Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee

A Twenty-Year Legacy of Ultra-Leftism

Written: December 1980
First Published: In Confronting Reality/Learning from the History of Our Movement, April 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the communist movement, in this country and throughout the world, began a radical process of reorientation, fragmentation, and regroupment–a process that continues today, far from completed either ideologically, politically, or organizationally. The new communist organizations and collectives that arose in the United States shared the position that the CPUSA was a hopelessly revisionist organization that could never lead a successful revolution. After years of dissatisfaction with the CP’s orientation and practice, this rejection crystallized in the context of the attack on Soviet revisionism by the communist parties of China and Albania. The split within the U.S. movement had been developing for some time, but was given greater ideological clarity and confidence by this international development.

In the 1970s, particularly the last five years, many of us who were close to or participants in the anti-revisionist “New Communist Movement” recognized the persistent recurrence of ultra-left errors within the movement and began to build an “anti-revisionist, anti-ultra-left trend.” Despite this self-definition, the nature of ultra-leftism has been a subject of ongoing controversy within our trend. Debates centered on the characterization of dogmatism as the central element of this deviation and the significance of international line.

We believe that not only the New Communist Movement but the anti-ultra-left trend as well is characterized by a tendency to make seriously “left” errors. This paper outlines our understanding of the problem at this time. After a preliminary definition of ultra-leftism, we examine the main forms of this error. We focus on two: sectarianism and economism. Sectarianism isolates communist organizations from each other as well as from the masses, and is tied to other mistakes in viewing the relationship between reform struggles and revolution. Economism, which is generally a right error, has often taken a “left” form in our movement, as we explain in this paper.

After defining and illustrating these concepts, we look at their ideological underpinnings–idealism, subjectivism, dogmatism–and their organizational prop, ultra-centralism. We then suggest some of the prevailing conditions that foster ultra-leftism: the level of struggle in the United States, the composition of the communist movement, the international context.

We believe that the tendency to repeated ultra-leftism will not be easily corrected, but we are optimistic that it can be changed if we take it seriously. We indicate some of the steps we believe are necessary for this to happen. Finally, the paper concludes with a brief look at developments in the anti-“left” trend, particularly the weakness of its analysis of ultra-leftism and the danger of ultra-leftism in the trend itself.

“Left” and Right Errors

Ultra-left (or “left”) errors generally involve overestimating how close the country is to revolution. Typically, a “left” framework pictures the spontaneous resistance of the working class as an indication of revolutionary class consciousness; isolated militant actions or individual advanced workers are regarded as representative. Ultra-leftists downplay the contradictions within the working class (such as racism, sexism, homophobia) or between the working class and its potential allies. The influence of communists (or of the particular organization making this analysis) is exaggerated: the roots of communists in the working class, the respect of the people for the communists, the development of revolutionary program, tested leadership, committed cadre–all are overestimated. The road to revolution is envisioned as relatively smooth (and the turns and twists of revolutions in other countries are regarded with disdain).

Some ultra-leftists think that they live in permanently revolutionary conditions that only await bold action by revolutionaries; others anticipate a spontaneous act of popular resistance that can be turned into a revolutionary uprising by ingenious communists. The different variations of this perspective all amount to thinking that we are in a situation where “a single spark can start a prairie fire.”

In contrast to this “left” perspective, a rightist analysis discounts the possibility of a revolutionary situation and underestimates the potential of building a revolutionary movement. While ultra-leflists ignore or explain away every obstacle, rightists are intimidated by apparent difficulties. They distrust the capacity of the people to understand and act upon Marxism-Leninism, and they put off the revolutionary’s role of bringing such an analysis to them. Working within established channels for reform, they rationalize that people are not ready for anything more–without taking responsibility to prepare people for anything else. At its worst–revisionism–the right deviation glorifies reformism as a replacement for revolution itself, foreseeing a peaceful parliamentary transition to socialism.

The differences between rightism and ultra-leftism can be highlighted by looking at their views of objective and subjective factors. Objective conditions are essentially those over which communists do not have direct control, for instance contradictions within the ruling class or particular state policies. Subjective factors include the consciousness of the communists and the masses, their readiness to act and their understanding of the situation. (This distinction is not absolute; for instance, the subjective militance of the working class will affect the stability and options of the bourgeoisie.) Ultra-leftists tend to discount objective factors, as if the revolution can be planned and orchestrated solely on the basis of the desires of the communists. Rightists tend to absolutize objective factors, as if the communists (and the masses) cannot affect the direction of events significantly. They see what is, not what can be, while ultra-leftists see what can be and not what is. Either deviation represents a partial view of reality.

