Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist)

Commentary by Workers Congress (M-L):
Learn from Past Errors of NCOBD-ABDC
Struggle Against Sectarianism

First Published: The Communist, Vol. V, No. 6, February 5, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In this issue of THE COMMUNIST we are reprinting a sum-up of the Planning Committee which was supposed to put together the unified anti-Bakke march in Washington, D.C. last April 15th. This sum-up was distributed last summer by its authors and we should have reprinted it much sooner. But its lessons are not outdated.

The struggle to unite forces nationally to defend and expand affirmative action is still going on. In particular the issue of joint actions around the Weber Case confronts us today. The USWA and other unions, women’s organizations, minority groups, coalitions, etc., are all beginning to recognize the tremendous impact of the Weber decision due from the Supreme Court this year. With a correct line and methods of work, Marxist-Leninists can play an important role in the affirmative action movement. But to do so we must learn from past work like the planning committee.

Contributions to our revolutionary experience come from many different parts of the movement. An important task of an Iskra-type newspaper to help gather these resource Certainly this sum-up from two lawyers in the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) demonstrates one important kind of contribution they can make.

Another important contribution that legal groups like the National Lawyers Guild, Black American Law Students Association (BALSA), La Raza Legal Alliance, and others make is their actual legal role in the courts to defend equal rights. Historically, revolutionary and progressive lawyers have made many real contributions in defense of the rights of workers and oppressed peoples. During the 30’s the International Labor Defense (ILD) was important in defending the rights of the Scottsboro Boys. Today we see the same kinds of efforts in response to the many attacks coming down on working and oppressed people all over the country.

Not only do these lawyers contribute legal assistance, but many of them are also directly involved with building the powerful mass movement required to insure real victories in the courts. For example, the sum-up states that at their 1977 convention the NLG adopted the view that the defense of affirmative action needed a broad, united front movement and “advised Guild people to engage in mass work around the Bakke case.” We agree with this view and encourage other legal associations also to help build a powerful mass movement around affirmative action. Without such a movement to rely on, the legal battles around Weber will be weakened, like a boxing glove without a fist inside.

To be able to unite all who can be united we must recognize that differences among the many forces will exist. In the case of the planning committee, the differences that caused it to end were not matters of political principles. Rather, the obstruction to a joint march was the narrow sectarianism of the leadership of both NCOBD and ABDC.

The sum-up describes the errors made on the Planning Committee by NCOBD and ABDC as “left” opportunist errors. But sectarianism can have a “left” or right character depending on how it is carried out in practice. It is not automatically a “left” error.

In the case of the Planning Committee the errors described in the sum-up didn’t show the “left” character of raising political principles which would obstruct joint actions around the march. The authors state, “At no time during the negotiations did any principled political differences arise.” In fact the common political line of the slogans i had been agreed upon at the February 24th meeting in New York.

What is described was more the tactical infighting which subordinated the mass struggle to overturn the Bakke decision to the particular interests of the two groups. This is sectarianism which has a right opportunist character.

In a similar way the narrow interests of many trade union officials are a main obstacle keeping unions from supporting each other during a strike or joining mass coalitions around common struggles such as the Weber case. The same thing happens among communist organizations who resort to undemocratic maneuvering in mass organizations in order to protect their “own turf.” These are also examples of right sectarianism which subordinates the broad interests of the proletariat to the narrow, self-interest of individuals or groups.

Looking back over the past year or so, have the leaders of NCOBD and ABDC lived up to these authors’ expectations to be “sincere, hard-working, and dedicated in the struggle to defend and expand affirmative action and all democratic rights”? For Marxist-Leninists “only social practice can be the criterion of truth” (Mao, On Practice). As for the NCOBD, it no longer exists as a nationwide coalition because its leaders abandoned the very struggle they claimed to lead. ABDC continues to operate, but on a different path (see THE COMMUNIST, Vol.4, #20, Sep.78) Support work for the United League of Northern Mississippi is important work for all progressive forces and ABDC is correct to be part of that. But that support work cannot replace the ongoing efforts needed to defend and expand affirmative action in every factory, mine, mill, school, and community in the U.S. This is what must be done and forces are emerging to take up that task.

