Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Martin Nicolaus

Marxism or Klonskyism?

How the October League’s top circle, led by M. Klonsky, uses method of suppression and demagogy to consolidate Browderite line on way to its “founding congress.” A lesson by negative example in party-building.

Epilogue: Party-Building and the Mass Line, 1977

Twenty years have gone by since the CPUSA degenerated irreversibly into a revisionist party. For twenty years the struggle to build a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party has been the central task; and for these two decades, successive groups of party-builders have advanced like wave upon wave toward the desired goal – each time, so far, to fall short, recede and sweep backward with them, to varying degrees, the acquisitions of their advance.

To chronicle in any detail the history of these successive waves – POC, PLP, CLP, RCP, and now regrettably the Klonsky circle – is not my purpose here. It is, rather to call attention to the necessary link between progress and retrogression in the party-building struggle, on the one hand, and the ideas and movements of the masses, the state of the larger class struggle, on the other.

It is often said that the degree of fusion between the Marxist-Leninist movement and the movements of the masses leaves a great deal to be desired; and this is true beyond a doubt. There is a big gap to be bridged. But to imagine, because of this, that our movement has moved or can move separately and independently from the ideas and movements of the masses, like the floating Isle of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels, is to abandon materialist dialectics. Or rather, let us say that on every occasion when the movement has acted in this fashion, when it has forgotten who really makes history, then it has gone through a big crisis and a partial collapse, until in the course of struggle a new course has emerged in keeping with the movement of history and the state of the class struggle.

Just such a crisis was the political collapse of the CPUSA as a vanguard party, the crisis that gave birth to the Marxist-Leninist movement. Harry Haywood’s article “The Degeneration of the CPUSA in the 1950s,” (in Class Struggle No. 4-5)– a chapter from his still unpublished autobiography, Black Bolshevik – gives an excellent account of the way in which it was in the last analysis the masses of the working people who determined this crisis.

This crisis did not take place in any historical vacuum. Nor, as Haywood recounts, was it the external factor of Khrushchov’s open espousal of the “three peacefuls” that was decisive – the Marxist-Leninist wing in the party at first went along with these notions, though with great misgivings-. The decisive factor, rather was that the Afro-American masses of the South had begun the Civil Rights movement; they had staged and won victory in the powerful year-long Montgomery bus boycott, and were on the offensive all along the line – but the revisionist leadership of the CPUSA abandoned this spontaneous class and national upsurge to reformist leadership.

In face of the valiant struggles waged by the Afro-American masses, the revisionists liquidated the Party organization in the South, promoted the leadership of the NAACP, and claimed that the movement as it then existed, under reformist leadership and with reformist banners, had reached the maximum strength and political consciousness that it was capable of reaching.

The Marxist-Leninists, by contrast, demanded that the Party play a leading role in these struggles, that it expose and work to oust the reformist leaders. The Marxist-Leninists argued that beneath the surface of the movement as it then existed, there lay the seeds, the smoldering desire, for a future revolutionary movement with far greater strength and far higher political consciousness than “common sense” at that time thought conceivable.

There lay the irremediable differences, the issue that could be bridged by no amount of theoretical argumentation or factional compromise; no resolutions or conferences could solve it. It was the heroic struggles of the masses of the working people who forced revisionism into crisis, who posed the “either-or” before the Party, and who gave the decisive impulse to the birth of the Marxist-Leninist movement.

The masses of the working people, and they alone, are the real makers of history; but this truth, which runs so trippingly from the tongues of many of our ideologists, is too often forgotten when it comes to examining the history of the party-building movement and of the lines within it. No matter how “abstracted” this movement has been at times, its every step has been in the last analysis a reflection of, and in turn a reaction upon, the class struggle in the larger society and in the world – the ideas and movements of the masses. It has advanced to the degree that it has moved forward in leadership of the proletariat and of the oppressed nationalities (even if that leadership has been more ideological than organizational); and it has regressed and fallen away to the degree that it has lagged behind the ideas and movements of the masses, failed to inspire and lead them, and opposed itself to them.


Shouldn’t this lesson of history be applied to the current tasks and controversies about party-building? It certainly should be. A Marxist-Leninist party is an organization of leaders. Such a party is nothing if it does not give leadership.

Take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action.

This instruction of Chairman Mao’s (in “Concerning Methods of Leadership,” SW III, p. 119) must be applied also to the questions of party-building that stand before our movement today.

