Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Two Veterans of the New Communist Movement Look Back

First Published: Freedom Road, No. 3, Winter 2003.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Vicky and Paul are members of FRSO and both were members of the October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), one of the organizations that was part of the New Communist Movement. Vicky is from the working class and Paul left the student movement to join many who decided to join the working class. They both were members from around 1974 to the organization’s dissolution in 1981. The purpose of this “conversation” is to talk about what life was like “in the trenches” as rank-and-file members of this organization and how we view our successes and mistakes.

Why did it make a difference to be part of a New Communist Movement organization working in the South?

Vicky: First of all, my grandparents were former sharecroppers. My mother’s family came from a town in rural, central Georgia that was too small and too economically disadvantaged to be segregated, so I was raised with some degree of colorblindness, unlike most southern working class whites. Self-proclaimed white liberals hate to hear this, but if you’re white and living under imperialism, you are inherently racist. It’s your constant struggle in this society. When I saw the map of the Black Belt and the concept of the African-American nation was explained to me, it just clicked. One of the reasons I was attracted to the OL/CP(ML) was because they had the right line on this question out of all the other organizations. Plus, they gave the best parties.

How did you build a multi-national organization in the South?

Vicky: In the Atlanta district, we tried to pay particular attention to the struggle against white supremacy in our mass organizations and in developing cadre. We addressed cultural differences, talked about white privilege, and made sure that there was minority participation in programs and in leadership. It was because of our uncompromising attitude about challenging white supremacy and supporting the right of self-determination that it made it possible to not only recruit leading members of the Black liberation movement, but also to lead popular mass struggles in the city.

By the way, our mass organization, Atlanta Fight Back, kicked ass. We rented a space across the street from the unemployment office at a time during the early 1970s economic recession. Thousands were laid off but couldn’t get their unemployment checks. If you hadn’t gotten your check, you came into our office; we marched across the street en masse and sat down in their lobby until they issued the check. Soon, they just assigned someone to assist us when they saw us coming so we wouldn’t hang around their office and get folks all stirred up. At the same time, the city was illegally evicting folks from a downtown housing project. We kept a “due process” crew there. The city would move them out; we’d move them back in. That was fun!

Paul: I grew up in a white, middle-class suburb that had a small Black community “on the other side of the tracks.” I was fortunate to go to a high school on the edge of the very segregated city of Chicago. Through school organizations, I was exposed to Black history and culture and learned more about the African-American neighborhoods in the city. The murder of Black Panther Party member Fred Hampton by the Chicago police in 1969 had a big effect on me. In 1977, the OL sent me to North Carolina to help set up a district in a cotton mill town. To me, moving to the South was like moving to another country. I had to learn about its culture, language, and history.

Vicky: He even learned to eat grease and suck bones. I’m proud.

Paul: Even with the low pay of the white mill workers, I saw the worse conditions Black workers faced. Many white workers lived in mill houses close to downtown. Black workers lived on the edge of town on dirt roads in what looked like Third World conditions. When I read Harry Haywood’s Negro Liberation and saw the map of the Black Belt, things fell into place. I could concretely see that this was not just a question of racism as a set of bad ideas but a struggle for land and political power. More recently, trips to the Georgia Sea Islands educated me about land that has been in the hands of Black families since the end of the Civil War. Today, the fight to hold on to that land continues as developers try to force people off by raising property taxes or steal the land with the stroke of a pen.

What was the difference in the way the OL/CP(ML) dealt with people who came from working-class backgrounds and those from the middle class? How were workers empowered and developed to play a leading role on the local level?

Vicky: We had a policy that all cadre had to have working-class, proletarian jobs. If you were already from the working class you were assigned to a higher paying factory job. If you weren’t, you were “strongly encouraged” to work at one of the unorganized, nastier, dirty, low-paying jobs. I liked that! Atlanta Fight Back had a policy of developing working class leaders–what we now call leadership development. There was a relationship between a mass organization and a cadre organization where you could take the most advanced that come out of the day-to-day struggles and develop them into working-class intellectuals.

Mao’s concept of “from the masses, to the masses” had a definite meaning to me, and I learned how to study and the importance of theory in becoming a working-class intellectual. I still believe that the working class has to lead a revolutionary movement because they are the most disciplined, dedicated, and staunch about their convictions. Armed with truth and knowledge, the class becomes invincible.