One thing we have learned is that affirmative action struggles are prolonged and complex. For a young and inexperienced movement that means mistakes will be made and the lessons of our work are especially valuable. We call on all those who have been part of the affirmative action struggle to share your own views and experiences in the pages of THE COMMUNIST.

Among communists in this struggle there has been an underlying failure to rely on orthodox Marxism-Leninism to develop a correct communist line and tactics which can unite all who can be united around affirmative action. Rather there has been too much of tailing the spontaneous movement from one upsurge to another.

By learning from our experience building a common, leading political line, we lay a more firm foundation for the broad, democratic mass movement we need to build. Many forces with many differences must learn to join together in the spirit of unity and struggle, defeat the fragmentation and narrowness which holds us back, and move forward boldly to defend and expand affirmative action.

* * *

Sum-Up by Members of the National Lawyers Guild: The Struggle Against Left Opportunism and Towards Unity in the Anti-Bakke Movement

From the time Bakke was decided by the California Court, members of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), particularly the Minority Legal Resources Task Force (MLRTF) became involved in the struggle to overturn the decision. Now that the Supreme Court has decided the case as it did, it is clear that the struggle will have to be intensified; that the need to build a broad and politically conscious movement is imperative if we are to prevent a total rollback of the gains won by the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

We felt then, and feel now that Bakke and its progeny, and the affirmative action issue in general is one around which a broad movement could, and must, be united. The position paper put out at the Guild Seattle Convention in August, 1977, adopted in large measure by the Convention, spoke to the need for such a movement and advised Guild people to engage in mass work around the Bakke case. The position paper recognized that no one group today is capable of building this mass movement on its own, that coalitions would have to be built, and that we could find ourselves working with groups with whom we did not have complete unity. The paper stressed the need, to promote united action between groups taking up the anti-Bakke struggle, specifically calling on members to work with the Anti-Bakke Decision Coalition (ABDC), the National Committee to Overturn the Bakke Decision (NCOBD), and the Black American Law Students Association (BALSA), and to encourage united action between ABDC and NCOBD.

The paper also posed certain questions intended to target problems that could develop in our working relationships with a group or groups. Among them were questions that dealt with the issue of organizational opportunism, that is, the placing of the interest of the organization over the interest of the movement as a whole, the desire to achieve organizational hegemony and take credit in the waging of a struggle at the expense of the; struggle itself, etc. To this end we asked:

Do(es) the group(s) take proprietary interest in certain coalitions or actions in such a way as not to allow others involved, to engage in principled struggle for their tactical or political positions?

Will the group(s) fight for principled unity for united action, that is, will they raise ’tactical emphases to points of political principle to justify ’splits’? Will the group(s) coordinate with others around events, so as not to set up competing events that dissipate the mass movement?

Our experience with what was to become the Planning Committee for a unified Washington D.C. March on April 15 1978 is detailed in this paper, The Guild still holds to the views expressed in the Seattle position paper. We still feel that no one group or coalition can build the mass movement necessary to fight off the attacks on affirmative action. Because we still hold this view, this paper undertakes to evaluate and review a portion of the “history” of the anti-Bakke movement, that portion concerned with our participation in the Planning Committee.

A lot has been said and speculated about what caused the failure to achieve a united march. Although we warned against the danger of organizational opportunism, nevertheless, in our opinion, it was organizational opportunism, and not any principled political differences that destroyed the efforts at a united action. We would like to make it clear at the outset that our criticisms of both coalitions for their organizational opportunism is not being made here for the first time. We expressed this opinion directly to their representatives at the time of the negotiations. It is, therefore, in the spirit of unity/struggle/ unity that we put out this evaluation and criticism of the participating groups, including ourselves, in the hope that similar errors will not be committed in the future.

We would like to begin with a brief comment on a two-article series by Melinda Paras of the NCOBD which was printed in June in the GUARDIAN.[1] We disagree with the thrust of those articles and are disappointed with the mainly self-congratulatory tone of them. More importantly, we feel it does not promote united action in the future to misrepresent what happened in the past. Melinda’s technique in these articles is to assert a proposition with which most people would agree. She describes an ultra-left approach to work in the reform struggle, or she summarizes classical definitions of incorrect united front tactics. She then applies these propositions to the ABDC, as if the ABDC had committed these errors in their anti-Bakke work. This is not to say that the ABDC, as well as NCOBD, did not commit errors of left opportunism, as we suggest in this paper. However Melinda fails to discuss or account for these errors, as committed on both sides, and by ignoring what really happened, she is making no inroads to rectifying errors that were made by both groups. This article, then, only perpetuates the errors which we discuss, by promoting the NCOBD, rather than advancing the struggle for a united movement.

