Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

Exposing ultra-’left’ illusions/PUL downplays international line

First Published: In the The Guardian, in two parts, October 12 and 19, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Exposing ultra-’left’ illusions

First of two articles

* * *

“Something is wrong in the communist movement.”

This simple declaration in the opening chapter of a pamphlet recently published by the Proletarian Unity League (PUL), “2, 3, Many Parties of a New Type,” will undoubtedly strike a resonant chord among most U.S. Marxist-Leninists today.

“The most visible features of our difficulties,” says the PUL, “is the multiplication of communist parties.” This, too, is a statement which seems to call for a ready assent since the unchecked proliferation of new parties recently has already suggested to some that the antirevisionist forces in the U.S. may have squandered the present period.

On further reflection, however, the “multiplication” of parties (three new ones to date with more on the way) is hardly the principal problem of the new communist movement. It is not even its most visible feature.

One difficulty in appraising the PUL’s pamphlet is that very little is known about this group. They seem to have had some influence in New York and Boston, but their actual practice as a communist collective–something which would help us judge the meaning behind many of their words–is not readily available to the rest of the movement.

Within this limitation, however, it must be acknowledged that the PUL has put forward a convincing and, at times, dramatic critique of “left” sectarianism as “the main danger to the Marxist-Leninist forces” in the U.S. in the present period. Such a view is bound to meet with a torrent of abuse since the ultra-“left,” despite the fact that it is wracked with disunity in its own ranks, has clearly gained the upper hand (in organizational advances and probably in numbers) among those who rallied around the banner of revolutionary Marxism over the past seven years.


The PUL is to be commended, then, for its forthrightness and its willingness to accept inevitable charges of “revisionism,” the more so since it shares certain political assumptions–particularly on international line–with the very forces it is criticizing.

The critique of ultra-“leftism” is devastating and. for the most part, right on the mark. A chapter devoted to “’Left’ Opportunism in Political Line” will evoke nods of recognition from everyone who has encountered the infantilism which masquerades as revolutionary militancy among various organizations. PUL focuses particularly on the “ultra-’left’ conception of the relationship between the reform struggle and the fight for proletarian power.” This is the strongest section of the book. In fact, the PUL’s critique of ultra-“leftism” in political line and mass work is so accurate that it affords a certain unwarranted credibility to the rest of their thesis of what is wrong with the communist movement and what must be done about it.

Who among is will not recognize the bitter accuracy of the following description of ultra-“leftism” as the most prominent Marxist-Leninist organizations of recent years have been practicing it?


“If most reforms really do scuttle the revolutionary movement, then reformist organizations like trade unions represent one big, never-ending quagmire for revolutionaries. So in place of ’get out of the trade unions’ the ’left’ slogan criticized by Lenin, we hear ’jam the unions’ from the RU/RCP [Revolutionary Union, now the Revolutionary Communist Party]. If reforms always lull the masses to sleep, then communists should do everything possible to keep the masses out of earshot of reformist leaders. If they can’t prevent that; the least they can do is not be present. We witness, therefore, a revival of the kind of united front from below’ tactics made famous by the Progressive Labor Party, Some groups say that we can only enter united fronts from above, ’from strength’; others tell us ’it is ’impermissable’ to appear on the same platform with reformists or revisionists. The comforting merits of abstentionism and boycotts have been rediscovered; shouts ring out to boycott rallies called by bourgeois reformists, to boycott demonstrations in which revisionists participate, and to boycott bourgeois busing plans. Most striking of all is the frequency of the ’correct demonstration’ tactic (otherwise known as ’small but spirited’) in which a single communist group or narrow circle of them ignore every problem of involving the masses in real action and instead hold spiritually pure revival meetings to worship their own sloganeering:”

The thesis of some communist groups that there is no essential difference between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism is taken up. This is not an abstract question. I recall speaking at a public rally in Chicago a few years back at the height of the Watergate scandal on the same platform with Bob Avakian, head of the RU. My own remarks underscored, among other things, the fascist danger inherent in the activities of the Nixon administration. It was the Guardian’s view at that time, as it still is, that one crucial aspect of Watergate was Nixon’s “experiment with fascism” in direct response to the mass struggles of the 1960s. Subsequent revelations about the activity of the CIA and FBI in this period certainly confirm this thesis. Avakian, however, took exception to this point, demagogically proclaiming that the U.S. was already a fascist country and indeed had been for some time.

Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO) is another ultra-“left” group which shares this view. The PUL quotes the WVO: “Now in its last stage, bourgeois democracy k thoroughly reactionary and it becomes the best ’shell’ of bourgeois rule. Under parasitic, decaying and moribund capitalism, bourgeois democracy’s main role is to contain the proletarian struggle, to straitjacket it. Thus, it has been transformed into its opposite.” Using this as an ideological foundation, WVO representative Jerry Tung concluded: “We cannot counterpose bourgeois democracy and fascism by saying one is better than the other.”

Now all this sounds very militant and “revolutionary”–but it is a thorough distortion of Marxism. As PUL points out: “No Marxist, including Marx, has ever claimed that the bourgeoisie would voluntarily assist the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle. Nor has any Marxist denied that bourgeois democracy was the preferred form of bourgeois rule precisely because it permits the containing of the workers’ struggles in long reformist channels. On the other hand, the claim that the proletariat should not care whether or not it has a relative freedom to form trade unions or political .parties; assemble, print newspapers, bear arms, participate in elections, speak in public, etc., is absurd.”

The PUL takes up the simplistic analysis of bourgeois reforms put forward by groups-like RCP and WVO, particularly in their analysis of the struggle against racism in Boston and the whole busing controversy. To justify its objective alliance with white racist forces in Boston, RCP (then RU) airily dismissed the Boston busing plan as nothing but a bourgeois plot to divide the working class. The PUL offers a much sounder, more dialectical approach to the same general question:


“A given political reform will generally constitute a compromise between different fractions of the bourgeoisie, who have different priorities in keeping inflation down or production up, unemployment or wages down, subsidizing wage levels through social welfare programs or increasing the pool of poverty-stricken workers, stabilizing the home front or crushing ’Big Labor,’ etc. A single reform may respond to certain seeds of the people, though in a form acceptable to that fraction of the bourgeoisie which retains control of the compromise solution within the bourgeoisie. Most importantly, the reform will reflect the relative* strengths and weaknesses of the people’s camp and the various bourgeois forces.”

There is much more said on this crucial matter–all of it eminently sensible. The PUL further examines the application of this ultra-“left” view to work in the trade unions, in the struggle against national oppression and to the democratic women’s movement. In general, they demonstrate through the ultimate acid test–practice–the political dead-end to which the ultra-“left” line inevitably leads.

PUL also devotes a very useful section to. analyzing “the social and ideological roots of ’left’ opportunism.” and concludes that these are to be found in the tendency toward anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism is die communist movement, this tendency is turn having its firmest root is nonprotetarian classes and declassed elements of the proletariat itself.

They also offer a specific insight which may help explain the dominance of ultra-“leftism” in the current period: “Periods of mass insurgency and economic or political upheaval may lay the foundation for an ultra-’left’ trend which refuses to recognise any ebb as the power of the revolutionary forces or the growth of unfavorable conditions for a continued frontal assault.”

All this is to the credit of the comrades of PUL. They have been bold in defining the principal error of the new communist movement and have not been afraid to defy certain conventional shibboleths which are bound to open them up to charges of conciliating revisionism.

By deepening our movement’s critique of ultra-“leftism,” the PUL has performed a useful service. But they have put before our movement something else also–an alternative strategy for party-building and a view of a Marxist-Leninist political line for our movement–which would direct us down a backward path. It is a dangerous view because it comes packaged with the authority of the PUL’s broadside attack on sectarianism, an attack that is bound to give their other views an open hearing in our movement.

The concluding part of this article will take up this aspect of the PUL’s pamphlet.

PUL downplays international line

Second of two articles

* * *

In its critique of ultra-“leftism” as the chief danger to the communist movement in the U.S., the Proletarian Unity League (PUL) engages in an oddly typical form of American exceptionalism. It stops at the water’s edge.