Paul: One of the concepts from Mao that means a lot to me is “remolding your world outlook.” To me, this meant that someone from a middle-class background can change their view of society by joining the working class. I was won to socialism as a student and understood the historic role of the working class in leading a revolution. When I was 19, I got a working-class job and began a life-long process of learning about the class and from the class. This has changed me for the better, and I would not regret a day of the last 28 years spent as a rank-and-file worker.

One question we have to continue to work on is the relationship between “ideas” and “experience,” between intellectuals and the class, and how to develop working-class intellectuals. The idea of listening to what the workers are saying and combining that with revolutionary theory is still correct. In the last ten years, I have done a lot of reading about the history of the civil rights movement and the leadership of people like Ella Baker. She stressed the necessity of people being empowered to lead their own struggles. It’s another example of the “mass line” Mao talked about. We applied this same idea to the development, over fifteen years, of a rank-and-file caucus in my union.

Max Elbaum refers to the homophobia that existed in the New Communist Movement. Looking back, how did you feel about it at that time and what are your reflections now?

Vicky: Even though it was the line of the OL/CP(ML), I never bought it.

I didn’t understood homophobia because of experiences I had with my “special aunts.” My mother and sisters grew up with two women who, since their teenage years, had had a romantic relationship. Their own families were ashamed, so my mother’s family practically adopted them. I was about ten years old when I asked about them. My mother told me, “Some women and some men had the same relationship with each other as married people.” Okay–made sense to me. By the way, my special aunts recently celebrated 54 years together. In the OL/CP(ML), I heard of some gay and lesbians being “deprogrammed” or forced to make a political decision not to be gay. I knew then that sexual orientation was not a political choice, but in those days, it was extremely difficult to fight a political line that had been “handed down” by the hierarchy.

Paul: I was raised in a strict Irish Catholic family where sex, let alone homosexuality, was never discussed. When I joined this organization, I never questioned the policy of the “working-class family,” which meant straight couples with kids. My attitudes didn’t change until the late 1980s when I joined a men’s group of child abuse survivors. The gay therapist who led the group literally saved my life when I was feeling suicidal. It’s hard to be homophobic after that. I feel that the part of the movement that I came out of has paid a price for depriving ourselves of insights and lessons from the gay and lesbian movement. We are only now beginning to appreciate some of these lessons, for example, the relationship between “personal” and “political,” and how this false division serves the interest of the system.

What are some of the lessons organizationally from the experience of belonging to this organization?

Vicky: Some people have asked me how I could have been a member of such a dogmatic organization. My father was an Army sergeant and expected my brother and me to be good “soldiers.” Belonging to a dogmatic, authoritarian organization felt very comfortable, considering the way I was raised. I remember a line in the movie Seeing Red where they asked these women who had been in the CP in the 1950s if they could have accomplished as much as they did if they weren’t in that type of disciplined organization. Their answer in the movie, and mine now, would be “probably not.”

I now believe we have to have an organization whose purpose may be the same, but its culture has to be more democratic, less rigid, and allow people to have a life with the masses outside their political life. I believe that American socialism must be branded with the stamp of a true democracy. We have to understand that “personal” issues cannot be separated from “political” ones. We must figure out a new use of power to replace the hierarchical power structure that can create a “party elite.” Handling power this way ends up imitating the oppressor. (This issue is what I believe to be part of the “crisis of socialism.”) I no longer believe that everyone has to be in the same revolutionary organization. We need a federation or coalition of like-minded organizations like FRSO describes in its “left refoundation” papers.

Paul: Between my father and the Catholic Church, I was well prepared for the authoritarian hierarchy of the OL/CP(ML). Power and decision making was concentrated at the top in the hands of a few. There was centralism with little or no democracy. It took years of therapy and study of feminist theory to understand patriarchy and the use of power to control. My guess is we re-created in our organizations imitations of our family and school dynamics. It felt familiar. Black feminists like Audre Lorde talk about the need to deal with the internalized oppressor we carry around inside. Part of what we have to do in the future is develop self-awareness so we don’t repeat mistakes. We have to learn and develop new ways of handling power, decision-making, accountability and the building of revolutionary organizations.