Understanding the relationship between “left” and right errors has been complicated for many people by the formulation “left in form, right in essence.” The point of this expression is that both “left” and right errors result in setbacks for the revolution. Right errors slow the potential development of the revolutionary movement, while “left” errors alienate the masses from revolutionary ideas and actions. This formulation is an argument against the view that “left” errors are not as serious as right errors. However, right and “left” errors should not be so equated too glibly. They have different origins, different consequences; the means to correct them are different. Thus, communists frequently debate whether a particular line is a “left” or a right error. Different analyses reflect different perspectives in the movement: whether one considers a line or an organization to be “left” or right depends on one’s assessment of objective conditions, one’s grasp of Marxism-Leninism, one’s strategy and program.

A common mistake is to equate a given line with the right or the “left” outside of its historical ’context. Among Marxist-Leninists, for example, it is generally considered a right error to belittle the importance of an organized party leading the revolutionary forces. Populists and social democrats criticize this conception of a party directing struggle “from above”; instead they advocate mass revolutionary organizations. But this line is not always a right error. The German communists who took this position after World War I were considered by Lenin to be making “left” errors. Like social democrats in the U.S. in the 1970s, the German “left” communists liquidated the role of leadership and promoted the spontaneity of the masses. But in the U.S., this spontaneity tends to be reformist and liberal, while in Germany in 1919 a section of the working class had been radicalized. Depending on this sector alone, the German “lefts” would isolate themselves from the masses as a whole, making a “left” error. This is an example of a line–in this case relying on spontaneous activity rather than organized leadership–taking right and “left” forms in different contexts and conditions. Conversely, lines that appear to be opposites can spring from the same “left” perspective. In this paper we focus on the “left” forms that sectarianism and economism have taken in recent years. These mistakes can, of course, take either “left” or right forms. For example, sectarianism, commonly associated with ultra-leftism, can be found in rightist groups too; in the Bay Area in 1980, the CPUSA, like the RCP, promoted its own newspaper while doing door-to-door campaigning against racist attacks on black families living in predominantly white suburbs. The CPUSA was just as effective as the RCP in antagonizing the neighborhood and the victimized families, and in undercutting their anti-racist work–although the content of the newspapers was very different. On the other hand, economism is generally thought of as a right error. We believe that recent mistakes in our movement have appeared as a form of economism that is “left,” a position we develop later in this paper.

Our analysis may appear too one-sided, since no communist organizations have been known to make only “left” errors. Over time, each has occasionally pursued a correct line, and has at times veered to the right. This is true both of organizations that are not firmly oriented to Marxism-Leninism, which tend to swing wildly from one extreme to another, and also of groups with a basically sound perspective, which inevitably make particular mistakes, overcompensate in correcting them, and experiment with different approaches as they struggle to find the most appropriate.

In this paper, however, we are not talking about individual errors of one sort or another; we are talking about operating within a framework that is so consistently ultra-left that it can be considered a consolidated perspective. In this context, occasional right errors are less significant than the organization’s overall ultra-left orientation.

Some comrades are overwhelmed by the diversity of political activity in the last two decades and fail to look for patterns beneath the surface of events. In effect, they adopt an attitude similar to the cynical outlook of 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said that “history is just one damned thing after another.” Such an attitude is the antithesis of Marxism, which looks for the underlying structure and direction of historical change, and thus demands that we analyze both our own movement and the history of the class struggle in general.


Adventurism is the most straightforward and easily recognized form of ultra-leftism. Left adventurists exaggerate the imminence of revolution and project unrealistic forms and levels of political struggle. Heroic examples are expected to arouse the masses. Carried to its logical conclusion, this is the politics of terrorism.

Historically, left adventurism dominated the Weather Underground, the Venceremos split-off from RU, the Black Panther Party for several years, and later the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. Perhaps the most striking recent example was the CWP’s leadership of the 1979 march against the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. Provocative and militant slogans of “Death to the Klan!” were combined with no preparation for an assault upon the march itself–with tragic consequences. Of course, the KKK is fully responsible for the murders in Greensboro, and their acquittal was an appalling example of bourgeois judicial processes. Nevertheless, the role of the Communist Workers’ Party must be criticized for its drastic underestimation of the enemy.