The PUL’s devastating attack on the sectarian lines and practices of various U.S. communist groups rings with the authority of fact. All of us will recognize that real matters are being discussed here. But there is something missing from the PUL documentation of ultra-“leftism.” It abounds with examples of infantile statements, actions and lines in our movement relating to democratic struggles, the trade unions, the oppressed nationalities, the women’s movement. But for some reason, the PUL cannot find any examples of “left” sectarianism in the statements, actions and lines’ of our movement around international questions.

Why is this? Is there a shortage of examples? Was Angola some secondary question before our movement–one not requiring a clearcut class stand at this time?

One wonders what the PUL thinks of the outrageous attacks on socialist Cuba made by the leading sectarian groups. Are these not even worth citing as examples of ultra-“leftism”? Or what about the “main blow” thesis, that political cornerstone for class-collaboration with the U.S. monopoly capitalists chiefly advocated in our movement by the Communist Party (ML) (CP-ML), formerly the October League (OL)? Couldn’t the PUL find any “left” sectarianism in the shameless attacks (and outright lies) by the CP-ML on the leading organizations of the Puerto Rican independence movement–or the absurd slogan, “Superpowers out of Puerto Rico”?

How about the objective unity between some communist forces and the most reactionary, jingoistic sectors of monopoly capital–all in the name of the struggle against “appeasement”? Was there nothing to cite in the plaudits offered West European imperialist countries and their African lackeys for their counterrevolutionary military intervention in Zaire? How about the fact that virtually all the new communist organizations have withdrawn from any activity in solidarity with the Chilean resistance?


Search as one will through the pages of the PUL pamphlet, there is virtually nothing said on these questions. There is only one possible, explanation for this startling phenomenon. The PUL does not consider any of the questions cited above–and the well-known reactionary stands taken by most of the Marxist-Leninist organizations–to be appropriate examples of the ultra-“left” errors of our movement.

On one level we might agree with this, since the political essence of these errors has been class-collaboration and right opportunism. Nevertheless, those stands have flowed out of the same ultra-“leftism” that produced the sectarian errors on the questions that the PUL does mention; and certainly these positions are justified in the most “left” rhetoric imaginable.

No, the problem is obvious. The PUL does not think that these are errors–or, at least, not errors of the same magnitude. As a result, they overlook some of the most glaring and fundamental mistakes of the movement–mistakes which give real meaning to the concept “left in form, right in essence.”

Consider, for instance, the way the PUL describes the debate in our movement over international line, a debate no one can deny derives in some measure from an appraisal of the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China. Says the PUL: “On one side, some demand complete and utter agreement with the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China, failing which one falls into ’centrism’; on the other side, some demand sharp and preferably public differences with the Chinese comrades as proof of one’s ’anti-dogmatist’ and ’anti-flunkeyist’ commitment.”

How neat. How even-handed. How wrong!

What is missing from the above? Any statement on the content of China’s foreign policy or–what is undoubtedly more important–the content of our own movement’s international line. Instead, the PUL reduces this question to a trivial squabble between ideological lackeys on the one hand and people who seemingly advocate “independence at any price” on the other. But have the upholders of a revolutionary international line demanded “sharp and preferably public differences” with China as a sign of ideological purity? Or have they demanded the adoption of a proletarian internationalist line by our movement?


The Guardian, as everyone knows, played a leading role in this struggle around international line. Are we concerned with the flunkeyism of certain groups? Of course. But of even greater concern is the class-collaborationist stand taken by these groups, lining up with U.S. imperialism to oppose the national liberation struggle of the Angolan people, joining in defense of the pro-imperialist Shah of Iran, Soviet-baiting the Puerto Rican independence movement even more viciously than the State Department itself.

It simply will not do. The PUL’s attempt to reduce the struggle around international line to a petty squabble contradicts reality and makes a mockery of their otherwise sound critique of “left ”-sectarianism in our movement.

The problem is that the PUL itself sees the current struggle around international line as a secondary question at the moment and as an unnecessary line of demarcation in the communist movement. The reason for this is not hard to find. The PUL has fundamental agreement on the question of international line with the very forces it severely criticizes for ultra-“leftism” on virtually every other question except international line.

But since this question has, in life, effectively divided the communist movement into a class-collaborationist wing and an internationalist wing, the PUL is left in a quandry. (It is not alone in this. There are a number of smaller collectives around the country who have found themselves cut off from all sides in this struggle.) Accordingly, it is trying to work its way back into one wing of the movement–the internationalist wing –by stressing its critique of ultra-“leftism” (bound to strike a responsive chord) and downplaying the importance of differences over international questions.