From our experience in the Planning Committee we cannot state what the political differences between these two coalitions are. At no time during the negotiations did any principled political difference arise. Organizational questions were the only considerations that were raised. We would, nonetheless, be naive if we failed to note that the leading organizations in each of these coalitions represent two different tendencies on the left today.

Certainly political differences exist between these two coalitions. We have heard and read in some of the publications of member organizations within the coalitions that a key difference between them is in political line on the root cause of discrimination, with the ABDC holding that national oppression of the Afro-American, Chicano nations, and of national minorities in the United States is the cause, and the NCOBD believing the cause to be the racism of the dominant oppressor white race.[2] ABDC also placed a greater emphasis on the discrimination of women in connection with Bakke than did NCOBD. The most frequently debated difference in the often unprincipled “polemics” between the groups was whether to target the Supreme Court and the University regents equally (ABDC), or target the Supreme Court mainly and the University regents secondarily. (See Melinda Paras’ GUARDIAN article June 21, 1978). This particular issue, in our opinion, was an example of incorrectly raising a tactical difference to a point of principle.

We are of the opinion that the differences between these two coalitions over anti-Bakke work were not substantial but that the problems and antagonisms between them reflect more of what is generally amiss on the left today: divisiveness, fragmentation, sectarianism.

Both groups had a common point of unity: support for Affirmative Action. The political differences between them were not of such a nature as to have prevented them from working together on a demonstration, that is, they had no practical effect. Neither put forth a political position which would have, in a principled way, prevented them from working together.

To support our position that it was only organizational considerations that prevented a united march, and not principled political differences, it is necessary to review in some detail what occurred during the negotiations.


From the beginning, both NCOBD and ABDC adopted an incorrect approach to uniting the anti-Bakke movement. In November, 1977, NCOBD announced its plan for Spring, 1978. Although its plan called for uniting the anti-Bakke movement, the way it sought to forge unity was by calling events and inviting others to join in them. In view of the strained relations that already existed between ABDC and NCOBD, a successful struggle for united action between the two groups required a different initiative than the “join us” approach.

ABDC followed this approach as well. In early January, 1978, although NCOBD’s call for a national march an April 15th had been out for two months, ABDC announced its own plans for a spring offensive and floated the date of April 29th as their date for a national march. Like NCOBD, ABDC spoke of building unity and united action. Like NCOBD, building unity for ABDC was calling a demonstration and asking others to “join us.” Although it may sound non-sectarian to put out a call to “join us”, the truth is that this approach is often an unprincipled way of trying to gain organizational hegemony over a coalition or event. It is writing one’s own rules first and then inviting everyone else to follow them. At a time in history when no one organization has earned the role of leader of the mass movement, the “join us” approach is often only an invitation to a small number of very like-minded people.

Seeing that the situation was leading to two separate Washington demonstrations, two weeks apart, the Guild stepped up pressure on both coalitions to unite on a date for the Washington march.

On the weekend of our February N.E.B., the ABDC was having its national conference in Los Angeles to officially set its Spring plans. Meanwhile, NCOBD came to the N.E.B. and proposed that the Guild, BALSA, The People’s Alliance, NCOBD and ABDC form together as a “Planning Committee” to plan two national marches on April 15th, one in Washington, and one on the West Coast. NCOBD proposed these five groups because all were seen as having made a major commitment to anti-Bakke work. NCOBD characterized the Guild, BALSA, and the People’s Alliance as independent groups which could help bring unity between ABDC and NCOBD. The characterization of the People’s Alliance as “independent” was later to prove to be a major problem, but on the whole, we viewed this type of approach to forging united action as generally a correct one in that presumably, the individual coalition’s interest was to be subordinated to that of the interest of the mass movement– the uniting of all possible forces for the purpose of building the largest possible demonstration.

The ABDC, which initially rejected the proposal for these five groups to plan the demonstrations, after further discussion, changed its position and agreed to participate.


