Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective

A Short History of the Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective


First Published: Red Desert Bulletin, No. 1, September 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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From Study Group to Collective

In December of 1974, the first tentative steps were taken to form a Marxist-Leninist study group in Tucson. It was not until February of 1975, however, that disciplined meetings began to be held and the group developed a study plan of the Marxist-Leninist classics. Some of the texts included: On Practice, On Contradiction; Lenin’s Imperialism, What Is To Be Done?, Left-wing Communism, Wage-Labor and Capital by Marx; and Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism and Dialectical and Historical Materialism.

The forces that came together in this loose and as yet undisciplined formation included 2 distinct tendencies. Former members of the John Brown Party had spent several years involved in the mass struggles of the late ’60s and early 70’s. Not unlike the vast majority of radical mass organizations around the country in the same period, anarchist and left-adventurist ideas dominated the spontaneous response to the war in Vietnam and racism. Revolutionary zeal and dedication to socialist revolution in the USA were the distinctive traits of the comrades who considered themselves communists within the diverse arena of the John Brown Party. With a newspaper and regular intervention in the spontaneous upsurges of the masses, eventually, unfocussed activity lead to the development of a food cooperative in an attempt to provide an alternative to the capitalists’ food chains. The coop was slowly coopted by pacifist food freaks and the communist elements began to take on regular jobs and to take on a more realistic perspective on socialist revolution, preparing for a more protracted struggle.

On the University of Arizona campus, a small group of students had been meeting, studying and investigating the developing national groupings of the “New Communist Movement.” In fact, an understanding of the nature of the communist forces in the USA was based on past experience with the CPUSA and PL, which had lead to a rejection of revisionism and dogmatism. The investigation of the national communist groupings was based on a developing understanding of, and a strong committment to, the principles of Marxism-Leninism. This small group attempted to engage in struggle within the mass struggles, but found that limited numbers dictated a minimal influence. Also, in the absence of a clearly articulated political line, the group had nothing but vague principles to bring to the masses. It was clear that these comrades were isolated from the masses. These comrades had developed an analysis of the need to produce Marxist-Leninist theory and the vital importance of a disciplined Communist Party.

Not only had this group investigated the US communist movement, it had also developed an understanding of the history of the world communist movement, and had begun to incorporate the theoretical concepts of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser into its analysis of the political situation in the USA.

Two other forces involved in the formation of the study group included people who had previous experience in the new communist movement in the San Francisco Bay area; and people who had been involved in the New Party, the Tucson social-democratic appendage of the Peoples Party. These forces all came together in early 1975 to study and struggle to develop political unity.

This was no easy task. The extreme emphasis on mass work of certain elements from the John Brown Party proved to be a stumbling block for many months (in fact, remained a problem for some time after the formation of the collective), and the critical need for disciplined study was not immediately recognized. Finally, in September of 1975, the study group recognized a sufficient basis of political unity to take on the responsiblities of a collective organization. This meant that the organization intended to take on political and ideological tasks that could not be undertaken in a loose knit study group.

The principle of democratic centralism and the understanding of the eventual need to link up with a national organization were seen as central to the development of a Marxist-Leninist organization. A constitution was written and preparation began on a program.

External Work

Though the main emphasis of the collective was the study of Marxism-Leninism, external tasks began to play more of a role in collective work. Militants were involved in labor unions, the pro-busing movement, local housing struggles, a prisoners support group, a coalition to stop Senate Bill #1 and other community struggles. External tasks also included support for an initiative defending the right of public employees to strike. On the University of Arizona campus a regular literature table was set up, and Moshe Dayan’s visit to the U. of A. was leafleted.

As much as possible, participation in mass work was conducted by a fraction of 2 or more cadre. This involved discussions before mass meetings where a strategy was agreed upon, with a sum up and reports to the collective as a whole on what was being done and how the fraction was functioning.

During this period a series of external study groups were initiated to recruit personal contacts into the organization. There was even one study group conducted in Spanish. But these study groups were not well planned and recruitment out of them was sporadic. Most often the decision to join was based more on personal reasons than political ones. Extreme difficulties developed in the external study group work (including Trotskyite disruption) because of the lack of an overall plan and the lack of experience in such work.

Through all this time, the collective generally consisted of 10 comrades. Occasionally, someone was recruited, but just as often someone would leave the group.

