Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Pacific Collective

Pacific Collective Polemic with WC(ML)

Part 2 – Building Communist Cores

First Published: The Communist, Vol. V, No. 14, June 30, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Introduction by Workers Congress

In July and August of last year COMMUNIST ran a series of articles summing up the trade union work of the Pacific Collective (PC) and the Revolutionary Workers Collective (RWC), two groups in the San Francisco Bay area. Alongside of these sum-ups the WC(ML) ran its own critical commentaries on PC-RWC’s trade union work. This article is the second of a two part series in which the PC replies to our commentary. In this part they speak to cores and forms of organization.

Comrades who would like copies of the original series in THE COMMUNIST can write to us for them.

* * *

Flexible Use of Cores

The WC’s other main criticism of the RWC-PC work, and of the concepts guiding it, concerns our use of the closed “core” form of organization with the more developed contacts. The document submitted by the RWC explained that we formed a core of the most active and class conscious workers, those who were both interested in developing and implementing plans for work in the strike and in the long term struggles in the plant and the union, and also willing to study Marxism-Leninism with us.

Other communists’ positions that core members should only be those who agree with us on the central task of party building, and make a prior commitment to accept our organization’s leadership, were rejected as inappropriate in our concrete conditions. With such criteria, there simply would have been no core at this plant, a fact that the WC representative whom we met with appeared to accept, after a RWC comrade reported in more detail on the consciousness and commitment of the workers in question.

The summation went on to describe some strengths in the work with core members, objective obstacles to the work (i.e., weaknesses of the non-communist core members), and some serious right and “left” errors made by the communists. The main right errors were liberalism in insufficient struggle for consistent study, when some of the workers were resistant, and our underestimating the need for that study. The “left” errors which were primary were in overestimating core membersí interest in studying general theoretical works and their ability to assimilate the concepts contained in those works, as well as overestimating their overall commitment to the struggle. All this is outlined in some detail in the original article.

The PC’s separate additions to the article submitted by the RWC went into the general question of cores a little more deeply. We explained that in most any mass struggle comrades should try to apply the method of “uniting the small number of active elements around the (communist) leadership and must rely on them to raise the level of the intermediate and backward elements.” (Mao)

Unlike the concept of the advanced, which has a fixed definition because of the basically unchanging qualities needed for workers who can play a decisive role in the fusion of communism with the workers’ movement, Mao spoke of relative categories for the organizational technique he was summarizing: “the relatively active, the intermediate and the relatively backward.” These will obviously vary from place to place, so it makes no sense to spell out in advance what level of unity should be required to form a core of the best workers who come forward in any struggle anywhere. We wrote,

the concept of what form in which to work with the most progressive workers at a plant should never be cast in iron... The point is to see whom we are working with and objectively evaluate what forms will best serve the work with them....

WC’s “Economism From The ’Left’”

The WC comments criticize the RWC’s and PC’s views on cores on two levels. First, the comrades do believe that the concept of what a core is must be set in iron in the Comintern foundry, in 1930. Second, they tell us, from that unique perspective which one can achieve 2100 miles away, that rather than overestimating our particular core members, we underestimated their needs for “Marxist-Leninist ideology, politics and organization.”

Here is what they say every core must be:

By modeling a core after a factory nucleus and calling it a party type organization, we mean to emphasize that it should act as much like the primary unit of a communist party as possible. It should be small, there should be agreement on adhering to security measures, there should be voluntary agreement to discipline and the core should function in a conspiratorial manner. It should include within its scope all matters which would fall within the scope of a basic party unit– political education and the study of Marxism-Leninism, all aspects of the class struggle nationally and internationally, matters concerning collective life of core members, work in the work place and in the unions, criticism, self criticism, etc.