Adventurism has a high “burn-out” rate. Not only are adventurist practices demanding; they are rarely successful, frequently infiltrated, and invitations to repression. On the other hand, adventurism remains tempting when communist work moves slowly. Lenin pointed out in “Left-Wing” Communism that “it is not difficult to be a revolutionary when revolution has already broken out and is at its height, when everybody is joining the revolution .... It is far more difficult–and of far greater value –to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist.. .among masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action.” Too many would-be revolutionaries project themselves into a fantasy of imminent revolution because they cannot sustain the slow process of building toward a real revolution.

Left Sectarianism

Sectarianism is in essence the substitution of one organization’s perspective for the interests of the masses and the revolutionary movement as a whole. While not leading to the anarchist extremes of adventurism, sectarianism in its left form still involves an assessment of reality colored by subjective desires to move faster than conditions permit, with resulting impatience in mass and theoretical practice.

A left sectarian organization overrates itself. Its leaders and cadre are the core of the revolution, its program is the only correct one. Its small successes–leadership of a strike, mobilization of a demonstration–are blown out of proportion. In 1977, for example, OL wrote that “the influence of communist ideas and leadership in the working-class movement has increased significantly over the past years.... Communists are playing leading roles in strikes and drawing workers of all nationalities into the growing fightback and the party-building movement... The rudiments of communist cells and fractions are being built in many factories and trade unions.” An illustration shows The Call being sold outside a factory gate; the pamphlet goes on to discuss “a strike of great significance” at Mead Packaging Corporation in Atlanta. (See October League, “Building Class Struggle Trade Unions,” p. 36ff.)

On the one side inflating its own contributions, the sectarian organization also downgrades other communist groups. “The OL wages a continuous fight against opportunists of all stripes... anti-party forces... armchair revolutionaries...” The result is a proliferation of warring sects. Each tries to magnify its own inadequate grasp of the difficult task of making revolution in the U.S. into a claim to have an acceptable “general line” for the entire movement. Afraid to admit its shortcomings for fear of losing its “leading” role, each thus stubbornly upholds inadequate assumptions, incorrect policies, and next-to-useless generalities. This “small circle mentality” is substituted for principled and rigorous struggle, for internal and mutual criticism by these groups.

All organizations make mistakes. By shutting itself off from the experiences and criticisms of others, a left sectarian organization becomes locked in its mistakes. If it does in fact come to recognize a mistake and correct it, such a group rarely makes a public acknowledgment of its self-criticism, because sectarian groups do not consider themselves accountable to others in the movement.

To militants in the mass movements, the most striking feature of such groups is their habit of criticizing one another more vigorously than they attack the bourgeoisie. Usually, sectarian groups spend much time and energy polemicizing against one another, competing for the allegiance of independents or each other’s rank and file. These polemics ignore unity, exaggerate differences, fail to acknowledge valid criticism, indulge in sarcasm and personal attacks at the expense of systematic analysis. Bad enough on the pages of the left newspapers, this method of “struggle” becomes disastrous in the course of working in the mass movements.

How many promising groups have dwindled to insignificance as unaffiliated progressives walked out on debates that appeared irrelevant or esoteric–or made them feel stupid? For example, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union in San Francisco developed several rank-and-file caucuses that degenerated because of ultraleftism. Workers wanted their contract printed in several languages; they became alienated by extensive debates on different aspects of the “national question.” Ultra-lefts insisting on a high “level of unity” on such issues exclude, rather than educate, people new to the issues. Frequently, an organization’s desire to be thorough and “correct” becomes a means of establishing its hegemony, often at the expense of the struggle itself.

A sectarian attitude toward other left groups, then, is essentially a sectarian attitude toward the masses. The struggles that concern the people are seen only as arenas for recruitment and inter-left controversy. Left sectarians rarely attempt to connect a revolutionary perspective to the issues that the masses are more concerned about and prepared to struggle on. In fact, such an approach is often labelled “tailist,” “bowing to spontaneity,” or “catering to backwardness.” If the masses do not flock to communism, it is never considered that the communists should meet them part way and lead them forward.

This contempt for the people is revealed in the recurring tendency to downgrade or even negate reform struggles. Progressive Labor withdrew from anti-war, black liberation, and trade union struggles, declaring that reform struggles were not the business of communists, whose activities must have immediately revolutionary objectives. CP-ML recently supported “striking the main blow at reformists,” with the notorious boycott of the campaign for Sadlowski’s leadership of the Steelworkers Union. When a rank-and-file caucus of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers in San Francisco proposed running progressive candidates in a union election, several communist groups instead advocated boycotting the election; they quickly returned to the caucus when the progressives took office but were unable to give any guidance to the continued struggle against the corrupt union establishment.

