Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Boston Party-Building Organization

On Breaking with the “Left”-Opportunist Party-Building Line: A Proposal from the Boston Party-Building Organization

First Issued: November 9, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This paper is organized around a criticism of the general line taken by the Committee of Five in their attempts to consolidate a trend within the Marxist-Leninist movement. We are making this criticism because we think that the forces grouped around the Committee of Five are at a turning point today, and that the decisions we make now are going to determine whether these forces will actually contribute to the consolidation of a trend in opposition to “left”-opportunism, or whether, on the other hand, they will succumb themselves to the sickness of ultra-leftism in party-building. We view the situation as being serious enough that we have decided not to directly answer the questions posed by the Committee in their recent letter. These questions are structured in a way that limits debate to those criticisms of the Draft Resolution raised by El Comité. Our argument is that we need to return to the original plan suggested by the Committee of Five. Thus we urge, although for somewhat different reasons than El Comité, that the Draft Resolution be rejected. We propose an alternative at the end of this paper.

In their initial letter of 9 June 1976, the Committee of Five (then the Committee of Four) proposed calling a conference of Marxist-Leninists who associated themselves with a “trend” that the Committee saw developing in opposition both to revisionism and what they then termed “dogmatism”. Their letter did not further specify the nature and tasks of this conference. However, it pointed out that this “trend” was very undeveloped, that what was needed was a way of “defining this trend, the unities and the differences within it...” They pointed out that this would require “having principled discussions with other organizations and individuals throughout the country”. Thus, it implicitly set the task of the proposed conference. It was a task we had (and still have) a lot of unity with; so, we think, do many other forces as well.

Thus, along with many other organizations and individuals, we responded enthusiastically to this call. As it developed, we did not have total unity with all of the Committee’s formulations, however, we saw no reason why that should prevent us from exploring “our unities and differences”. As we saw it, the main thrust behind the call of the 9 June letter, the basis upon which many forces could be rallied, was the identification and commitment to struggle against ultra-leftism, as it appeared in the forms of “dogmatism and its cohort, sectarianism”, among the party-building forces. This indeed constituted the broad unity, even if it was not yet very well developed or understood, out of which a trend could be consolidated. In other words, we responded positively to the 9 June letter not as a call to build yet another nucleus of a “party”, but as a call to participate in constructing a trend within the overall, party-building movement.

In our view, our immediate task is to unite all those who can be united against “left”-opportunism into an organizational form that is able to begin to take action. In these terms, the principles put forward by the Committee of Five seem too narrow. In particular, the demand that it is necessary to subscribe to a particular view of who is the main enemy of the peoples of the world, is an inappropriate principle for a conference to explore our “unities and differences” in the aim of consolidating a trend against “left”-opportunism. In fact, it is a line that would exclude forces committed to this struggle. In other words, this demand tends to identify the forces that could subscribe to it as the genuine Marxist-Leninists, the real party-building movement. This over-estimates by quite a lot, in our opinion, the actual degree of consolidation of a trend, and exhibits a narrow view of the constitution of the Marxist-Leninist movement.

Indeed, in the 31 January 1977 letter from the Committee of Five, a shift in direction and purpose could be seen. While it still talked of organizing a conference, the purpose of this conference was now specified as being “in order to establish a leading ideological center for the Marxist-Leninist wing of the party-building movement.” (Our emphasis) Our purpose no longer was to develop a trend. A “Marxist-Leninist wing” of the party-building movement, it seemed, already existed! The next step, according to the Committee, was to consolidate its leadership. In other words, the Committee of Five had shifted its call. Where they first called for our participation in a conference to establish (or begin to establish) a trend within Marxism-Leninism, they were now calling us to a conference of the “leadership” of the genuine Marxist-Leninists.