The TMLC also sponsored an open forum on racism and busing, which received brief mention in the Arizona Daily Star. General Baker, a member of the Communist Labor Party (CLP), spoke and though the turn out was not very large with only 40 people, for Tucson the spirit of such an event held much significance for the collective which was attempting to learn from its errors. Specifically in this case, a left error was made in assuming a higher level of consciousness in the community than actually existed. Though at the time, the collective was not able to recognize all of the problems with Baker’s speech, we can today more correctly characterize the speech as dogmatist and an unscientific approach to the problems of the working class in general, and particularly in Tucson.

At this time the Collective was cautiously in agreement with the CLP’s call for the theoretical development of communist cadre (particularly given the opportunist economism of the other national groups such as the October League and the Revolutionary Union), but the collective reserved serious disagreements on certain of the CLP’s theoretical and political positions (the Negro Nation thesis, dogmatist theory, etc.). For a while following the General Baker visit the TMLC had fairly close contact with the CLP. We regularly read the People’s Tribune, and a delegation was sent to Los Angeles to observe their operations, including their cadre school, Western Worker production and a district meeting. A couple of comrades contributed short theoretical articles for Proletariat, the CLP theoretical journal. But certain contradictions were apparent from the beginning and there were never any formal organizational ties made due to disagreements over the nature of CLP theory and the general tendency towards dogmatism of the CLP. The TMLC sent observers to the 2nd CLP Congress, but through our own struggle internally it became clear by then that their dogmatism had become crystallized; and the TMLC moved permanently away from the CLP, both politically and organizationally.

Also in this period, the TMLC was communicating in writing with much of the rest of the anti-revisionist movement including the OL, the August 29th Movement, the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee, the Bay Area Communist Union and others.

The Program of the TMLC was published in March, 1976. It was originally seen as a document for local recruitment, but eventually it was distributed around the country, as much to let the rest of the movement know that we existed as any other reason.

As the repression escalated against undocumented workers in the summer of 1976, the TMLC took up the challenge to provide leadership in the struggle against deportations by calling for a demonstration. Unfortunately, we did not have sufficient contacts in the community, and the demonstration was poorly organized. From this we can see that another left error was made in calling for a demonstration while unable to mobilize any significant mass support for such action.

The TMLC made contact with small study groups in Flagstaff and Tempe, but these organizations were split by struggles developing around certain elements sympathetic to the Spartacist League.

In the period from 1976 to 1977 the TMLC had begun to develop contacts with the PWOC and the Committee of Five. The TMLC met with a representative of the PWOC in Tucson, and attended Trend conferences in 1977. The TMLC also sent the Committee of Five its critical endorsement of the original 18 Points of Unity for the establishment of a leading ideological center. Since that time the TMLC has publicly stated in its pamphlet on party building its disagreement with the Committee’s “fusionist” strategy for party building.

Internal Work

Though education was very important for the collective, there was a great unevenness in the theoretical development of collective members. New members entering the collective were often behind and no special measures were taken to correct this, despite the collective being conscious of the problem. Educationals were run without any long term planning. The collective did not really grasp how to study or what was necessary. Topics were picked simply because they were interesting; unsystematically and without a strategy. But once a series of topics were chosen, the leadership of the educationals was rotated between all collective members, who would prepare one or two week educationals. Some of the topics were: the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Trotskyism, the Stalinian deviation, political economy, Gramsci on culture and dialectical materialism.

In the summer of 1976, an attempt was initiated to engage in theoretical work on three distinct topics, the national question and racism, labor unions and the special oppression of working women. The collective decided that splitting into 3 work groups would permit a division of labor to prepare positions in the areas outlined. Overall, each of the groups engaged in quite a bit of study, sometimes focused, sometimes on an individual basis, and even leading to rough drafts of position papers. But, the breakdown of a collective style of work in these attempts led to the failure to produce any finished documents. The primary aspect of this failure was that the collective did not grasp the nature of theoretical practice and did not have a strategy of how to produce a collective position paper.

During this period we also engaged in an important discussion of the nature of the socialist transition period. We studied Sweezy and Bettelheim’s On the Transition to Socialism, Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program and Lenin on the dictatorship of the proletariat, among other things. This discussion led to a critique of the Soviet Union, which included the study of Nicholas’ book The Restoration of Capitalism in the USSR, articles in the Guardian and various other positions. We developed our own position out of these discussions.

In October, 1976, a position paper on party building and one on the international situation were published. With the publication of these documents, coupled with the developments in Angola, the TMLC broke permanently with the dogmatist sectarians. The documents were intended to demarcate the TMLC from the dogmatists on these two major questions facing the movement. Though the documents were clearly an important step in the development of the collective’s political line, and reflected much theoretical study and debate, certain theoretical weaknesses are more easily seen now. Part of the problem, again, was the inability to develop a collective style for their production, most of the work falling, at this time, on one comrade.