But one must know how to apply it. It is not so easy. This method of leadership is like a chain of three links, all of which must be in place; like a problem of three stages, all of which must be solved for the end result to be correct.

If we do not begin with the ideas of the masses – with these actual ideas, scattered and unsystematic as they are – but rather with ready-made schemes or with library knowledge, then the end result will inevitably be utopianism or dogmatism, no matter how hard we work to solve the rest of the problem.

If we solve the first step correctly, but then fail to study, study, study so as to raise the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses up into concentrated, scientific, Marxist-Leninist ideas, then the end result will inevitably be tailism, Economism, trade-unionism, “honest-workerism,” surrender of leadership, capitulation, degeneration and betrayal.

If, finally, having solved the first two steps correctly, we fail to propagate and to explain the concentrated, systematic ideas among the masses, persistently, patiently, in many different ways, over and over again, then we fall into the errors of closed-doorism, small-circleism, subjectivism and self-cultivation.

The failure of one link in the chain breaks the whole; a party that does not have the whole chain together fails to lead.


What concrete conclusions should be drawn from these general formula? How, specifically, should they be applied to the tasks of building the Marxist-Leninist Party here and now?

Every trend, every organization in our movement has given or will give, implicitly or explicitly, its own answers, its own solutions to this three-stage problem of leadership. The answers of Klonskyism, in my opinion, are wrong on all three counts. It takes the scattered and unsystematic ideas that the masses clung to a decade or more ago – basic faith in bourgeois democracy, the desire to realize it where denied by national oppression and to preserve it against repression –; it does not raise these ideas to a systematic level, to the level of Marxism-Leninism; and now it has determined also to make small-circle life its “chief form of activity.” Hence the peculiar blend of different kinds of backwardness that Klonskyism displays. But Klonskvism is not alone in committing one or all of these errors.

Against Klonskyism and implicitly also against other trends in our movement, in whole or in part, and by way of prodding the work of party-building out of its present, temporary ideological rut, I submit the following three short theses:


I. The scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses of the working-class and nationally oppressed people in the U.S. here and now, that have been developing over many years, are ideas of growing dissatisfaction and disenchantment with bourgeois democracy, ideas that increasingly recognize the bourgeois state as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, ideas that grope for an alternative form of rule in which power resides in the hands of the working people and of the oppressed nationalities, and in which stern justice is meted out to the exploiters and oppressors.

II. The concentrated, systematic and historically scientific expression of these ideas is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which alone can guarantee the right of self-determination.

III. The chief task of the Party, the cornerstone of all its activity in the first main period of its construction, must be to propagate and to explain, to popularize the dictatorship of the proletariat among the masses. Summed up in a sentence, these three points amount to this: political agitation for the dictatorship of the proletariat must be the Party’s chief form of activity in this period.


What!? Agitation for the dictatorship of the proletariat? I can already hear (and recall from memory) the howls of derision from comrades Klonsky & Co., who (like Martynov) confuse “agitation” with “calling to action,” who will “prove” to all and sundry that the workers must first seize control of the trade unions before thinking of (this kind of) politics; they will “demonstrate” once again that the masses must first consolidate the defense of bourgeois democracy against the fascist tide before thinking of establishing a dictatorship of their own; and perhaps they will “demonstrate” also that the masses of the Afro-American people must first achieve the right of self-determination before thinking of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The basis of all these “arguments,” all of which backslide into a two-stage theory of revolution in the U.S., is the same “common sense” that could not discern beneath the surface of the movements of the 1950s the awakening potentialities of a future revolutionary movement, which saw the existing bourgeois-democratic consciousness that guided the existing movement as the maximum that could be achieved, and which therefore resigned the leadership of that movement to bourgeois democrats, or reduced communists themselves to bourgeois-democratic roles. It was the “common sense,” in other words, of opportunism, of revisionism, the “sense” of the bourgeoisie.


Of course, we should wait for a very long time indeed if we waited for the spontaneous emergence of a mass movement for the dictatorship of the proletariat to put the question of agitation for this dictatorship before the Party in an unavoidable “either-or” form. To wait until objective events, crisis, war, etc., force the masses into action before taking up agitation for the dictatorship of the proletariat means to hand over the leadership of those mass actions, right now, to the present and future ultra-reactionary demagogues, who also “criticize” bourgeois democracy, who also “oppose” liberal hegemony, etc.

