could give leadership. Thus, for a while one idea tends to sound as good as another, since nobody has made any spectacular gains. In these frustrating conditions an idea that sounds like, “let’s quit screwing around and get on with it,” has some appeal. This was the case with the “left” adventurist line popular with Weatherman a while back and now with certain aspects of the party-building trend. This is also true of the thinking behind RU’s line on “political workers’ organizations.” RU has convinced itself in this regard that it has enough of a base among workers that their greatest danger is in making right errors, not “left” errors. Even if they had such a base, this kind of thinking is mechanical.


The analysis that RU is economist is based on the following type of arguments: RU puts a disproportionate amount of time into trying to develop mass struggles rather than attempting ideologically to win over the advanced; RU downplays study (which we believe they do); and especially because RU had the theory that the basis of a party should gradually be developed through exchange of experience and political struggle between collectives or organizations while they were involved in mass work.

Was there economist thinking both in the development of RU’s line and in how it was carried out? Yes. Most of us are inexperienced enough that it is difficult to avoid making right as well as “left” mistakes and the fact that RU has no clear strategy for trade union work particularly means that both right and “left” mistakes are made. Instead of developing a strategy, RU promotes a kind of “linking up struggles” activism which often exaggerates the spontaneous political effects of the economic struggle.

Some views of RU’s economism, however, go far beyond these criticisms. Instead they criticize RU for attempting to join and give leadership to the struggles of the class. But we think RU’s most serious mistakes have been those of a “left” sectarian nature. For example, RU’s failure to develop a clear strategy for trade union work reflects an ultra-“left” view that building the struggle within the unions is not nearly as important as building “political organizations” of workers under RU’s leadership. Most everyone outside of RU will agree that this, and other aspects of RU’s line, is sectarian. But the fact is that it comes from a purist, one-sided, subjective and nondialectical approach that is characteristic of ultra-“leftism.”

Another mystification of party building is the RU’s line that “we now have the experience to form the party,” as though some qualitative change were about to take place. The RU has actually functioned as a party for several years in that it is a nationally coordinated organization, practices centralism, and has never held back from developing line because of its “pre-party stage.”

For “party building” to have any special meaning at this point there would have to be the possibility that some of the existing organizations could reach unity. In that sense, RU is not promoting party-building by its incessant sharp attacks on the October League, Guardian, Black Workers Congress, Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization and nearly everybody else. That these attacks are not based on any comradely struggle for unity is obvious.

To gloss over differences is opportunist. Bourgeois subjectivity, however, can lie in the other direction as well. Unity around a correct line has to be fought for, but this is more difficult than simply blasting those who diverge from your line. This is an aspect of the “center of the universe mentality” that RU warned so strongly against in the first issues of Red Papers. It has become one of RU’s most serious weaknesses and was one of the factors that led to the split with BWC and PRRWO and to the development of a simplistic ultra “left” approach to the Black national question. This is where the RU’s “leftism” has led it to its most serious mistakes.


Some of the disagreements here arose over what we might call the special role of third world communists. It reflects the tendency to simplify the national question to an “all part of the class struggle” approach.

RU’s charge of “bundism” against BWC and PRRWO arose over these organizations not being willing to submit political differences to a one-man, one-vote conference. It was said that they were asking for “special rights.” The initial differences had dealt with whether certain views of BWC and PRRWO were “bourgeois nationalist.” These charges seemed groundless to us, but readers can judge for themselves by studying the exchange of polemics in Red Papers 6. As to the organizational aspects of the question, and the spirit in which the RU should have approached such differences on the national question, consider what Lenin had to say on the “special rights” of Jewish communists:

“’Autonomy’ under the rules adopted in 1898 provides the Jewish working class with all its needs; propaganda and agitation in Yiddish, its own literature and congresses, the right to advance separate demands to supplement a single general social-democratic program and to satisfy local needs and requirements arising out of the special features of Jewish life. In everything else there must be complete fusion with the Russian proletariat, in the interests of the struggle waged by the entire proletariat of Russia. As for the fear of being ’steamrollered’ in the event of such fusion, the very nature of the case makes it groundless since it is autonomy that is a guarantee against all ’steamrollering’ in matters pertaining specifically to the Jewish movement. ...”

The RU argues that much of what Lenin and Stalin said about the question of oppressed nations, including about the right to self-determination “in the epoch of imperialism,” does not apply to the Black nation because this “second stage” of the national question only applied to colonies whose aim was separation.

