First Published: Movin’ On!, Vol. 1, No. 2, June/July 1975.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the last two issues of our newspaper we have dealt with the ideological and organizational manifestations of the “left” opportunist line that dominated the BWC (now Revolutionary Workers Congress) from February to November 1974. In this issue as well as the next we will discuss the POLITICAL character and manifestations of this “ultra-left” line.
Basically, the two-line struggle in our organization had to do with the question of Party Building, as well as fundamental questions of the Marxist-Leninist theory of knowledge, e.g., the relationship between theory and practice, consciousness and spontaneity and the objective and subjective factors in the revolution. Different views on these all-important questions is what divided us from the two factions who formed and have since resigned or been expel led from the organization – the “revolutionary bloc” headed by the former chairman Mike Hamlin, and the “Workers Congress (ML)” headed by former secretariat member, Donald Williams. We recognize that an intense two line struggle over the very same questions we are debating is also taking place in the US communist movement as a whole, and we hope that our experiences and viewpoints can help contribute to the correct resolution of these questions in the interests of the vast majority of communists in our movement who are striving to unite into a genuine communist party.
In February, 1974 our organization united on the line that building a genuine communist party in the US is the central and immediate task of communists. This line emerged after intense struggle over RU’s line which stated that the central task of communists was “building the mass movement” or the “consciousness, unity’ and organization of the class.” But what we failed to do was unite on exactly how to go about building such a party, what kind of party do we want to build, based on what political line, etc. We thus made the error of raising party building in the abstract; i.e., not connecting it with political line, its character, or the methods to be used in building it. It was this error “left” subjectivism and impetuosity that was at the root of all our subsequent mistakes.
What were the basic tenets of this “left” line and why do we characterize it as a “left” line in the first place? During the period in question the overwhelming majority of districts in the BWC were engaged in very little, if any, practical, political work. The practice of the organization consisted – with the exception of one or two districts – of conducting study groups and organizing “forums.” The leadership confined its tasks to writing “pamphlets.” This activity was justified on the grounds that propaganda work is primary when party building is the central task – which is quite true. But any involvement in mass struggles was seen as “bowing to spontaneity” and “belittling the task of communists, which was to win the advanced to communism.” An even further distortion which was used to justify our non-activity was the line we held – and is still held by the Don Williams sect – that study was social practice, and the main form of social practice at that!
The mass movement was shunned like the plague, in spite of the fact that many cadres, and leaders of the BWC themselves emerged from the spontaneous struggles of the masses, especially the Black Liberation Movement. We had no MASS LINE whatsoever; we never took the feelings, attitudes, level of consciousness and immediate demands of the masses into account in working out anything. The term MASS LINE was not even in our vocabulary.
The “left” line estimated that the political situation in the US today was one in which “scores of workers are being won over to the truths of Marxism-Leninism” (see the Communist, vol. 1, #1) and that the main form of workers’ struggles was “revolutionary political struggles.” We thus failed to make a concrete analysis of the real situation in the US, which didn’t then and still doesn’t indicate scores of workers being won to Marxism-Leninism nor revolutionary political struggles being the main form of working class activity, despite the tremendous rise in strikes and the militancy of the class. It was this type of position which justified our belittlement of the democratic struggles of the masses and our “hands-off” policy towards participation in them.
This sectarian attitude towards the mass movement was clearly manifested in the many forums we held around the country. At a forum on inflation in Detroit we could only tell the people who attended what inflation was (albeit in an abstract manner), but not what to do about it. We even scolded the people who asked: “Outside of building the party, how do you see fighting inflation?” We couldn’t answer because the most burning, immediate concerns of the masses.
Like inflation, the struggle against attacks on their living standards, against police repression, etc., had no meaning for us, especially the main “left” liner, Don Williams. Beyond sloganeering, these struggles weren’t important because they did not represent “ideological work.”
Under the “left” line, party building became a cover for our lack of mass work. It was even stated to anyone who raised the question of mass work that this was “only raising the secondary to defeat the primary”, meaning that anyone who raised mass work during this period was only attacking party building. This line sanctioned our standing aloof from many important struggles which took place, such as around Watergate, African Liberation Day, the Farm Workers, political prisoners, and the ENA (steel workers’ contract struggle). We ridiculed any and all who participated in these struggles – not only because their line may have been incorrect – but simply because, they participated in them. We never understood that while struggles for reforms have objective limitations and will not, in and of themselves, lead to revolution, they also represent “consciousness in embryo” and a sharpening of the class struggle. It is the task of communists to build on this embryonic consciousness, not to stand away from it, and to link up this struggle with the final aims of the movement.