To wait to begin agitation for the dictatorship of the proletariat until the period when the masses are already in motion means to liquidate, in advance, the possibilities of achieving this dictatorship in fact when the historical moment arrives to pass from agitation and propaganda to action for this goal. Those who wait too long to begin agitation will inevitably let slip also the moment to begin organized, revolutionary mass action, proletarian insurrection; and, in letting that moment slip, they will commit an unpardonable crime against the proletariat and its cause.

“You cannot agitate for the dictatorship of the proletariat today – the masses aren’t ready to hear that sort of thing.” “Only a small handful of people understand the dictatorship of the proletariat; you’d better stick to pushing the message in the propaganda circles.” “The workers just care about nickels and dimes; it’s the intellectuals who worry about politics.” This and in other ways is how “common sense” talks today. The duty of Marxist-Leninists is ruthlessly to expose and to break with such “common sense,” to insist that the Party’s chief task from its inception as a Party is to prepare the ground of public opinion in favor of the future revolutionary storm that will establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, and to refute all notions that there is no possibility of doing so, that the masses are too backward to hear such ideas, that there is no fertile soil for such seeds to take root, etc. etc.


Against such “common sense” – and likewise against the oh-so-“advanced” elements who liquidate the dictatorship of the proletariat by reducing it to a phrase, like a stuck record – or those who say it is time for the assault – and likewise against those for whom the dictatorship of the proletariat is a brilliant theme for literary evenings but not for day-today agitation – against these and other different shades of Right and “Left” opportunism, it must be maintained that the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat today forms the essence of the mass line, and that anyone who does not take up the task of popularizing (not: vulgarizing) the dictatorship of the proletariat, and who does not make this work the cornerstone of all organized, Party activity, has no right to be called a Marxist-Leninist.

Heresy! Craziness! – shouts “common sense.” On the contrary, gentlemen and ladies, it is you who repeat heresies, and quite well-worn ones with name tags on them, when you place before the Party some “higher” task than to agitate for the dictatorship of the proletariat; and it is you who are out of touch with reality if you cannot find, if you cannot uncover, in every ghetto and barrio, in every strike, in every shop floor, every prison and other place where the masses gather the dim but smoldering coals of desire for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the “fertile soil” for sowing, implanting and cultivating the ideas of the proletarian dictatorship; it is you who lack genuine common sense if you cannot find in the daily events of political life ever fresh material for popularizing the dictatorship of the proletariat in a still more vivid, still more concrete and accessible form. I repeat, if you cannot see this, if you will not take up the work to do it, you have no right to be termed a Marxist-Leninist, and your parties and press organs have no place in the ranks of orthodox Communism.


Do you reproach this “strong language”? Let us see. Earlier on, in connection with a related aspect of the question of the leading role of the Party, we had occasion to quote Point Two of Lenin’s “Terms of Admission to the Communist International.” Now please study Point One of the same document:

1. Day-by-day propaganda and agitation must be genuinely communist in character. All press organs belonging to the parties must be edited by reliable Communists who have given proof of their devotion to the cause of proletarian revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat should not be discussed merely as a stock phrase to be learned by rote; it should be popularized in such a way that the practical facts systematically dealt with in our press day by day will drive home to every rank-and-file working man and working woman, every soldier and peasant, that it is indispensable to them. Third International supporters should use all the media to which they have access – the press, public meetings, trade unions and co- -operative societies – to expose systematically and relentlessly, not only the bourgeoisie but also its accomplices – the reformists of every shade. (LCW Vol. 31, p. 207)

Popularize the dictatorship of the proletariat! Drive home to every working man and working woman that it is indispensable to them! That was the Number One task, the most basic duty, the principal standard Lenin set for parties wishing to be recognized as Communist. There is no doubt that it is a demanding standard, a lofty goal. There is even less doubt, however, that our party-building forces, who have already made such giant strides in the past decade, who have time after time overcome one form of retrogression after another, who possess infinite reserves of energy and enthusiasm, will also take up this task, fulfill this duty, and prove worthy of this brilliant standard set by Lenin. When we have an organization that lives up to this standard – and we can have, we shall build such an organization! – then we shall have, at last, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of the U.S. proletariat, the Party worthy of the name.