In other cases, the “lefts” fear that if reform is actually won, people will be “bought off.” This attitude clearly reflects lack of faith in the people, and perhaps an underlying belief that capitalism really can reform itself, making the need for revolution even further dissociated from objective conditions. The possibility of partial victory is seen, not as an opportunity for education in struggle and its limitations, but as a danger to avoid.

Left Economism

Many Marxist-Leninist groups have taken a narrow view of the arenas for communist work and focused their efforts almost exclusively on the struggles of the industrialized working class against their employers and union officials. This orientation is based on the classic analysis that the industrial working class is the key element of a socialist revolution. It is wrong, however, to ignore the rest of the population, and to assume that economic issues are the most significant struggles in radicalizing the working class. Lenin extensively criticized “economism”–glorifying the bread-and-butter struggles of the proletariat. In his day, “economists” held that political struggle would develop spontaneously out of economic struggle. Lenin pointed out that the abuses of Tsarism were already stirring the working class as well as other sectors of the population and that such political struggles can provide richer lessons about capitalism than can the economic struggles of the working class alone. In Russia in 1902, economism was a right error: the economists underestimated the degree to which workers could develop a broad political perspective and ally with other sectors of the population to fight for a wide variety of demands.

In our movement today, there is a similar tendency to see “factory organizing” as more communist or more revolutionary than work in the community or in other sectors of the work force. We believe this is a “left” form of economism. It comes from overestimating the level of development of the working class and the significance of trade union struggles. The economists of our movement do not wait for economic struggles to spontaneously evolve into political concerns; they raise political issues, in fact, often prematurely or dogmatically. And for many groups, the focus on the workplace is accompanied by a disregard for other areas of struggle, which are scorned as inherently “reformist,” and without revolutionary potential. This, too, is a “left” error because struggles are judged against an imaginary and unrealistic standard of militance.

Many of these groups tended to caricature the workers in their move to join the working class. When PL and RU first began factory organizing, for instance, their cadre were expected to get married, cut their hair, and drink beer. Yet their contemporaries in the work force were living with lovers, growing long hair, and smoking grass. This tendency to mimic superficial characteristics of the workers–or stereotypes of workers–is a product of distance from them, and inevitably involves overgeneralization and distortion. “Workerism” is a term for this glorification of the “appearance” of the working class. Workerism may appear amusing, but underlying it is a serious problem. People with this approach tend to cater to prejudices of the workers, such as anti-gay or racist sentiments; they have an undialectical view of the working class and its ability to change, and fail to identify or challenge backward ideas in the proletariat.

The economists exaggerate the significance of what is basically trade union work. They confuse the militance of advanced workers in the U.S. today with the militance plus socialist understanding of advanced workers who are prepared to form the backbone of a communist party. For example, an important strike is promoted as the prelude to revolution, or at least a milestone in the development of the working class movement–when often it is merely an important strike. This was, for example, apparent after the 1977 West Virginia coal miners’ strike. Instead of studying this particular example of militant defiance for its specific features, communist groups regarded it as the sign of a new upsurge in the working class. This optimistic analysis is then made the basis for ambitious party-building projects: left economism thus comes to serve left sectarianism. For example, PWOC extolled the miners for their “readiness to confront state power” (Organizer, Sept. 1980, p. 18) and used this analysis to justify the OCIC’s party-building endeavors.

Another reason we consider this form of economism to be “left” is that groups making this mistake do not generally narrow their political demands to the lowest trade union denominator, a classic rightist error. Far from it. In fact, they usually sabotage trade union struggles with political demands that are advanced or irrelevant. Within union caucuses, “left” groups frequently raise struggles of international or national politics at the expense of advancing the agreed-upon work of the caucus. This leads the workers involved to feel manipulated. When and how it is appropriate to raise such concerns is a question few communist groups have successfully resolved. Too little attention is given to the basic political education that will enable people to take informed positions on other issues; the role of caucus work as part of that political education is also underestimated.