On February 24, 1978 representatives of the five groups met in New York. The meeting was very productive. The date and place for the demonstration were agreed on as were the slogans. A number of other policy decisions were adopted, including that there be one informational poster and leaflet, to be forthcoming from the Bay Area.

It did not take long, however, for the situation, which looked so promising at the New York meeting, to begin to deteriorate. NCOBD felt they couldn’t go ahead with the plans decided in New York until the question of the West Coast demonstration was settled They expressed concern that they were giving ABDC a “free ride” on the East Coast, while they were being attacked and undermined on the West Coast. NCOBD wanted an immediate response to certain proposals it made to ABDC regarding a California demonstration. ABDC insisted that they could not respond right away, but had to take the proposals to their Statewide Advisory Council which had been set up at the February conference in Los Angeles. NCOBD regarded ABDC’s claim that it had to consult its Advisory Council as “bogus”, and felt that the ABDC leadership could make decisions for the organization.

NCOBD thus constructed certain obstacles to unity that were not based on any principle, but were only organizational considerations. (1) They felt they were stronger on the East Coast than ABDC, and they did not want to give ABDC a “free ride” there unless they stood to gain organizationally on the West Coast in return. We felt that there was no way the anti-Bakke movement could benefit from such organizational maneuvering. (2) Their treatment of ABDC as less than a valid coalition by slandering the Advisory Committee structure was unprincipled and sectarian. (3) They made reaching unity on the West Coast a splitting issue on the Washington march.

NCOBD’s position and certain questions ABDC was beginning to raise about which organizations’ names would go on the poster threatened to hold up the printing of the poster. The NLG, feeling it vital to get the poster out, pushed to have an early meeting. Such a meeting took place the weekend of March 14th in California. It was a step backwards, with the NLG and BALSA representatives having to play the role of mediators throughout.

The questions ABDC was raising about what organizations’ names would appear on the poster was such an important issue for the following reason. ABDC had long been disturbed by the existence on the Planning Committee of the People’s Alliance as an “independent.” The People’s Alliance, unlike the Guild and BALSA, had not openly worked with ABDC. Its main ties were to the NCOBD, and many of its constituent groups are the constituent groups of the NCOBD. Yet, the ABDC never openly raised this concern. Instead, the ABDC sought to get the MECHAS (mainly Chicano student organizations in the West with close ties to ABDC) to have a similar position of “independence” on the Planning Committee, citing “democracy” as the reason for this addition.

Thus, ABDC was countering organizational maneuvering with organizational maneuvering of its own. Furthermore, ABDC suggested to NCOBD that it join the ABDC Advisory Council as a way of reaching unity on a California action!

As far as the NLG was concerned, there was a very real question as to the independence of the People’s Alliance. We should have flagged this as problem when we discussed NCOBD’s proposal back at the February N.E.B. After the New York meeting, we tended to downplay the issue of the “independence” of the People’s Alliance because: (1) We saw a united march as so important that the question of the “independence” of the People’s Alliance was not a splitting issue; (2) Most of e substantive decisions had been made at the New York meeting, and we could not think of an issue on which it would make a difference if the People’s Alliance were “independent” or voted with NCOBD; (3) Finally, because BALSA and the NLG were truly dependent, on any vote if the Guild and BALSA voted as a bloc we could sway it. We criticize ourselves for adopting this conciliatory and expedient approach to what was a gnawing problem throughout the negotiations. We should have struggled for our position on the first two points because we believe they were correct, but we should not have relied on a voting bloc with BALSA as a means of by-passing a difficult problem. This was not principled on our part.


The unity that had been very tenuous broke down at the final meeting in Chicago. The Guild and BALSA, attempting to assert some initiative as independent forces, presented a proposal to form a ’parallel’ Planning Committee, organized on a broader basis than the present committee, to plan the West Coast demonstration.

When this proposal was presented, everyone indicated they had substantial unity with it. But it did not take long for the same problems to re-emerge. NCOBD wanted ABDC to agree to the proposal that day. This was consistent with their earlier position that ABDC’s Advisory Committee was a “bogus” entity.