(In saying that two “wings” have developed, I do not mean to imply that this division is permanent. International developments are bound to have an effect on this split. The Albanian critique of China’s “three worlds” thesis, for instance, has added the weight of a recognized antirevisionist party to the concern over collaboration with U.S. imperialism. This has already begun to have an effect on some communist forces in the U.S. and Western Europe.)


But let us take up the question exactly as the PUL poses it. “The U.S. communist movement must set about drawing a ’firm line of demarcation’ between those issues which it must resolve in order to unify, and those issues whose thoroughgoing resolution can and should await unification.”

Fair enough. The PUL is quite correct in criticizing those who make every shade of difference the basis for an organizational split. This style of work smacks so much of Trotskyism that, by itself, it should be a danger signal to our movement. The PUL points out that these “sectarians treat every question as a matter of principle, give equal weight to any and all revolutionary problems, and in practice settle none of them. No revolutionary organization can form or maintain itself in the face of such obstinate, splittist tactics.”

There is a world of difference, however, between making every last question a matter of fundamental principle and defining lines of demarcation in such a way as to obscure fundamental principles. The chief international question, in the view of the PUL, is the class character of the Soviet Union. It believes that a new party will have to accept as a basis of unity that capitalism has been fully restored in the USSR. As for other international questions, the PUL merely says that “the future party’s fulfillment of its internationalist obligations depends on taking up the general tactical line which this analysis of the USSR implies.”

But life has already demonstrated that this is inadequate. The PUL may dismiss the debate over Angola as merely one more example of “whatever question the movement is choosing up sides about that month,” but such a view merely betrays a narrowly provincial view of the tasks confronting the working class and its allies in the struggle against the U.S. bourgeoisie. For Angola is not, as a supporter of the PUL’s views put it recently, simply a “foreign” question. Nor is it only a matter of “abstract” principle.

The failure to recognize the central role of U.S. imperialism in southern Africa means that revolutionaries in this country will be conducting their own struggle in a one-sided, half-hearted and thoroughly distorted manner. Korea, Algeria, Vietnam and Angola have already demonstrated that in our time counterrevolutionary colonial wars have become an immediate and practical “domestic” question before the workers and the people in general. Today, there are few places in the world–least of all southern Africa–where the role of the U.S. as the principal promoter of neocolonialist solutions and the bulwark of white settler regimes doesn’t make U.S. foreign policy a burning question before the U.S. workers.


The question cannot be avoided–and the attempt by the PUL to do so reflects and promotes narrow national chauvinism within the communist movement. It is of a piece, in a certain sense, with the views of those neo-social democrats who claim that our movement is too “third world oriented” and who wind up burying themselves in economism and playing tired games with the “left wing” of the Democratic Party.

Since the PUL tract was written, the serious dimensions of the differences between Albania and China underscore this point further. For China and Albania share a common view of the class character of the Soviet Union–but have developed vastly different views on the “tactical line” implied by that analysis.

In summary, the PUL has made a useful contribution to our movement with its forceful critique of ultra-“leftism.” It has helped, too, by posing certain questions in a communist fashion, thereby shattering the pseudo-revolutionary pretentiousness of the posturers with whom our movement abounds. But it has failed its own test and has been unable to put forward a view capable of uniting our movement as it is.

The reason is that it has put the question of organization ahead of the question of political line. The PUL may call this the advocacy of a “party spirit,” but it liquidates the essence of a party spirit since it refuses to confront openly and honestly the very political question which, more than any other, has led to the present impasse.


Genuine proletarian internationalism is not a luxury our movement can afford to take up after the party is formed. It is an indispensable precondition for founding a party, a line of demarcation between class collaboration and revolution.

There can be no ambivalence on this question. Those Marxist-Leninists who would equivocate on this matter, who are willing to make some “small” concession to the class-collaborationists by leaving this question open for a period of time, would be making a grave error. For all that it makes a useful contribution to our movement, legitimizing the PUL line would be an unconscionable retreat for revolutionary forces.

Life has already proved–with an abundance of examples–that it cannot be done.