This is the essence of our disagreement with the party-building line of the Committee of Five, so we wish to be clear about it. We do not have objections in principle to any particular organizations and groups building national unity among themselves in the current period. However, it is an error in principle at this stage to build that unity on the grounds that we (or they) constitute the genuine Marxist-Leninists. Why do we say this? For two reasons. In the first place, who among us cannot recognize that this is precisely the party-building error of the CLP, RCP, CP (ML), etc? Their error was not that they formed national organizations, but that at a certain point they consolidated these organizations on the basis that they were the communist movement rather than a force within that movement. They succumbed to ultra-leftism in party-building line because they put their part of the communist movement above that movement as a whole. Marx’s formulation of communist principle in the Manifesto remains valid for us today (all the more so given the “left”-sectarianism of our movement):

In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they [the communists] always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

In the second place, the spirit of the Committee of Five’s call that initially attracted most of us was its appeal to our revulsion with the “left” errors of the past. We saw the possibility, for the first time in quite a while, of a wide grouping of forces that did not see itself as the communist movement but as part of that movement. This indeed offered a genuine possibility of beginning the struggle against ultra-leftism in our movement. To shift from this perspective, subtly and in stages, could be simply an error. To persist in it, to consolidate it without answering the criticisms which have been made, would be still more serious.

Let us put it yet another way. We have nothing in principle against the PWOC or the Committee of Five organizing a national grouping around their own principles of unity in order to participate in party-building, do trade union work, etc. But we do object most vehemently to this grouping organising on the basis that it represents the “genuine” Marxist-Leninists, i.e., that it will be the nucleus of the party. Yet this is exactly what we see happening once again! We urge all comrades to carefully consider our arguments and justify their course of action if they persist in this mode of organising a national grouping.

Many elements of wishful thinking have now fully emerged in the proceedings and proposals of the Committee of Five. The Draft Resolution would have us believe that a trend in opposition to “left”-opportunism has already been established in the party-building movement. Indeed, it views the current situation as one in which two wings are struggling for leadership of that movement. It is true that the Draft Resolution characterizes our forces as “embryonic,” “disunited,” “theoretically impoverished,” “backward,” “fragmented”. (We agree with this.) However, it is wishful thinking to maintain that a grouping at such a level of development would constitute a wing. And the Draft Resolution compounds this leap of wishful thinking when it proceeds to state that ”our trend has reached the threshold of...maturity.” This simply does not accord with the facts, even as they have been described in the Draft Resolution itself.

Our tendency (which is not yet a trend) is notion the “threshold of maturity”! nor does it constitute the totality of genuine Marxist-Leninists.

According to Lenin, a trend is,

...only a definite sum of political ideas which have became well-defined in regard to all the most important questions of both the revolution… and the counter-revolution; ideas which, moreover, have proved their right to existence as a trend by being widely disseminated among broad strata of the working class… To confuse a trend with minor groups means condemning oneself to intrigue in Party politics. (LOW, XVII, 271)

If we use Lenin’s scientific approach, then we are not anywhere near being a trend. It is incorrect and dangerous for us to pretend we are. If we persist in overestimating our degree of consolidation, thon, indeed, we condemn ourselves to “intrigue in party politics.”

In our view, there is a single anti-revisionist-party-building movement in the United States, This movement is overwhelmingly dominated by a “left”-opportunist line on all levels – ideological, political, organizational, practical. Within this movement there is an emerging immature tendency which, without full clarity about its boundaries or its tasks, has begun to recognize the serious danger which the dominant line poses. We think that our main task is to consolidate a trend, to define its boundaries and organize ourselves to accomplish its tasks. Our unity is a fragile one, based on our initial revulsion to “left”-opportunism. This opposition to “left”-opportunism must be deepened before we will be able to move further ahead. Overestimating our forces and what they represent will lead directly to a repetition of the very “left” mistakes we want to avoid.

The underdevelopment of our tendency as a whole was pretty evident at the August meeting. The communist forces represented there were, apparently, mostly petty-bourgeois in class origin, and relatively new to Marxist-Leninist organization. Indeed, the organizations present were at very different levels of structure and practice. Marxist-Leninists from the oppressed nationalities were seriously under-represented, to say the least. Many of the forces present had little or no direct experience with previous party-building efforts. Our theoretical underdevelopment was obvious. We do not say these things to denigrate our efforts in August. However, failure to recognize the problems of our concrete situation will make it impossible to rectify them.