... RWC says it is incorrect to demand that core members follow the leadership of one particular organization. This is incorrect. How can a party organization modeled after a factory nucleus function without a single leading line? Differences will certainly arise in the core, but they should be resolved according to the model of democratic centralism.(TC, 7/31/78 p. 3)

Even at this level of generality, the idealism of this position is apparent. Party-type organizations, like factory nuclei, are for communists. We would love to work with workers who manifested this level of unity, discipline, breadth of political interests and commitment. When we are working with such workers, people who are willing to accept what the WC comrades consider democratic centralist leadership, they will be in our organizations. But the question is, what do communists do with our most developed, closer worker contacts if they are not at all ready for membership in communist party-type organizations?

Moving from general questions to the practical application of the WC here declares to be “basic principles and line of Marxism-Leninism”, one can only conclude that we were not supposed to form a core. In fact, probably the majority of communists in the majority of workplaces in this country are not supposed to form cores. All that is left is to work in broader forms, like caucuses and entire union locals, and not try to work more closely – and at a higher level– with the most developed workers who come forward in those broader forms. And the WC calls us economist!

This position on cores is stated in the first WC commentary, but it is not until the third, where they deal with our fuller elaboration of the position that the question of forms of organization for mass work is a tactical matter, that the authors reach a high level of dogmatic self-righteousness. They cite a 1930 Comintern resolution on factory-nuclei, intone that “(t)hroughout its history the COMINTERN had to fight for its line against the reformist tendencies (on questions of organization) from the old socialist parties,” and conclude that “(i)n capitulation to reformism the PC has ignored it.” (TC, 8/28/78, p. 3)

In fact, the Comintern struggled long and hard, and not always successfully, to get the various parties to concentrate on organizing nuclei in the factories, rather than “clubs” or what have you, based in neighborhoods of residence. The first form of organization both reflects and encourages a commitment to making “every factory a fortress” of the proletarian socialist movement. The other corresponds to overemphasizing electoral politics, “community struggles” that cross class lines, and formation of looser groups that are more social or discussion-oriented than disciplined units of a revolutionary organization.

This has nothing to do with the question at issue–forms of organization for non-communist, indeed, non-socialist-of-any-kind, worker contacts who are nevertheless the most developed that we find in a particular struggle. The Comintern was not immune from mistakes, but we doubt that they ever reached the point of decreeing, “No small, closed working groups with more developed contacts, except for factory nuclei.”

The WC comrades do leave themselves an escape clause from their “left” rhetoric about how all cores must be modeled after factory nuclei (and the rightist essence of doing no core work at all if these perfect conditions are not met):

We should not form a core without preparing the conditions, and this takes longer in some situations than in others. Our tactics must always remain flexible.

...The question of a form for a particular mass organization is a matter of tactics.

What is this, a quiet abandonment of the whole argument? But how does one prepare the conditions? The WC does not say. We seek to prepare the conditions for forming their kind of core, by trying to carry out effective mass work, at lower and higher levels, including using our kind of core for work at the plant in question.

If the WC objects to this, then they do in fact advocate relying only on broader, open, lower-level forms of organization (like caucuses) until some workers magically decide that they want to join a party-type unit under the discipline of a communist organization. If the WC does not object to our using such forms, then our “reformism” and throwing “basic principles and line of Marxism-Leninism out the window” boil down to this: we use the word core for a form that the WC would call by some other name.

Gauging Core Work–Analogy or Facts?

But the brave struggle against our economism does not end here. After concluding that we formed a core with too low a level of unity, which could only mean that we opened it to workers who were too undeveloped for core work, the WC authors turn around and say,

It seems clear to us from the facts reported that RWC’s major error was in lagging behind the needs of core members for Marxist-Leninist ideology, politics and organization. In spite of workers (not necessarily all) who took up the study of Marxism-Leninism in the course of the strike, and in particular who took up the successful study of Kota’s TWO OPPOSING LINES IN THE WORLD TRADE UNION MOVEMENT, which is not an easy book, RWC (and the PC, it should be added) pretends that they ’jumped too far ahead of individuals that composed our core’ and they ’overestimated the level of the subjective factor’. We were not there, but to us this sounds too much like the refrain of the economists exposed by Lenin in What is to be Done? For example: ’the mass of workers themselves have not yet advanced the broad and militant political tasks that revolutionaries are attempting to ’impose upon them’”. (TC, 7/31/78) We were there, and to us this passage in the WC article “sounds too much like the refrain of” the Trotskyites exposed by Stalin in THE ANGLO-RUSSIAN UNITY COMMITTEE. For example, the Trotskyites argued that only Mensheviks think “that it is not permissible for Marxists to skip over and ignore the backwardness of the masses...[8]