The paper on party building put forward a basic anti-revisionist position, but clearly pinpointed the danger of dogmatism. This paper articulated the four social practices of society: economic, political, ideological and theoretical; but failed to develop a sufficient explanation of these practices. In this paper the collective attempted to develop a position that raised organizational practice to the same level as the other four fundamental practices. Currently the TMLC no longer holds to such a theory, though we do recognize the vital importance of organizational practice).

The paper on the international situation distinguished the TMLC from the flunkyism of the dogmatists and the revisionists at the same time. However, certain economist errors were made in analyzing the nature of the Soviet Union, including undue emphasis on productive forces and relations, and not sufficient attention to political and ideological aspects, in the characterization of the USSR.

The need for a more theoretical treatment of both subjects was forgone with the intent of presenting an ideological polemic aimed at the anti-revisionist movement in general. As other forces were demarcating themselves from the dogmatists in the anti-revisionist movement, on the national level notably the Ann Arbor Collective (M-L) and the Guardian newspaper at this time, the TMLC saw a need to communicate its stand to a national audience and copies of the position papers were sent all over the country. However, there was little response. Only with the Ann Arbor Collective and a study group in Chico, California, were real concrete ties developed.

Behind all the external work, both local and national, was an internal struggle as to which was primary, theoretical development or mass community work. Struggles over the level of participation in mass work caused serious problems towards the end of 1976. This question was not fully resolved until early in 1977. Previously, there was also a struggle over the busing question, with a resolution finally passed offering critical support for the busing of students to achieve racial integration in Tucson, only if it was in the interest of, and supported by the minority community. This occurred at the time when study and debate were centering around the special oppression of Blacks and the special oppression of working women. In fact, heated discussion within the group exposed serious political disagreements on certain fundamental questions, especially democratic centralism.. Certain elements who continued to advocate the “China line” on the international question and others who advocated an objectively bourgeois feminist line and personalism left the group. Thus, a relatively small group was weakened numerically, but strengthened politically because the core group came to reach a higher level of understanding and unity.

End of the First Period

From the beginning of 1977 until May, the collective proceeded on a more or less stable basis, studying and engaging in mass work as the situation permitted, which was to an extremely limited degree. Activity continued to center around internal and external study, and comrades were involved in the local US-China Peoples’ Friendship Association, the National Lawyers Guild and an anti-Bakke coalition. The TMLC continued to be the only revolutionary organization in Tucson, but its presence was not widely felt in the community.

To summarize: the first period of the TMLC, from September 1975 to May, 1977, can be characterized by uneven theoretical development among collective members, unsystematic study and a lack of long term planning. The major positive aspect of this period, however, was that, the collective was basically a strong and united body with dedicated cadre. This fact made it possible for the collective to break with its past and usher in a new period.

A New Period: Bolshevization and Rectification

May of 1977 saw the collective reach a point where the stability of the group was more correctly recognized as stagnation. A campaign of bolshevization of the style of work and political line of the collective and the rectification of the theoretical basis for all collective work was initiated. This process was very slow and extremely difficult at first, but as more and more comrades began to recognize the need for both campaigns, momentum picked up and enthusiasm was generated to such a degree that the collective was able to take on the task of breaking down the general isolation from the national movement. This was accomplished through the collective production of the TMLC’s paper on party building, “Party Building Tasks in the Present Period: On Theory and Fusion,” and through the publication of the Theoretical Review in conjunction with comrades from the Ann Arbor Collective (M-L). Next, the TMLC sent a delegation to San Francisco to meet with close comrades there, and with the Chico Collective, the Bay Area Guardian Club and a few other anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communists who claimed to adhere to the primacy of theory line.

While the collective was making these changes in its national contact work, there were many internal changes. The collective started meeting weekly rather than every other week (a practice begun when the collective divided into 3 work groups), an internal intensive study group was started to raise the theoretical level of the lesser developed members, internal educationals at general meetings were systematized – set programs of study around specific topics (such as dialectical materialism, historical materialism, etc.) building understanding each week from what was studied the previous week. As regards external study groups, the collective saw that it was necessary to have them planned out well in advance, and decide who was to lead the study group, how the fraction would operate, what would be studied and in what order, and why each educational was important, before people were recruited into the study group.

Because of the tasks the collective was setting for itself, it became necessary to bolshevize its work. Members had to discipline their time, meetings had to be run efficiently, assignments had to be written out and made clear. A new leadership structure with defined roles was initiated, more in line with the demands of collective work. Finally, documents on rectification and bolshevization were drawn up and approved and a detailed six month program was agreed upon, with all members playing a part in its development.