Furthermore, these ultra-leftists isolate the working class from potential ties to other sectors of the population. A simplistic view of class struggle characterizes the ultra-left perspective. With the workers lined up on one side and the bosses on the other, there is little role for other social forces. This view denies the complexity of actual class struggle–with its intra-class divisions and cross-class unities. Most “left” groups are therefore unable to sustain, or even undertake, united front work. Rejection of all trade union officials (sometimes extending categorically to include elected shop stewards), contempt for the black churches, indifference to the progressives in the Democratic Party are some features of this tunnel vision.

Many left economists are suspicious of broader, cross-class issues and movements, especially the democratic rights issues of women, gays, and national and racial minorities. The working class does not already have hegemony in these struggles. A reformist leadership and outlook may already be established, and the relationship to class oppression may not be explicit. Instead of contending with this leadership and struggling for their political perspective, the ultra-lefts dismiss these movements as if contact would contaminate their revolutionary purity.

Examples of this sectarian tendency to downplay democratic rights struggles include RCP’s liquidation of black and other minority struggles, notoriously its opposition to the Boston busing program, and PL’s rejection of these movements for “narrow nationalism.” While RCP, again the extreme, openly opposed the ERA, the OL found itself unable to participate in International Women’s Day events with the CPUSA present, and also had difficulties with women-only committees or lesbian involvement. The gay struggle has usually been seen as a minor issue of democratic rights for a group that presumably will be cured of all its problems–including its existence–after the revolution.

Needless to say, the struggles of the aged or the disabled, the ecology and anti-nuclear movements, the opposition to cutbacks in social services, and many other of the most volatile issues of the last few years have been avoided by the left economists. A somewhat different example of this sort of narrow vision was the position of I Wor Kuen in its struggle with the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP) over the direction of a fight to stop the eviction of elderly residents of the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. KDP hoped to mobilize throughout San Francisco in support of the Asians whose home was to be torn down; this group argued that many in the city would unite around the need for housing. IWK, however, felt that the only question that communists should raise was that of the national oppression of the Chinese community. Support against the eviction should be based in Chinatown, and others who fought the eviction should do so on the basis of supporting the rights of the Chinese people. To IWK, housing was a “reformist” issue, while the oppressed nationalities had “revolutionary” demands.

Such an approach denies the development of political consciousness from particular issues to a broader understanding of class struggle. On the one hand, people are expected to leap into Marxism-Leninism in a single bound; on the other hand, their ability to learn from their own experience in reform struggles is distrusted.

To sum up, we have looked at four features of left economism in our movement: the glorification of the industrialized working class and its trade union struggles; the hasty attempt to “politicize” these struggles by raising external political concerns in inappropriate ways; the distrust of united fronts with other class forces; the avoidance of non-workplace struggles as “reformist.” All of these phenomena stem from an ultra-left analysis, rejecting any struggles except the mobilization of workers against capitalists and anticipating that workers will fall into the outstretched arms of communist organizations.

Foundations of Ultra-leftism
Ideological Factors

The ultra-leftism of the past two decades has been sustained by idealism. Looking at many of these groups, the outsider is impelled to ask, “How could they possibly think that what they are doing makes sense?” Idealism means proceeding from one’s thoughts, fantasies, and wishes rather than from an analysis of concrete reality (materialism). We have already mentioned some features of this idealism, particularly the mis-assessment of objective conditions that enables organizations to overrate their own importance and inflate the significance of working class militance. Many groups have failed to sum up social practice, either their own or that of their peers. Reality has been ignored or explained away, rather than analyzed.

Several years ago a split within the Progressive Labor Party led to the departure of some activists who had worked in this group for a decade. Many of them said that they were only able to do mass work by ignoring the directives of their leadership. Those responsible for PL’s political direction were so removed from ongoing struggles that their instructions would, if followed, have proven disastrous. The group was forced to split when disobedience was no longer tolerated. When reality and party line diverged, one person remarked, the response was to shut out reality and only read publications approved by PL. Needless to say, an organization that functions in this never-never land is bound to be estranged from the people it hopes to organize.

Wishful thinking, or subjectivity, also operates when such groups substitute their own ideas for those of the people. They assume that the rest of the population is familiar with left jargon; for example, the OL and IWK in rank-and-file caucuses would refer to “TUBs” (trade union bureaucrats) as if the term were self-explanatory. An RCP newspaper provides another example of how out of touch with reality the ultra-lefts can be. A passerby recoiled in horror as the vendor offered his newspaper. “But that’s a COMMUNIST paper,” she protested. “Oh, you don’t understand,” the communist replied, “we are anti-revisionist.” The idea that fear of communism is in fact fear of revisionism–or that a militant strike is the opening act of a revolution–reflects the extent to which ultra-lefts live in a world of their own making, fantasies produced by isolation and desperate wishful thinking.