The WC articles cites one “fact reported”, in support of their conclusion: core members studied some Marxist-Leninist works, including the parts of the Kota book which deal with the trade union bureaucracy. (These sections, by the way, are not all that difficult. Moreover, as the RWC pointed out, core members were interested in this reading in a way that they were not interested in more basic Marxist-Leninist materials because it explained the problems they were facing with their own union bureaucracy.)

Missing from this long-distance evaluation of “the facts reported” in the summation are the statements that the communists mistakenly assumed that core members were grasping the study well enough “to integrate the principles and the analysis into their developing views on strategy and tactics”; that the core members needed “a lot more focused and specifically prepared study materials”, since they were having trouble grasping or even maintaining an interest in more general works about Marxism-Leninism, that “attendance and participation in meetings that focused on tactics (for the strike struggle) was high”, relative to the broader discussions we initiated; that we did not recognize the need to train the workers in agitational and organizational work (assuming that they, like us, already felt able to speak out publically and to organize); that there was a “resurgence of individualism (among core members) following the strike”, including a “desire to retreat at least temporarily from the struggle and from disciplined activity”; and that in general there was unfavorable response to many of the demands we were placing on these workers. Finally, noticeably absent from the summation’s list of positive achievements with core members was any statement that they desired to study more, or otherwise learn more about communism.

The WC comrades are so tied to their preconceptions that somehow the one fact of reading part of Kota, and being open to trying some of the other materials we gave the workers, shines out as the dominant fact of the summation of core work and proves that we underestimated the interests and abilities of these workers.

We should not say “somehow”, though, since the rest of the WC’s argument, quoted above, makes the “how” clear. They make a historical comparison between our stating that our main errors were overestimation of these particular workers, and the turn-of-the-century Russian Economists’ falsely claiming that the workers were not ready to receive ideas that went beyond trade unionism.

If we had contradicted someone else’s summation of right errors in their own work not with facts, but with Stalin’s statement about Trotskyites disdaining anyone who takes into account the backwardness of the masses at a particular time, the WC would have recognized such a mode of argument as dogmatic garbage. True, ultra-lefts think we should “ignore the backwardness of the masses” when the people are backward; and, yes, rightists falsely consider a correct analysis of the workers’ level of development to be an “overestimation of the level of the subjective factor.”

But consistent Marxist-Leninists also criticize themselves for not ignoring the ’backwardness’ of the masses where that “backwardness” is fictitious, and they state that they have overestimated the consciousness and commitment of certain workers when they have really done so. And the latter is what we did with our core.

We went into WC’s dogmatic method of reasoning because it is not, unfortunately rare in the Workers Congress’s analysis of the tasks facing US communists. In fact that method enables them to lift the whole “ISKRA plan” of party building from a different time, place, and conditions, without presenting an analysis as to why the substantially different circumstances call for no serious modification of that particular party building plan.

This brings us to the third topic we want to address, besides the questions concerning advanced workers and cores that are the focus of the WC polemic. However, our starting point for considering some aspects of the “ISKRA plan” is an observation on the WC comrades’ methods of struggle. We noticed a striking difference between their bitter attacks on what they see as our errors, and their comradely manner of struggle with at least some other forces with whom they have equally serious differences.

We are not, unfortunately, able to read THE COMMUNIST with a great degree of regularity, but from time to time we have noticed an uncommon absence of the sectarian tone and methods of so many of the polemics in our movement. The WC seems to understand that serious errors can still be the mistakes of sincere revolutionaries, and that many such people can sooner or later overcome their own opportunism and be won over to the correct line, though some will turn out to be enemies who must be defeated.

