First Published: In the pamphlet, Beginning Analysis, February 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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We want to comment here on the article entitled “Marxist-Leninists Unite to Build the New Party”, printed in the November issue of the Call, the newspaper of the October League. By doing so, we want to begin putting forward, in a concrete way, our own view of the question of party building.
There are a number of things wrong with this article. First, there is the question of the correctness of OL’s move toward forming a party. In our view, the only real significance to such a move would be that it did represent the possibility of the Marxist-Leninist forces today reaching unity. We do not believe that it does. Significant political confusion and division continue to characterize the Marxist-Leninist movement and this is so because of many incorrect policies and views on the part of OL and many others.
If we are right and that level of unity has not been achieved, then OL’s formation of a party means very little.
Many parties are formed that honestly intend to make revolution. When a party can gain leadership of the working class and move the people towards revolution is when it fulfills the function of a party. At that point the phrase “general staff of the working class” means something. Until then, the phrase “party” simply means people who are convinced of Marxist-Leninists principles and would like to apply them in practice, whether they are doing so very well is the question.
There is a great deal of mystification attached to the concept of “party building”. For example, it seems to be assumed that once you call yourself a party, you, exclusively, are the entire communist movement, or at least you have to act as though you are. At the very least, silly posturing in that regard ought to be avoided.
Several mistakes are made in the OL article’s analysis. Some of these mistakes are indicative of a new emphasis for OL on a number of questions. Ironically enough, some of these positions are the very same that OL attacked the Revolutionary Union (RU, now called Revolutionary Communist Party, RCP) for in the not-too-distant past.
One such question is that of “narrow nationalism”, which both OL and RU see as an obstacle to their formation of a party. Very indignant a few months ago that RU should make the judgment that narrow nationalism is a big problem among communists, bigger than white chauvinism, OL now increasingly makes references to “narrow nationalism” and agrees with the RU’s analysis that nationally based (i.e. Third World) forms of organization have outlived their usefulness.
RU was incorrect in such an emphasis and so is OL. Narrow nationalism is definitely a problem to overcome within the Black Liberation Movement. There is a tendency among communists, however, to go overboard in the opposite direction and criticize any nationally based forms of organization and any concentration on particularly national problems.
This position is very wrong. There has been and continues to be a need for communist organization along national lines, at least if these groups cannot find unity with any of the multinational groups. (And we think they are correct in not finding unity with the present multinational groups.)
This position (of OL and RU) is but a reflection of the logic that if people cannot find unity with a respective group’s “party building” plans, they must be opportunists of one stripe or another. That OL could so easily whip out the charge of “narrow nationalism” is every bit as reprehensible as the RU’s chauvinistic espousing of the same principle.
OL’s reasoning on a number of questions is practically a carbon copy of the RU’s, only one year later. Like RU, OL has decided that right errors, not ultra-“left”, have become the major problem.
Actually, the very mistakes OL makes in this article are a good argument that “left” subjectivity and sectarianism continue to be the movement’s strongest tendency. A very clear example of that is OL’s attack on “electoral cretinism”. The new communist movement has not participated in electoral struggle at all and yet we start talking about our big problem of “electoral cretinism”.
Why do we not say what we mean? Is the attempt of Congress of African People and others to build an anti-imperialist presence in the ’76 campaign ”electoral cretinism”? What else could OL be referring to?
OL might argue that the movement is not capable of putting that kind of resources into the ’76 campaign. If so, we might suspect that OL fails to see the importance of electoral work, but they might have a point. To sniff “electoral cretinism” at the very possibility, however, is plain left-wing childishness.
In regard to left-wing childishness, there is another formulation in the article that is the clearest expression yet of what has been a longstanding incorrect trend. We are referring to the statement, “Secret work must play the leading role with open, legal activities used to broaden our forces and influence.” Such a formulation was correct under the conditions of Czarist Russia and would be today if we were in a period of consolidated fascism. However, when it is still legal to sell the Call on street corners, such a formulation is meaningless.