The Current Situation

Today, with a good response to our party building paper and the growing list of subscribers to the Theoretical Review, we feel that the goal of developing a national presence has been realized to a certain extent; though we in no way intend to exaggerate the influence we exercise within the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces. However, a recent visit to the Boston area has pointed out that the Theoretical Review is recognized as a theoretical force to be dealt with by even those who do not adhere to the primacy of theory line.

The last run of 600 copies of the 5th issue of the Theoretical Review is almost sold out, and this issue we printed 900 copies with the intent of continuing to increase circulation. A number of bookstores like Modern Times in San Francisco, New World Resource Center in Chicago and Red Book in Cambridge carry the pamphlet and the Theoretical Review. We exchange subscriptions and advertising with many journals and periodicals, and the mention of the first issue of the Theoretical Review in the April issue of Monthly Review and the review in the Guardian further helped to increase circulation.

Although the TMLC is beginning to exert national theoretical leadership, the collective remains relatively isolated politically from other communist organizations in the country. We have been following the developments of groups such as the Guardian Club network (especially with the San Francisco and Boston Clubs), the PWOC and the Organizing Committee, the Chico Collective and the San Francisco study group network through the exchange of documents and through meetings with members and representatives of various groups. We are also in regular contact with several study groups including ones in the San Francisco Bay area, Kansas City and the Boston area.

The composition of our group is predominantly white, one third women and over one half workers, the rest being students. Tucson is a city of 400,000 with a sizeable Chicano community and smaller Black and Papago and Yaqui Indian communities. We have members who work in the copper mines (the major industry of southern Arizona), the hospitals, schools and certain unions, as well as students. The TMLC has begun working with a local chapter of the U.I.S.U.S. on the U of A campus in building local demonstrations against the Shah of Iran.

But our past practice in mass work has shown us the futility of hoping for more than to recruit only relatively few individuals to participate in communist activity at this time, due to the limited number of truly advanced workers in the US working class. However, our contacts have provided us with a source of slow but steady growth. Our current emphasis is not on growth, though, but rather on the integration and consolidation of the present membership. We have found that old problems such as recruitment on the basis of personal reasons more than political reasons, and the lack of a truly collective style of theoretical production have not been completely overcome.

With our emphasis on theory and our recognition of the need to win over anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist forces nationally to the primacy of theory line, we are very busy, trying to develop correspondence with sympathetic forces and encouraging people to contribute to the Theoretical Review. But it is also no easy task to integrate new members while attempting to raise the theoretical level of all members. As a counter to those who say that our primary emphasis on theory and the development of cadre would alienate workers, we have found that workers recruited to the collective especially see the need to struggle with as much and diverse theory as possible as quickly as possible, pushing to have extra readings rather than fewer. Through our practice we have seen that trade union militants can be won to the position that they can make their most important contributions at this time in the realm of theoretical practice with sufficient training and extensive study. Of course this does not eliminate other work in the union.

A recent struggle in the collective has been over theoreticism, a failure to draw the links between our theoretical practice and our political practice. This particularly became clear in our study of Bettelheim’s Class Struggles in the USSR: 1917-1923. It became clear that we were not translating our theoretical understandings into political understanding. But through principled struggle, based on the principle of “unity, struggle, unity,” we have taken steps to rectify this error. We recognize that this deviation from Marxism-Leninism will always be a possibility within the position of the primacy of theory, but we also recognize that such a deviation can and must be combated in order that theoretical work be advanced.

The major step that we have taken to combat theoreticism Is to have regular political educationals, supplementary to the regular collective educationals, which address specific political questions, such as bureaucracy, democratic centralism and the recent Silber/Newlin party building debates. The latest and most important struggle against theoreticism has followed from our analysis that the conjuncture dictates internal political practice to be primary as well as theory, in the party building forces at this time. We hope this struggle will not only clarify the theoretical/political practice relationship within the collective, but will also help us overcome our political isolation from the national movement.

We are in the process of finishing up our 6 month evaluation and developing a plan for the next 6 months. This too has provided an arena for principled struggle, and the collective is more aware of the tasks we must address immediately. Particularly, our external study group plan will be revised, our recruitment policy is being reviewed and revised and we intend to work to develop the political aspects of our work to more closely coincide with our theoretical work: nationally, by distributing this bulletin; and locally, by developing a clear ideological political program.

Though this short history by no means covers all of our experiences, it gives a fair representation of the development of the TMLC from its beginnings to the present.