Their criticisms of the material submitted by the RWC are a model of this approach. A number of positive criticisms and areas of unity are carefully noted: the decision to consciously evaluate past work, and to publish the summation so as to both teach others and receive criticism; the correct general line on trade union work (transforming unions into mass revolutionary organizations); tactical flexibility in using a number of forms of mass work; open self-criticism for weakness of economism and a spontaneous method of work; and thoroughness in evaluating the outcome of the contract struggle at the plant. “Serious differences” are treated as just that, in the WC commentary, and errors are often attributed to inexperience.

We, on the other hand, are characterized as a group who does not come out openly as Economists only because Economism has long been refuted. We revise Lenin and Stalin, seek to clear the way for primarily trade union agitation in the work of communists, throw basic principles and line of Marxism-Leninism out the window, and capitulate to reformism. No positive aspects of our analysis or practice are mentioned.

What makes these attacks so surprising, aside from the fact that the comrades probably knew nothing about us other than what can be gleaned from the one article, is that all of the positive criticisms applied to the RWC apply equally to us. (The documents make clear that the work was joint, much of the discussion and even some of the writing that resulted in the summation finally submitted by the RWC were joint, and we agreed with everything important in that document except where we stated differences. Some of the positive points mentioned by the WC were results of our contributions.) Furthermore, the only differences with us which the WC comrades go into are on questions on which we and the RWC took the same positions (advanced workers, cores)!

At the “mini-forum” referred to previously, spokespersons for the WC, the RWC, and the PC all agreed that the distinguishing feature of our article’s treatment of both questions was simply that we went more deeply into the reasons supporting the positions expressed by the RWC. Why was this enough to make the comrades give up their comradely, though sharp, style of criticism, for vitriolic denunciations of conscious Economists?

We think that the answer is that we inadvertently attacked the justification for the WC’s “ISKRA plan”. Such a plan must depend on conditions here being comparable to those existing in Russia at the turn of the century, when ISKRA met the needs of the Russian Marxists. For certainly the use of an ISKRA type newspaper in party building is not a universal principle of Marxism-Leninism. Of the other parties whose history we have read (the Communist Party of China, the Party of Labor of Albania, and the Vietnam Workers Party), none used such a tool. As the Proletarian Unity League asked the WC some time ago, “Why didn’t the Third International alert the Albanians, or the Koreans, or others, to this deviation?”[9]

Conditions Requiring ISKRA

This is not the place to go into our entire party building line and our differences with the WC, but we can identify some important features of the Russian situation that are absent today;
1) There were enough advanced workers for Lenin to demand the establishment of a newspaper at a level that would meet their needs, and we mean “advanced” according to the “Retrograde Trend” definition. Behind them was a “broad stratum” of intermediate workers, who were also socialists and participated in agitation. It was largely to meet the needs of such workers, and to benefit from their written contributions, that the paper was needed.
2) There was no national communist press to inform Marxist and other socialist workers about issues that went beyond narrow Local concerns, or to permit the sharing of experience. Here THE COMMUNIST is but one of many papers trying to play the role of ISKRA.
3) We do not know how the editors of THE COMMUNIST conceive of themselves, but in our opinion the U.S. communist movement has yet to develop ideological leaders with anything near Lenin’s consistent grasp of Marxism. Accordingly, no newspaper can play the guiding role in clearing up ideological confusion here that ISKRA did in Russia, or in consistently providing “political exposure which trains proletarian leaders and the oppressed masses to systematically appraise all aspects of political life ... (TC, 6/6/77, p.2)
4) By the time he launched ISKRA, Lenin had completed major theoretical investigations of Russian social development that assisted him and others to “systematically appraise” topical events. Our movement, lacking even a class analysis of U.S. society, is incredibly weak in such theoretical work.
5) The organizational tasks facing the Russian movement, which included building an entirely clandestine organization, in a setting where Marxist circles kept being broken up by arrests, could be begun by starting with the ISKRA organization’s work of building channels for smuggling correspondence and literature.