We assume OL includes plant level work under “secret” work. Tactically, it is usually necessary to keep membership in a communist organization relatively secret, at least for a certain period of time, when cadre begin organizing at the workplace. This is to protect oneself in terms of job security, as well as against being isolated politically, until a base of support can be built. However, communist organizing done in plants today, even the most inept, can hardly be kept secret very long, nor should it be. OL says in the same article, “Our work is based upon a consistent struggle to isolate and expel these opportunists from leadership and replace them with revolutionary leadership.” Fine, but to do that secretly would be quite a feat.
Under fascist conditions communists may have to operate secretly but the tasks in such a period are different. Under fascism one would probably have to infiltrate the unions and attempt to influence or even control them secretly. Open revolutionary leadership would, most likely, be out of the question.
Our arguments would probably fall into OL’s view of “legalism” which they list as one of the main problems today. “Legalism” means, however, limiting work to legal and excluding extra-legal activities. One is not opposing “legalism” by doing secretly what can still be done with relative openness.
Mao wrote the following which is quite relevant: “Internally, capitalist countries practice bourgeois democracy (not feudalism) when they are not fascist, or at war;...Because of these characteristics, it is the task of the party of the proletariat in capitalist countries to educate the workers and build up strength through a long period of legal struggle, and thus prepare for the final overthrow of capitalism. In these countries the question is one of a long, legal struggle, of utilizing the parliament as a platform, of economic and political strikes, of organizing trade unions and educating the workers. There the form of struggle is legal and the form of struggle is bloodless (non-military).” (Military Writings, Problems of War and Strategy, pp. 269-70.)
Just as RU did, OL now feels compelled to exaggerate the readiness of conditions among the workers (“millions of workers have been thrown out into the streets to starve”) and the degree to which they have succeeded in building up a base among the workers (“a significant number of workers have joined the various fightback organizations”).
The RU informed us almost two years ago that we had reached “the end of an era”. The meaning of this was that 1) conditions were rapidly moving the masses toward revolution, 2) RU now had a “significant base among the working class”, 3) local or Third World groups (non-RU groups) were outliving their usefulness, 4) RU has proven to be the reliable core of the party.
Neither inserting OL instead of RU into that formula, nor the fact that a couple of years have gone by, lends any more reality to these assertions. The fact that RU, and later OL, could make these statements in all seriousness reflects a tendency toward subjective thinking. It is not unrelated to the subjectivity of dogmatists who believe that the existence or nonexistence of a mass workers’ movement has very little to do with proving the correctness of our theory or of bringing the advanced of the class to Marxism-Leninism. RU and OL do not go quite so far, but rather pretend instead that they have already built a mass workers’ movement.
Subjectivity serves to fill in the blanks as to how you will build a workers’ movement, win the advanced into a party, etc. The smugness that comes from this exaggerated self-appraisal, i.e. subjectivism, as well as the smugness of those who spout quotations and formulas, i.e. dogmatism, actively stand in the way of developing a concrete analysis of the tasks of building a revolutionary movement in the US today.
Another area where it appears as though OL has simply borrowed a tactic from RU is the strong attack on “independents” as “pessimists, defeatist and anti-worker elements”, who, together with the “narrow nationalists”, oppose the party building movement.
No, comrades, we (and many other independents) are not pessimistic about the future of the communist movement. We just do not think the hope lies in this type of abstract and inflated rhetoric represented by your “Call for a Party”. We also think you are getting a little carried away attacking the “pessimists who have never believed in the ability of a poor factory worker to learn Marxism”. OL cadre have not, in our experience, set such a good example at raising and explaining communist ideas to workers. Since members of an organization relate primarily to members of their same organization, a tendency can develop to think that they are the only people who are working hard, going among the workers to win them over, etc. It is a little of the old “center of the universe” mentality.