Most importantly, we were not successful at clearly defining the outlines of our tendency, let alone setting ourselves up as the leading force within such a tendency. The August meeting, in fact, took yet another step toward consolidating around certain principles of unity which, on the one hand, are inappropriate for our tendency at this time, and, on the other hand, are so imprecise that they provide only a superficial veneer of unity over what are, in fact, important differences.

Principle 18 is the clearest example of a “principle” of unity that does not reflect any substantial common outlook among us. In the first place, although the international question may at a future point be splitting, we feel that different positions on this question can and do presently exist within our tendency, Demanding unity in the tendency around this particular political line now is incorrect. It diverts us from our primary task – building a trend in opposition to left-opportunism – by unnecessarily splitting our young forces.

In the second place, evaluating the role of the USSR in the world today is not simply an empirical, question as Guardian and Organizer articles assume. It requires a profound analysis of class struggle under socialism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of the class nature of the USSR to make this evaluation. Strong arguments have been put forward by the CPC, by Bettelheim. and by others that capitalism has been restored in the USSR. BPO’S view is that the USSR is a state monopoly capitalist country. We do (not) have a position on who the main enemy of the worlds’ people is. Even if we had such a position, we would not pose it as a principle of unity for our tendency, any more than we do our views on the class nature of the USSR.

Finally, it is doubtful that Principle 18 really clarifies or defines any substantial unity among us. Let us pose the question without moralizing. Suppose there are three organizations – X, Y, and Z. X holds that the USSR is an imperialist power and that the two superpowers are the main enemy of the worlds’ people, Y agrees with this view of the USSR, but thinks that the U.S. is the main enemy of the worlds’ people. Z thinks the USSR is socialist, and (naturally) that U.S. imperialism is the main enemy. Who has more fundamental unity around international line and the duty of proletarian Internationalism! X and Y, who agree that there are two imperialist superpowers, or Y and Z, as principle 18 suggests?

Principle 18 is the basis for a degree of programmatic unity around certain struggles, such as those in Southern Africa. It does not provide a definitive line of demarcation on the question of the concrete application of proletarian internationalism to the world today. Do all our forces agree on the main enemy of the people of Eastern Europe? Of the people of China? Of the people of Eritrea and the Horn of Africa? Clearly not! We have refused to split over a host of so-called “splitting questions”, because we have recognized that they are not lines around which we must unite now in order to fight “left”-opportunism. The “main enemy” question, too, splits our tendency and weakens us, rather than strengthening us as some have claimed.

Equally significant is our lack of clarity in the debate over Principle 15. This principle was modified at the August meeting. The sense of this modification was to replace “dogmatism” by “left-opportunism” as the main danger to party-building. There was almost no discussion of the meaning of this change; nor has there been any self-criticism from the original framers of the Principles explaining the meaning of this rectification. Indeed, on the whole, the comrades of the Committee of Five continue to use “dogmatism” as if no change had been made. Now party-building is our contral strategic task; we have wide unity on this. But if we have such little clarity and understanding as to the main obstacle to that task, when that obstacle is precisely the thing our tendency is supposed to fight, it indicates to us that our tendency is not yet worthy of the designation “trend”. It indicates to us that our main business should be to understand the implications of the different formulations, so that we can fight “leftism” in a unified way, rather than spending our time excluding forces who fall within our overall unity on the nature of that danger, but who disagree about issues that do not appear to relate directly to the construction of a trend.

If we need further proof that our unity as embodied in the 18 Principles is modest in nature, we need only consider the recent differences between El Comité, PWOC, and the Guardian. Here are three of the most important organisations in our tendency, each of which endorses the 18 Principles. But this has not prevented them from diverging on the strategy for party-building. We cannot see any reason why these three organizations should not be united in some common organisational structure in order to take up the fight against “left”-opportunism. The failure to combine our forces for maximum effect does not demonstrate anyone’s leading character or staunch principles, but, on the contrary, is further evidence that we have not overcome “left”-sectarianism. There will be no escape from splits and competitiveness if we overestimate our level of unity, mistake our tasks, and proceed with incorrect plans.