The desire for a simple, quick solution, and impatience with the often-slow, uneven pace of real life, leads to voluntarism–actions on the basis of what one wishes were true, rather than what actually is true. Voluntarism is idealism in action. It is often identified with premature party-building initiatives, but justifies many rash moves in the mass movements as well. Voluntarism can consolidate as adventurism.

Idealism is often propped up by references to authorities, usually quoted without regard to their context. There is much that is valuable in the experience of the communist movement. Very rarely, however, is it sufficient to understand what Marx or Lenin wrote on a subject in order to know how to deal with the problem today. In fact, the great revolutionary leaders all emphasized that Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action. Over and over again, however, the communist movement has suffered from dogmatic interpretations; following what has been written is, after all, easier than thinking a problem through. Lenin described this tendency with an example of the misuse of a quotation from Marx. At a time when the Russian movement desperately needed to raise its theoretical level, some groups argued that practical work was more important. One newspaper justified its pragmatism by quoting Marx that “every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programs.” Lenin retorted that “to repeat these words in a period of theoretical chaos is like wishing mourners at a funeral ’many happy returns of the day.’”

Such abuse of quotations is a persistent tendency in our movement. The polemics between PWOC and PUL on party building provide an example within our trend of the method of argument by quotation that resembles medieval scholasticism more than materialism. (See as an example PUL’s “On the ’Progressive Role’ of the Soviet Union and Other Dogmas.”)

Dogmatism can lead to either right or “left” errors, depending on the conditions of the struggle and the character of the ideas that are made into dogma. Dogmatism is, however, a natural component of ultra-leftism because those who tend toward simplistic and abstract solutions will buttress their non-materialism with “principles” and “historical experiences.” In the U.S., dogmatism frequently supports ultra-leftism because the conditions described in revolutionary texts tend to be more advanced than those in which we are working. As we mention elsewhere in this pamphlet, a classic example of this is the identification of “advanced workers” here with the committed socialists who Lenin called “advanced workers.”

Alongside the reliance on written authority is deference to contemporary authority, to a “leading international center.” For much of the anti-revisionist movement, the People’s Republic of China served such a role, despite the refusal of the Chinese Communist Party to pull together a formal International. The results of this mimicry included the ludicrous spectacle of groups that tried to follow every fluctuation in Chinese politics, often without understanding the changes they faithfully imitated. Even worse was the attempt to use the foreign policy of China as a general line for revolutionaries in this country, as if revolution could be imported. The recent shift of China toward economic interdependence with the U.S. and the beginnings of a military alliance only underscores the dangers of uncritically following the leader without thinking for oneself.


Many of the communist organizations of the 1960s and 1970s have adopted the organizational model of democratic centralism developed for illegal, revolutionary activity in tsarist Russia. As we indicate in our paper on democratic centralism, we believe there has been a consistent tendency to overemphasize the need for centralism in a period when the entire movement is inexperienced and needs open debate and mutual criticism. Instead, many groups established hierarchies that could not be challenged; any errors were due to the cadre, never to the organization’s line or leadership. Leaders with minority viewpoints, for instance in RU, were unable to circulate their views to the membership as a whole, and members who shared a minority viewpoint were forbidden from meeting together. The result of this practice was that critical or opposition perspectives could not be presented thoroughly and openly.

This structure has reinforced the ultra-leftism in recent years. Leaders who are removed from mass work develop lines based on literature and insular reasoning rather than concrete recent experience. Feedback that these policies are inappropriate may be stifled, or may boomerang upon the cadre making these criticisms rather than leading to changes in strategy or tactics. Such practices only deepen the isolation of the communist movement from the reality of life in this country. Ultra-centralism is a consistent partner of both “left” dogmatism and sectarianism in internal communist organization.

Objective Conditions

Why are these particular problems so common in the U.S. left? We believe that the conditions in which our movement works encourage a certain set of mistakes. As pointed out earlier in this pamphlet, we live in a period of relatively little mass political activity. This generation of communists has inherited a situation of popular alienation from radical politics–and has so far been unable to significantly reverse this trend.