Our political practice, or lack of it, stemmed from dogmatist ideology. Dogmatism is a form of subjectivism which starts, not from an investigation of concrete conditions, but from phrases and quotes torn out of books. Whereas revisionism and empiricism reject the need for theory, dogmatism divorces it from reality – throwing away the essence of Marxism-Leninism for words and phrases that would “prove” this or that particular viewpoint at a given time. As Mao states:
Inevitably, therefore, the “theories” of the dogmatists were divorced from reality, their leadership was divorced from the masses, and instead of seeking truth from facts they were opinionated, arrogant, glib and afraid of proper criticism and and self-criticism. (Our Study And The Current Situation – Appendix)
Many examples of this type of approach can be demonstrated. For example, our participation in the bankrupt “National Continuations Committee”. Our view was that the NCC represented an “objective move towards the party” – independent of our will”, and that the “advanced had been won to Marxism-Leninism.” After intense two-line struggle in the Communist movement as well as in our own organization had exposed CL’s line and the NCC’s opportunism, we changed our position. The objective move towards the party became an opportunist move and the advanced had not been won over after all. And in our “se1f-criticism” we justified this error of joining the NCC on the basis of empiricism, i.e., we never would have known how bankrupt they were if we hadnít joined it.
Another example of this dogmatist approach to party building was our “Iskra Plan” which immediately followed our leaving the NCC. At that time the secretariat of the organization formulated the position that the “Iskra Plan” – put forward by Lenin in What Is To Be Done and other articles – was universally applicable and especially to the US, since we’re so affected by economism and amateurishness. The former BWC paper, the Communist, was to be the Iskra. We thought the party would be built in the very same manner it was built in Russia in 1900-03. What was lacking in this plan was an understanding of the particular conditions in Russia at that time as well as those in the US at present. For Lenin stated:
The necessity to concentrate all forces on establishing a regularly appearing, regularly delivered organ arises OUT OF THE PECULIAR SITUATION OF RUSSIAN SOCIAL-DEMOCRACY, as compared with that of Social Democracy in other European countries and with that of the old Russian revolutionary parties. APART FROM NEWSPAPERS the workers of Germany, France, etc., have NUMEROUS OTHER MEANS for the public manifestation of their activity, for organizing their movement – parliamentary activity, election agitation, public meetings, participation in local public bodies (rural and urban), the open conduct of trade unions (professional guilds), etc., etc. In place of all that, yes all of that, we must be served – until we have won political liberty – by a revolutionary newspaper, without which no broad organization of the entire working class movement is possible. (Our Immediate Task, LCW, vol. 4, p. 219, emphasis added.)
Not only did we – and the dogmatist Workers Congress (ML), who still maintains the Iskra Plan – fail to understand the Russian experience, but we also negated the entire experience of the international Communist movement since 1900-1903. If the Iskra method of party building is so universally applicable, then why was the Russian (Bolshevik) party the only one to use such a method? Why wasn’t this universally applicable formula forwarded by Lenin and the Comintern? Why has party building taken different forms in different countries? Our dogmatists can’t answer these questions, and moreover, they refuse to deal with them.
What is universal about Iskra is that it forged the following principles:
a) In regards to the party, the need for leading both the economic and political struggles of the workers under the guidance of revolutionary theory and a revolutionary program, the need for an organization of professional revolutionaries, the need for democratic centralism, etc.
b) In regards to the communist press, that it has to be a collective propagandist, agitator and organizer; that its primary work must be political exposures; It must be national in scale, serve the whole movement, and be based on a broad network of worker correspondents.
Every real advance in the communist movement has been achieved only through the correct combination of the study and application of the universal principles of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete practice of one’s own country. While the universal principles of Marxism-Leninism are always applicable, their application is different depending on time, place and conditions. This is something dogmatists never understand. They do not understand the cardinal principle of Marxism-Leninism – “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.”
From study and summing up the lessons drawn mainly from negative experience in two-line struggle in the organization, we have firmly resolved that if we are to defeat the “ultra-left” line, our chief method must be the ideological struggle. And furthermore, the struggle has to be waged or two fronts – against both Right and “left” opportunism – even though “left” opportunism is the main danger. This is so because our own history has proved that even though “leftist” errors were predominant we were not free from errors of the Right variety. Additionally, a principle to keep in mind when waging any ideological struggle is that while the main blow has to be directed at the main danger in a given period, one must also fight against secondary dangers because what is secondary can become primary if vigilance isn’t exercised.
What were the attitudes towards our political and ideological errors expressed by the two factions inside the BWC? On the one hand the die-hard dogmatists headed by Don Williams maintain that we had done nothing wrong, that the line “was basically correct” and what we needed was “more of the same.” They attacked the people who struggled against dogmatism as “Right opportunists, Economists ’cowards and political sissies.’” They laughed at the criticisms of our past mistakes and are now raising dogmatism to a principle through the pages of their “newspaper”, the Communist. On the other hand, the empiricists or Rights, as we call them, the “revolutionary bloc” headed by Mike Hamlin, raised correct criticisms of our past errors but they attacked Marxism-Leninism in the process. For example, they correctly pointed out that we negated practice under the “left” line, but they also attacked the need for revolutionary theory and belittled the importance of ideological struggle. Their line was that the whole communist movement was petty-bourgeois and therefore, ideological struggle was a waste of time. What we needed to do, they said, was “go deep into the class for life”. In their view the working class was not ready for Marxism-Leninism. We agree we need to go deeper into the working class, but we disagree on how that is done. We don’t simply get jobs in the factories, but we go to the working class both physically and ideologically. In other words, we go to the workers and take Marxism-Leninism to them and their struggles.