We do agree with the W.C. that those communists outside of the existing parties need to collaborate in a network to take up our party building tasks, but there is nothing in the current U.S. conditions that convinces us that an ISKRA network, i.e., a replay of the particular experience of the Russian party, is what is required in present conditions.

Rather than offer an editorial board that can present one more competing analysis of national and international events with the speed and topicality of a newspaper, communists should be concentrating our theoretical efforts on more basic investigations of the economic, political, and social structures of this society and the world at large, and on struggling out our ideological differences. As to the best vehicle for polemics over our differences, surely an article like this one is better suited for a journal than for a newspaper. And, though it is evident that our badly-needed exchange of practical experiences can be presented from time to time in the pages of a newspaper, there is nothing that makes this form superior to a journal, or the circulation of reports based on a questionnaire that would help elicit all-sided analysis.

Comrades in practice do need sources of topical exposures, but with the disunity that presently exists among us, all we can do is try to select those materials that we think are helpful and fairly correct on this or that subject, from the many competing communist newspapers. Adopting one of those papers as our central organ, or creating a new one, is possible only if one happens to have a high level of line unity with the editors of that paper. We would much prefer to see comrades engaged in systematic investigation and struggle to produce that unity, than have the focus be on rapid treatment of different issues as events raise them topically.

Unwitting Attack On “The ISKRA Plan”

We never dreamed of going into all this when we submitted our comments on a practice summation to THE COMMUNIST, and we still have not gone into it in anything near an adequate way. A much longer polemic is required for that. Even so, our first article accidentally questioned the “ISKRA plan” line, which rests largely on the Workers Congress’s belief that in our times party-building is simply a matter of winning over the advanced, and that the way to do that is primarily through use of THE COMMUNIST, while participating in workers’ struggles. (TC, 11/8/75, p. 11, and 6/6/77, p. 2.) Like the RWC, we stated that there are hardly any advanced workers in this country; unlike the RWC, we provided a more thorough explanation of the reasons why we stick to a definition of advanced that highlights one of the major differences between the situation Lenin faced and that facing us today.

The same thing happened when we discussed cores in a manner that recognized the plain fact that there are few workers in this country currently capable of being brought into “a party-type organization... modeled after a factory nucleus”, and under the democratic-centralist guidance of the communist organization forming the unit. As long as the WC comrades can pretend otherwise, they can believe that party building is mainly a matter of persuading such workers to sign up with our movement, again, using THE COMMUNIST as a primary tool. And of course one gets to avoid demoralization by believing that such a vanguard exists today.

Our unwitting exposure that the WC can have such a vanguard, composed of “thousands” of “advanced workers”, only by changing the definitions it claims to apply, and by indulging in wishful thinking about the state of the workers’ movement, apparently struck a nerve. In a network corresponding to today’s US conditions, one with some very important tasks and corresponding organizational structures, but without an ISKRA, the editors of THE COMMUNIST may or may not emerge as a leading force, depending on the quality of the ideological and practical guidance they provide. In contrast, the comrades’ continual exhortations that US communists organize for party building by considering THE COMMUNIST our ISKRA promote a party building framework which practically guarantees the WC leadership a central role.

Before closing, there is a positive criticism which we want to give the Workers Congress. Having noted that our movement has no shortage of national communist newspapers that would like to be our country’s ISKRA, we must add that there is one feature common to ISKRA and THE COMMUNIST which is absent from almost all of the others: the policy of printing documents like those which we and the RWC submitted originally, and critical polemics such as this one.

A universal adoption of such a policy in this country would at least help cure two grave problems now holding back the US communist movement: first, the proliferation of separate literary efforts that make it impossible, as the PUL has pointed out, to carry on systematic polemics on some agreed-on topics, and impossible even to keep up with what is being written; and, second, the ability of the leaders of the major parties to insulate their members from criticisms of their lines. If the comrades really are, and remain, willing to print strong criticisms of their own views, that willingness would be an important, and welcome inconsistency in the leading-circle mentality which we think now dominates those views.


[8] WORKS, 8: p.188