The lack of a politically conscious mass movement among workers and other oppressed groups has characterized the 1970s. This makes it very difficult for the movement to find its bearings politically, since it has limited opportunities to test its ideas in class struggle. Left debates may appear more stimulating than popular movements that are not moving forward. Without many advanced workers to struggle with, communists substitute their own fantasies of what the people are really thinking. Any flareup of activity is so welcome that it is overrated. Many of the characteristics of ultra-leftism can be tied to the problems of revolutionaries in a situation that is far from revolutionary. These conditions are the most significant impetus to “leftism” and will take the longest to change.

Another adverse condition is the inexperienced leadership of the movement. Except for some members of PL and CLP, few of the communist groups have personal continuity with the CPUSA, for example, and its wealth of positive and negative experiences. There have been relatively few leaders developed recently who are experienced in party building, in mass working class struggles, and in the variety of forms of political struggle. Few soundly understand Marxist theory and have experience using it to solve problems in their political work.

The historical roots of the anti-revisionist movement also propel it in an ultra-left direction. The 1960s were a decade of international revolutionary upsurges. For many radicalized at that time, it has been difficult to abandon the idea of imminent revolution and settle in to devise new tactics for new conditions. In general, too, the need to rely on historical experience has led the movement to consult literature written in periods of greater mass resistance and mobilization. There is a temptation to unwittingly abuse principles developed for more revolutionary eras.

Contemporary Marxist-Leninist organizations are dominated by petty bourgeois intellectuals, many coming out of the student movement without direct contact with working people. Compared to the population as a whole, the membership and leadership of these groups is disproportionately drawn from the intelligentsia. This is typical of the early phases of revolutionary organizations throughout the world. Up to this point, the U.S. anti-revisionists have been unable to develop a working class base that would fundamentally change the movement’s class composition.

We have already referred to the “workerism” that is fostered by isolation from the proletariat. Furthermore, many of the ideological errors we described in this article are typical of the world view of the petty bourgeois intellectual. Self-importance, impatience, and scholasticism are of course not limited to one class nor are they found in every member of a class. In advanced capitalist countries, in fact, public education and mass media systematically impose bourgeois ideology upon the working class. Nevertheless, class strata are shaped by their members’ experience and mode of life in a class-divided society. A political movement that is based on one or another stratum will, regardless of its intentions, be likewise influenced. The particular weaknesses of the intellectual, then, are to be expected in the new communist movement as a whole.

Identification with the class interests of the proletariat does not come easy for many intellectuals. They may carry with them the baggage of their initial training and lifestyle: individualism, competitiveness, the attempt to resolve problems exclusively in the realm of ideas, expectations of personal prominence. Throughout history the intellectual who supports revolution has had to struggle with such tendencies. Many ultra-left errors can be traced to these class-based weaknesses.

This is particularly true in a movement that is composed largely of young people–almost entirely less than 35 years old. Many of these people are college educated but are working in situations where many of their coworkers are not. Many have a background of financial comfort and have not resolved their relationship to past or potential privileges. Many have not had the experience of settling down to a long-term commitment to a job, a community, or a family. These are significant characteristics that affect our world view and our methods of political work. Furthermore, the lack of social stability has made it difficult to identify and change the weaknesses that are typical of intellectuals–or, in fact, to recognize and develop the corresponding strengths.

The points raised in this section should not be taken too mechanically. We are talking about factors that shape our movement and encourage errors in certain directions. The movement is not, however, totally at the mercy of “objective conditions.” We can change these conditions–build a strong political movement, develop experienced leadership and cadre, make the analysis appropriate to our period, recruit from all sectors of the working class and its allies, and transform ways of thinking that do not reflect the interests of the masses as a whole. Needless to say, this is a long-term task. We must be able to identify and confront obstacles without letting them overwhelm us.

In particular, the conditions of our work today have encouraged a disposition to ultra-leftism in the movement. This does not mean we are doomed to make ultra-left mistakes; it does mean we should not lightly assume we have understood and solved the problems of ultra-leftism.

The International Context

The context of our work is not only the low level of U.S. struggle, but also the situation around the world, including the struggles for national liberation, the rise of Eurocommunism, the fragmentation of the communist movement. Particularly significant for the problem of ultra-leftism has been the influence of China on our movement.

Many of today’s communists were inspired by the Chinese revolution and learned Marxism-Leninism from the writings of Mao Zedong. Some seized upon these experiences and analyses as a model for our work, without criticism or adaption to U.S. conditions. The RCP’s 1975 Draft Programme, for example, was directed to the “workers and peasants” of the United States.