ABDC questioned the authority of the Planning Committee to “dictate” (as ABDC called it) the California events. They again said they had to take the proposal to their Advisory Board. The NLG and BALSA would have been satisfied if the ABDC representatives agreed with the proposal in principle and declared that they would try to get the Statewide Advisory Board to accept it. Numerous hints were dropped by the Guild and BALSA that all the ABDC had to do was make a commitment to struggle for acceptance by the Advisory Board. ABDC, however, did not pick up on these “hints” and continued to insist on specific assurances on the issue of “democratic representation” (Peoples Alliance, MECHAS, and other West Coast group participation) before they would make a commitment to raise the proposal and push it among their membership.

NCOBD conditioned its affirmative vote on ABDC’s agreement to be bound by a decision of the group then present. ABDC, for its part, conditioned its vote on specific answers from NCOBD, to questions NCOBD refused to discuss until ABDC agreed to be bound.

This was the impasse each group erected a stumbling block by placing a precondition on the decision to proceed with a West Coast united action.

Finally, NCOBD proposed a vote worded in terms of “balanced voting strength for the parallel planning committee”; ABDC abstained on this vote. In response to ABDC’s refusal to endorse this formulation in principle, NCOBD announced: “We believe the spirit of unity has been broken, and we no longer feel bound by this Planning Committee; we intend to build for April 15th–Those who want to join us are welcome.”


We feel that NCOBD’s interest in pursuing united action on the West Coast was legitimate, but disagree that it should have been made a splitting issue on a united Washington march. We believe further, that ABDC contributed significantly to NCOBD’s suspicions that ABDC wasn’t sincerely interested in achieving a united march on the West Coast. In addition, we think ABDC should have openly raised its objection to the Peoples Alliance as an “independent” group within the Planning Committee.

The end result here was that no united action was achieved, and the energy of the organizers was deflected from building a massive demonstration in opposition to the Bakke decision. The thrust of debate among those who were potential allies, and among whom differences should have been treated non-antagonistically was on unprincipled obstacles to unity rather than on principled political differences. NCOBD, in New York and D.C. not only excluded the ABDC, they also failed to involve the NLG and BALSA, and the very organization that was the source of unexpressed dispute, the People’s Alliance. In California, NCOBD and ABDC held separate events. In Chicago, following the Supreme Court ruling, NCOBD declined to participate in a united protest and held its own demonstration days later. The acrimony between the two coalitions still continues, although in some localities united actions have taken place.

We stress again our criticism that both groups were guided more by concerns to build or defend their own organizations than to build the anti-Bakke movement. This is not to say that the leadership and members of these two groups are not sincere, hard-working and dedicated in the struggle to defend and expand affirmative action and all democratic rights. Nor do we suggest that either NCOBD or ABDC should not take organizational concerns into consideration. It is clear that any mass movement needs leadership, and leadership must come from organizations.

Since the current period is characterized by fragmentation and disunity among groups on the left, it is inevitable that organizations such as the NCOBD and ABDC will reflect this, and vie for leadership of the movement to build their own organizations’ strength and base. We in the Guild are in favor of groups like NCOBD and ABDC putting out their theory and attempting in practice to struggle to build the movement and themselves in the process, and we believe these organizations and the movement will grow where theory and practice are good. But, where the struggle for organizational hegemony is carried out in primarily opportunist ways, in ways that the masses of people can’t understand, then in our view, no one wins. Whenever opportunist organizational struggle of this sort dominates the building of mass movements, the left gets further isolated from the very constituents we want to lead and need to lead.

We strongly feel that unless the struggle against left opportunist errors, such as were committed here – taking the form of organizational opportunism – is pursued, then future efforts to unite the broadest possible number of people to support affirmative action – and other democratic rights – will be weakened. We hope to see an evaluation of the experience in which we participated and which we have described in this paper undertaken by other groups which were involved, with the aim to improve our practice and reach – through struggle – a more effective and advanced level of unity.



[1] We would hope that the Guardian would print the ABDC’s response to Melinda’s articles, but doubt that it will. Consequently, we feel it incumbent on us to express our disapproval and disappointment with Melinda’s accounts.

[2] This is not to say that some member groups in the NCOBD do not have a class analysis; the source of this distinction is the NCOBD’s view that people did not have to adopt a class analysis in order to unite against attacks on minorities, and their decision to organize around anti-racism.