Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Barry Litt

A self-critical look at CPML work in the Lawyers Guild

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 29, August 4-17, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The National Lawyers Guild–an organization of seven thousand lawyers, law students and legal workers–is holding its national convention in Boston Aug. 6-10. The Guild has a long history of political activism and organizing legal support for popular movements.

Barry Litt, a member of the CPML and a long-time activist in the Lawyers Guild, was recently interviewed about the CPML’s views on some of the issues facing the Guild as it enters the 1980s.

* * *

The Call: Could you give us some background on the Lawyers Guild and its work?

Barry Litt: The Lawyers Guild was founded in 1937 as a progressive, multinational alternative to the American Bar Association (ABA). It had close ties to both the CIO and the Black movement, and engaged in a broad range of activities in the legal, electoral, legislative and public arenas. Today it is active in support of a broad range of progressive causes.

The Guild encompasses many different left perspectives. Such a situation has often resulted in sectarianism and in-fighting. What is the situation in the NLG?

Frankly, the situation has not been that good, although there have been improvements in the last period of time. I should add that the CPML’s own errors have helped make sectarianism a problem in the Guild.

But also, there are in fact sharp differences of opinion on various questions, and many people feel strongly about their views. This has a good side to it, but it can often lead to a lack of flexibility and respect for other views.

Second, the left is still fairly isolated from the masses, and this fact often gives rise to a subjective and self-righteous style of work where the need to unite as broadly as possible is neglected or forgotten. Third, a certain tendency towards intellectualism contributes to rigidity and dogmatism.

And finally, there is a tradition of dogmatism and sectarianism in the left going back many decades, which has been especially strong in the last 10 to 15 years for reasons too complex to delve into here.

For our part, the CPML made many sectarian mistakes in the past in our work in the NLG. We tried to make our view on various questions–notably on clear opposition to both superpowers and to the revisionist CPUSA–the dividing line in the Guild.

We have been increasingly criticizing this in the past period. As a result, we have made some progress in helping to promote a more unified organization, and one in which different opinions can be presented in a constructive way and on the basis of mutual respect.

Generally, I believe that our efforts to promote unity in the Guild have met with a favorable response. We have tried to be careful to distinguish our opinions, which we present openly, from what positions are appropriate for the Guild, given its united front character and the range of views held in the organization.

On the other hand, some all-out apologists and defenders of the USSR have hampered the Guild’s work by attempting to prevent active participation by those who strongly oppose the Soviet role in the world.

The Guild has an opportunity to make a contribution to the whole left movement in the U.S. by providing an example of how to unite, while simultaneously carrying out discussion and debate over differences.

You mentioned international events in your last comment. Has there been much controversy in this area?

The international situation has been the main focus of political debate within the organization. This is understandable because this question is also the center of the political struggle within the left generally.

The Guild was transformed by an influx of young activists in the late 1960s. Most of them had been involved in the anti-war movement and had developed a just hatred for U.S. imperialism and respect for the people of Indochina, especially Vietnam.

Thus, the changes of the past ten years which have seen a weakened U.S. and an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union –are big questions in the Guild. When the issue of the Soviet Union was first raised in the Guild in the 1974-1975 period, very few members considered it a serious question for the anti-imperialist movement. Now–after Ethiopia, Kampuchea (Cambodia), and especially Afghanistan–many Guild members are reexamining their understanding.

Although our views on the Soviet danger are well known, we are not in favor of the Guild taking an explicit overall stand on this question. In time, a relative consensus may develop; for now, it does not exist. Our view is that the Guild should do work in support of third world liberation and independence, should oppose U.S. domination of other countries, should oppose expansionism and aggression, and should fight for peace and against the arms race. The Guild should follow an independent policy and not line up behind either superpower. In summary, it should follow an international policy of nonalignment.

I believe there is a developing majority view in the organization which shares this view of what policy the Guild should adopt and the view that the international discussion is important but should not occupy an inordinate amount of the organization’s attention.

The CPML has recently been giving great attention to criticizing ultra-leftism and doctrinaire thinking in its work. Does this have any relevance for the Lawyers Guild?

Yes. All I can do here is give a couple of examples.

Anyone who has ever been to a national meeting of the Lawyers Guild knows that the left is very visible. The debate which occurs often assumes a familiarity with the left and Marxist terminology and further assumes a willingness to enter into debate on those terms.

While some people who have not been previously exposed to this find it stimulating, many progressive minded people react that the Guild is for Marxists or revolutionaries, not for them. This is unfortunate, and cuts the Guild off from attracting members who can make contributions to its work.

I believe that the Guild needs to give conscious attention to improving its style of work, and broadening its outreach. There should be room in the organization for all those who support progressive causes and want to use their legal abilities to help serve the people’s struggle.

Another example is in the area of electoral and legislative work. Although there has been some forward motion, this area has been by and large neglected. It would be useful for the Guild to organize a political discussion of this type of work, and to develop a program of activity for their field. This should include a discussion of the potential of a third party movement.

Of course, none of this is to say that the work the Guild has done has been bad. Rather it has been too narrow, too based on pre-conceptions of what constitutes legitimate left activity.

This should be seen as much a self-criticism as a criticism of anyone else. The CPML, in its work in the Guild, has been as guilty of ultra-leftism as anyone, and at times we have been among its main proponents (such as in our attack on the Sadlowski campaign in the United Steelworkers union or a tendency to label legislative work “revisionist”).

What do you see as the main issues facing the Guild in the coming period?

I have already touched on some of them –the need to broaden out, to build unity, and continue the debate over international affairs. Another issue in building the Guild is a genuinely multinational organization, which will undoubtedly take time. Success in this effort will largely be determined by how seriously the Guild mobilizes in the fight against national oppression, and continues to develop cooperation with minority legal and political organizations. Such activities as the anti-Klan network and the fight for affirmative action are vital.

An issue which requires much more attention is the Guild’s program, in both the political and legal spheres. While the Guild has done much in the areas which I mentioned earlier, there is a certain sense of drift. Many progressive-minded lawyers do not find the Guild program sufficiently relevant, concrete, or organized to get things done.

This is also bound up with the concurrent need to give more attention to the professional aspects of the Guild’s work so that it provides sophisticated legal training and discussion as well as activities which will put those skills to use.

In addition, the Guild is faced with many of the same questions which face the left in general. These include analyzing the direction of the economy, the directions that U.S. ruling circles are taking, the danger of an organized right-wing movement, the development of various trends within the mass movements, etc. A clear sense of direction and priorities can hopefully be developed.

It is impossible to discuss all of these, so I will use just one illustration. The main trend in the Guild labor work has for some time now been to sharply criticize the sellout policies of the top labor bureaucracy. But now we see the signs of divergent tendencies within the organized labor movement, and the turn of some labor officials to a more militant trade unionism or “democratic socialism.” 1 believe that this tendency is mainly positive because it reflects a growing awareness of the need to organize the labor movement against the increasing attacks on workers and minorities.

The Guild, like all of us, will have to grapple with this and many other questions in the coming period. I am optimistic that, along with the progressive movement as a whole, it can mature and gain a more developed understanding of how to successfully carry out its work and build the struggle in the future.