Our point is not that there should be no differences within the trend. Far from it! We believe that the precise degree of difference that can and should be contained inside a trend to struggle against “left”-opportunism can only follow from the nature of this task, and cannot be decided beforehand, before we even have clarity on this task. We do need unity on the need to defeat “left” opportunism. We do not think that every difference has to be immediately elevated to a separate organizational form. That this seems to be happening is for us evidence that our Principles of Unity do not achieve their aim and should be re-evaluated.

It is no surprise, in light of the arguments above, that we have little faith in the Draft Resolution for a Leading Ideological Center. We do not think that the Resolution suggests a correct method for consolidating a trend in opposition to “left”-opportunism. We are convinced, in fact, that if such a center were to be formed, based on the 18 Principles, it would be neither leading nor an ideological center. Not leading, because it would fail the real test of leadership – the ability to unite Marxist-Leninists in the struggle against ”left”-opportunism. Not an ideological center, because it would not be based on solid ideological unity, but rather on an eclectic mixture of some Marxist-Leninist principles, spontaneously chosen political evaluations, and undigested notions about party-building. It would not, in fact, centralize ideological struggle in the Marxist-Leninist movement.

Are some among us so certain of their leadership of the “trend” that they can assume it before a trend has even been established? Certainly, we in BPO don’t think that the PWOC and its supporters have demonstrated their leadership in our struggle against “left”-opportunism, any more than have PUL, the Guardian, or El Comité. How can we be expected, then, to look forward to the creation of a “leading ideological center” which will, apparently, not include at least two of these other forces? Such a center would not ”provide a central point of access for all the local organizations in our trend.” It would be set up, right from the beginning, in competition with other forces in the tendency. It would function not to broaden debate, but to restrict it by emphasizing unnecessary divisions in the communist movement. Starting with the goal of a national pre-party organization, in the absence of a real trend against “left”-opportunism, such a center would inevitably become narrower and narrower in its unity as it develops its own separate political line off in its own separate corner of the Marxist-Leninist movement. We have all seen this happen before: it is the-classic sectarian model of party-building.

For our part, we do not think that this would be leadership for our tendency, but a defeat for the party-building movement at the hands of “left”-opportunism. It would be one more example of Marxist-Leninists caring more about their small part of the party-building movement than about the movement as a whole. On the one hand, centralization around our present unity would be suspect even as a step towards a national pre-party organization because we do not share a unified Marxist-Leninist perspective that can realistically serve as a foundation for unified political work in more than a few areas. On the other hand (and most importantly), our 18 Principles do demarcate our tendency but only a certain collection of groups within the tendency. To “centralize” these forces before we have even established the outlines of the tendency as a whole would be to make a mockery out of unity/struggle/unity among the forces fighting ultra-leftism. It would be saying, in fact, “You consolidate your friends, we’ll consolidate ours, then we’ll see what unity we have.” By elevating the business of laying the foundations for their own pre-party organization into the centerpiece of their strategy for consolidating a trend, the Committee of Five echoes the party-building sects, who elevated building their own narrow pre-party organizations into the centerpiece of their strategy for forming a party.

By way of summary, we urge all of our comrades to think very carefully before taking impatient steps which will be regretted later. We would be disappointed to see the 18 Draft Principles become final principles for a conference. We would be disturbed if this conference were to begin setting the nucleus of yet another, self-serving pre-party organization in a fragmented movement. Patient ideological struggle and a conscious effort to understand and avoid “left” sectarianism will strengthen all of us. Let us be sure that we understand our movement’s “’left-wing’ communism” pretty well before we start further splitting and competing with each other. Let’s realistically assess what kind of organizational structures we should employ, given our tasks and our present level of political and ideological unity. The main danger to our efforts is from the “left”!