Another example of our Rights’ attack on Marxism-Leninism was their attitude towards the newspaper. Again, though they correctly criticized the dogmatist Iskra plan of the former secretariat, they also attacked the need for a newspaper at all. They called for the complete dlsbandment of the newspaper, not simply changing its content, method and style. In their view only intellectuals read newspapers and workers don’t, so we don’t need one anyway. The practical platform put forward by the former chairman, Mike Hamlin, for the reorganization of the BWC contained 20 proposals, none of which spoke to the question of party building, mass line, taking Marxism-Leninism to the working class, our position on the burning questions facing our movement, etc., but rather, “physical education, vacations, disbandment of our national center and newspaper.”
There is ho better example of our Rights’ attack on Marxism-Leninism and their fundamental unity with our dogmatists than their attitude towards waging ideological struggle. Their methods were “ruthless criticism, merciless blows,” calling for the expulsion of individual leaders rather than defeating ideologically the affects of “left” opportunism. Styling themselves as heroes and putting on the airs of veterans, they demanded the Central Committee “amputate” the secretariat members most responsible for the “left” line (excluding themselves, of course). When the CC opposed this view and insisted on following the principle of “curing the sickness to save the patient,” they branded it as “centrism and conciliation” and then resigned. Under the signboard of the “right to rebel” they, like the dogmatists, violated democratic centralism and. formed a faction which met secretly with cadres in other parts of the country, as well as with people outside the organization.
Their methods and actions clearly revealed that their real aims in waging a struggle against ultra-1eftism were not the unity of the organization on a higher level, but personal vengeance and positions for themselves.
The principle “unity-criticism-unity” was ignored under the guise of “purging ourselves of opportunist elements.” In fact, both groups invoked the sayings of one great teacher of the proletariat to defeat the other.
As Mao says: “Thus in spite of their different points of departure, the empiricists and the dogmatists were essentially one in their method of thinking. Both severed the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism from the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution; both violated dialectical and historical materialism and magnified partial and relative truths into universal and absolute truths; and the thinking of neither corresponded to the objective, actual situation as a whole.” (Ibid., p. 212)
Since they have left the organization both groups have picked up each other’s banner. For example, though our former “lefts” considered practice “bowing to spontaneity”, they seem to appear at every mass event that pops up – mainly to distribute their paper, of course. In this way they hope to convince the communist movement that they are engaging in practice.
Our so called “revolutionary bloc”, on the other hand, former advocates of practice, spend their time studying the classics; and seem to be leading a semi-clandestine existence. Their contempt for the communist movement is openly expressed by the fact that they have not even bothered to publicly defend their views. What does it matter if the communist movement is ”petty bourgeois?”
Their method of waging ideological struggle has not changed since they left our organization; getting on with people behind the scenes, gossip, intrigue and conspiring, slander of individuals are what they call Marxist-Leninist methods of struggle.
Our full position on party building is still in the process of development, but we have learned enough from the ideological struggle to put forward certain things. We have learned that party building is fundamentally an ideological question. That if one does not base himself on Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought and apply it to the concrete conditions of one’s own country, then a genuine communist party cannot be built. We have also learned that the party must be inseparably connected to the spontaneous movement, to the class struggle of the proletariat and oppressed masses.
Though the party is made up of the most advanced elements of the working class, it is inseparable from its main body.
There is no Chinese wall between the advanced, intermediate and the backward – communists must go among them all. This is a Marxist-Leninist law.
Another law is that the party cannot be built without a resolute struggle against bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology in all its forms – revisionism, reformism anarchism, Trotskyism, etc. One of the major failures of the now revisionist Communist Party USA was that it belittled the struggle against bourgeois ideology and thus became a fatal victim to this ideology itself. In the old CP, party building was considered as mainly an organizational matter – recruiting new members and selling newspapers. This is not to belittle the importance of organization like our dogmatists accuse us of doing, but to stress the point that ideological and political line determines everything – especially the type of organization one builds. This same tendency exists within the communist movement today and it must resolutely fought.
Unless both these laws are applied – i.e., the party must built in close connection with the mass struggle, and it must resolutely oppose opportunism in all its forms – no genuine party can be built, though many may and will call themselves parties. Building the party in close connection with the mass movement does not mean tailing every demand of the masses and “sand-bagging” one’s politics. It means “from the masses, to the masses”, taking Marxism-Leninism and linking it with the everyday, as well as long range struggle of the people.
Ideological struggle does not mean limiting one’s activities to closed door debates with other communists, but must be taken to the masses as well, to win them from bourgeois and revisionist ideology. This can only be done by helping them sum up their experiences with the guidance of Marxism-Leninism. The old conception of ideological struggle being limited to forums and newspapers is much too narrow. Communists must at all times, combine propaganda with agitational work, and this can only be done in the heat of the class struggle.
(To be continued)