Comintern Resolutions on the U.S., however, specifically warned against this kind of distinction. The significance of the two stages of the national question, as Stalin also explains, was that while in the first stage, prior to the imperialist era, it had been a matter primarily of competition between the various national bourgeoisies, in-the second stage the essence of the national question was “a profoundly popular and profoundly revolutionary movement.”

The character of the Black national struggle has changed considerably since the Comintern Resolutions of 1928 and 1930. The Black nation remains, however, an oppressed nation within the borders of the U.S.; its historic territory and homeland remains the Southern Black Belt area; and the right of self-determination remains the solution to the question of national inequality.

At the same time, socialist revolution remains the solution to the overall class struggle, apart from which national equality cannot be won. But the “profoundly popular and profoundly revolutionary” nature of the national struggle is not diminished, but increased and made more direct by the Black nation’s change from a multiclass, but primarily peasant, nation to a multiclass, but primarily proletarian, nation.

The RU apparently thinks they are stressing the potential for multinational unity, combating certain petty bourgeois ideas of skepticism toward white workers and of romanticizing the level of Black workers (which was a trend inside as well as outside the RU), and of seeing the Black struggle as a completely separate struggle, with completely separate aims, from the class struggle as a whole.

They have raised these points, however, in such a one-sided way as to: (1) downplay the independent significance of the Black national struggle; (2) downplay the problem of racism among the people by a kind of one-sided optimism about the “material basis of unity;” (3) underestimate the significance of Black communist leadership, particularly around the questions related to national liberation; (4) underestimate the danger of white chauvinism within the communist movement. White chauvinism among communists is bound to take subtle forms, such as underestimating the special oppression of Black people, or writing off as “bourgeois psychology” the difficulties of Blacks functioning in a mainly white organization.


Again, the mistakes of the RU can be summed up as “left” subjectivity or “left” sectarianism. By subjectivity we mean dealing with problems without sufficient investigation, including investigation in social practice, or dealing with them in a one-sided, over-simplified way. Its “left” form is sectarianism, i.e., not to be good at uniting with those with whom we have differences, building ourselves organizationally to the neglect of the needs of the mass movement, to prefer to work only in left organizational forms under our own leadership, to try to maintain work at an unrealistically high political level (or even worse, if that’s not possible, make the work appear to be at that level), and not to pay attention to the consciously felt needs of the masses so as to develop work accordingly.

Two of us are former members of PL and we do see many parallel trends between RU and PL. These include the one-sided “leftist” approach to the national question, inability to unite with those having different views, a purist approach to working in mass organizations under reformist leadership, a one-sided undialectical, “off the top of the head” approach to many questions, action-oriented gimmicks instead of a real long-term strategy for trade union work, inflated rhetoric to exaggerate their own successes, lack of serious study or summation of practice, “left” adventurism tactically, and little democratic discussion before decisions are arrived at internally.

PL’s strengths remained mixed with its weaknesses for some time and it was also at its period of greatest strength that it began to make its most serious mistakes. Many mistakes are common to any young communist organization and in the past RU has contributed much to the development of the new communist movement. If the RU can correct its mistakes everyone would be a lot nearer to the unity necessary for a real Marxist-Leninist party. If it doesn’t, it could degenerate into the kind of “left” opportunism of PL.

This article was written some time ago after we left the RU. Events since that time have served to confirm the direction of the criticism. The RU finds itself more isolated because of a number of sectarian actions and particularly because of the Boston busing issue which showed clearly in practice what its line on the national question meant.

RU will talk about the special oppression of national minorities. But when demands are made toward achieving national equality, RU will talk about “not dividing the class” and “avoiding narrow nationalism” by submerging these democratic demands into supposedly “more advanced” class demands, like PL did. On the Boston issue RU gives support to the racist position by, in effect, agreeing with the reactionaries that, “Racism is not the main issue here, it’s quality education and, after all, nobody likes busing.” With their usual modesty, they go on to attack any who oppose the antibusing movement as a racist movement as “anti-working class.”

We shouldn’t be bewildered that mistakes like this can be made. Others will make mistakes too, hopefully less serious, until a correct political line and leadership develops that succeeds in rooting itself in the real forward movement of the working class. The objective and subjective difficulties in getting these roots is still the stumbling block of our inexperienced movement that feeds these “leftist” ventures into idealism.