Our proposal is based on the belief that broad, democratic, ideological struggle is, at this time, the key to uniting Marxist-Leninists in opposition to “left”-opportunism. Out of such a struggle a deeper understanding of party-building can develop, and a leading line can begin to emerge. Important differences exist in our tendency – in fact, several organizations may feel that they have the leading line. The struggle among these lines, however, will become hopelessly sectarian if it is not conducted in the context of unity against our common “main danger.” Thus, in today’s circumstances, each center should not try to set up a “trend” which only its own line can lead. Rather, we should all seek to establish the outlines of a trend against “left”-opportunism, and then struggle for the correct line within it. We view this proposal as a first step in such a process.

1. We should take up the work of organizing a Unity Conference for all of the anti-revisionist party-building forces who see “left”- opportunism as the main danger to party-building.

2. We would elect a temporary leadership, with unity around the basic idea of this proposal, to organize this conference and divide up the labor for executing it successfully.

3. The purpose of the conference would be to establish the outlines of our emerging tendency, bring key differences within it into focus and enable us to make the presence of the tendency known to the Marxist-Leninist movement as a whole and to the advanced workers.

4. Presentations would be solicited from organizations representing a cross-section of leading views within the tendency: tentatively, we propose PUL, the Guardian, El Comité, PWOC. The subject of the talks would be views on “left”-opportunism as the main danger in the party-building movement: views on how to fight it.

5. The leadership of the conference would take responsibility for publishing all the speeches in one pamphlet for distribution in the Marxist-Leninist movement and among advanced workers.

6. At the end of the conference, a Unity Statement would be arrived at. This would be a basic statement of views within which the tendency could develop. The statement would focus a sharp attack on the “left”-opportunist line in the party-building movement, and at the same time lay the groundwork for broad, democratic debate around the theoretical and practical tasks of our own tendency. The Unity Statement would be published along with the speeches.

7. The temporary leadership would allot time in the conference to determine what further common work all the organizations in the tendency could and should jointly carry out. We hope that we could move towards some kind of theoretical journal representing the whole tendency, and develop other forms for centralizing debate around particular issues, including political line questions. We would also like to achieve some coordination in our work with advanced workers since we view their participation in an anti-“left”-opportunist trend as crucial to its success.


The authors of the Draft Resolution evidently think that the Iskra period in Russian party-building can serve as a model for our tendency today. We are not in a position at the present time to make a thorough analysis of the relationship of the Iskra period to the proposed Leading Ideological Center. However, we do think that the following points raise some questions about how best to apply the lessons of the Russian Revolution to the problems facing our movement:

1) The main danger to party-building at the time of the formation of the Iskra was errors from the right, especially right economism. The issue was whether or not the communists would be able to develop a disciplined party with strong political leadership. In the U.S. today, on the other hand, the problem is that Marxist-Leninists are all too eager to declare themselves to be “the leadership” and then quote What Is To Be Done? to anyone who objects.

2) The communists in the Iskra period claimed, allegiance to a single party (although it was not a Leninist party of a new type). The Manifesto of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party played a “great revolutionary propagandist role” in the sense that all the communists saw themselves as part of a single movement, and the struggle for the party was seen as part of the internal life of that movement. In our situation today, Marxist-Leninists eagerly read each other out of the party-building movement, and have failed to consolidate any sense of overall unity in the struggle against revisionism and for the party.

3) Communists were much less isolated from the working class of Russia during the Iskra period than is the communist movement in relation to the U.S. working class movement.

4) Although it was Lenin who worked out the plan for the Iskra, its publication marked the unification in one organ of many divergent political views. Political leaders with significantly different political lines on a number of questions united in order to put out Iskra as a genuine national organ which united all those who could be united in the struggle against economism within the RSDLP.

5) As PUL has pointed out in Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type?, the Iskra experience has not been repeated in other party- building experiences, but was, in fact, a rather exceptional case.