One other point should be mentioned because it is indicative of the approach that OL takes to “party building”. We refer to the rather obscure statement, “...academic revolutionaries who wish to endlessly redefine our differences and eternally draw even further lines of demarcation outside the organizational structure of the party. This view would lead to disaster. The main trends have already been demarcated.” By the main trends that have been demarcated we assume, based on previous statements, that OL is referring to ultra-leftism, represented by RU and Communist League (CL), and rightism, represented by the Communist Party (CP) and possibly including those whom they consider “centrist” , such as the Guardian. The implication is that others, at least those who agree with these characterizations, should realize they have essential unity, and unite.
OL engages in phrases about how the political clarity and unity of the movement has never been greater and attacks those who point to fragmentation as “pessimists’1 and then goes on to use the “fragmentation” argument itself to justify liberalism.
We feel a few more lines of demarcation politically must be drawn. (By emphasizing the word “politically” we want to make it clear that in regard to most Marxist-Leninists, we should attempt to unite with them, but only on lines that are politically correct.) To seek only unity and fail to wage a serious struggle against some other current trends, particularly toward dogmatism, is, in reality, the sure path to defeat for the entire Marxist-Leninist movement and for the people.
We have discussed the trend towards dogmatism in the first article in this pamphlet so we will not go into it here except to say that it is a very dangerously incorrect trend and has its effects on the way almost every significant question today is handled. OL makes some of these same dogmatist mistakes itself (for example, OL has joined in and encouraged the view that the 1928 Comintern Resolution is the final word on the Black Liberation struggle in the US today). As to some of the fundamental mistakes made by the more dogmatist inclined groups, even OL recognizes that their emphasis is incorrect.
Forums are held by some groups, that are usually characterized by an overly academic and “formula” based presentation of problems, abstracted from any currently specific and materialist analysis, having little relationship to their own practice or the practice of anybody else. OL is invariably criticized, sometimes correctly but more often incorrectly, as the “right opportunist” trend in the movement. OL is forced to defend itself, suggesting that the analysis of some comrades has certain defects due to an improper understanding of the relationship of theory to practice. Despite OL’s efforts to emphasize that there is unity between themselves and many of these forces on certain formulations so broad as to be meaningless, such as “party building is the central task”, OL is forced to admit that, yes, some differences do exist. OL does not sum up these differences in print, and increasingly borrows, wherever possible, book-bound phrases such as “Iskra-type newspaper”. The comrades in these forums are correct, in a sense, in demanding that differences be clearly delineated and one’s position defended.
We have talked much of “tactical flexibility” while other comrades talk much of “opportunism”. It is true, however, that opportunism (sacrificing a recognition of the needs of the struggle for temporary or individual gain) is a very real tendency that all of us must guard against.
To resolve the impasse of a divided movement will not be easy. The contradiction between unity and disunity is not the result of chance or even primarily of individual stubbornness, but is a reflection of the contradiction between a correct theory in regard to our basic tasks and various incorrect approaches.
A party will not emerge on the scene with a correct line on everything; to think so would be idealist. Lenin pointed out in “Left-wing Communism” that the political line of a party and even its democratic-centralist structure develops as its political experience and roots among the people develop. To think that the mistaken ideas that divide the movement can be corrected by an endless flow of paper and ink would also be extremely idealist, i.e. non-materialist. Only as the Marxists today make some breakthroughs in the application of communist theory to the tasks before us – gaining political roots in the class, the national movements, building the United Front, doing effective communist propaganda, developing forms for exposures among the broader sections of the people – will there begin to be a basis for distinguishing an idealist from a correct formulation of our tasks. Correct line can only come from correctly summing up experience in the struggles of our time, particularly in the struggle to link Marxism with the actual struggles of the working class and oppressed nationalities. If there were more serious attempts at this and less posturing and maneuvering among communists, a party might not be far off.