The development of Chinese politics in the 1960s and 1970s further complicated the problems of ultra-leftism in the U.S. Many communists here approved of the Cultural Revolution and find it impossible to accept the repudiation of that entire decade by the current Chinese leadership. However, there were certainly ultra-left errors in the Cultural Revolution that reinforced “left” inclinations in our movement; these will have to be identified and corrected.

The other major development by the Chinese Communist Party was its international line, based on “the theory of the three worlds.” When this position was elaborated, it led to bizarre tendencies in the U.S. movement. It was an appalling spectacle to see U.S. communist groups abandon their attack upon their own ruling class domestically or internationally and instead encourage a militarism that would be directed against revolutionary struggles. It was infuriating to see the attack on “Soviet social imperialism” dragged into every political movement, only complicating the task of explaining socialism to the uninitiated by reinforcing anti-communist prejudices.

However serious and distressing these developments have been, we do not think they are the central feature and cornerstone of ultra-leftism in our movement. This is the position of most organizations in the anti-ultra-left trend and has been argued most forcefully by the journal Line of March. We believe that it oversimplifies the history of the trend to consider the events in Angola in 1975/76 as the “watershed” of the anti-ultra-left movement, important as the demarcation around Angola was.

For one thing, many ultra-left groups became much more “left” after rejecting the international line of the CPC. PL’s critique of China, for instance, was part of a general shift to purism that included rejecting every movement not immediately dedicated to revolution–including the compromise of the Vietnamese 7-Point Peace Plan. Similarly, the RCP has become ever more extravagantly ultra-left with its championing of the “Gang of Five.” In short, the CPC actually provided somewhat of a political anchor for these immature groups. Abandoning that analysis, they became even more disoriented. Furthermore, it is a mistake to oversimplify the unity of the ultra-lefts on international questions. This leads, for instance, to lumping together the views of Deng Xia-ping, Enver Hoxha, and the Gang of Four (see Line of March, v. 1, no. 3, p. 125-6, where all of these perspectives are identified as variants of “Maoism”). The significant differences between these lines indicate that ultra-leftism is not merely a matter of echoing China’s party. When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. ultra-lefts offered a variety of analyses.

On the other hand, many rejected ultra-leftism long before the Angolan crisis. In fact, by presenting such poor practice in the name of communism, left sectarians kept many progressives from identifying with Marxism-Leninism for years, or at all. The increased influence of social democracy, in particular, must be partly attributed to “left” excesses of the New Communist Movement.

Deja Vu

The Revolutionary Union was formed with the recognition of PL’s degeneration into ultra-leftism. But beginning in 1972, RU began to dread economism, rejecting the struggle against racism as “divisive” and abandoning trade union work for its own “revolutionary workers’ organizations.” The October League, too, had a period of productive mass work, but by 1975 had adopted the slogan “No united action with revisionists” that effectively blocked work in any broad coalition. The anti-ultra-left trend that developed in reaction to these and other groups also soon began to reproduce the errors it initially had criticized.

The history of the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center reveals familiar ultra-left features, in many respects paralleling those of earlier groups that began by opposing sectarianism and wound up as sects themselves. The OCIC was unable to recover from the failure of its original plan to unite the trend in one organizational process. Rather than developing new processes and different structures for joint work to build greater unity, the OCIC clung to its self-image of a single center and furiously attacked those who did not join. It denied any validity to the political differences that kept groups from joining the OC. Instead it accused such groups, particularly the National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs, of having a “small circle mentality.” However, the OCIC began to act more and more like a “small circle” itself, one with an increasingly inflated estimate of its own accomplishments. The first year’s summation of the OC’s “leading role” suggested the sectarian direction of this group, did that document’s passing off the OC’s problems as a few “soft spots.”

The OCIC originally derived considerable prestige from the trade union work of the PWOC, one of the initiators of the organization. Without adopting the PWOC’s position explicitly, the OCIC tried to provide leadership on a national scale, again, as in its party-building initiatives, putting organizational unity before political consolidation. The mass work fractions established under OCIC auspices were based on typically sectarian estimates of communist influence in the working class. (From the first draft of a “call” for an education workers’ fraction: “Our communist work within the trade unions has been advancing at a steady pace over the past few years and the beginnings of a genuine Marxist-Leninist current in the working class can be seen in local work in a number of cities.” Compare this with the OL statements we quoted earlier.) At the fraction conferences, little discussion of conditions in different localities took place; there were no analyses of the industry as a whole and few summations of the practice of different participants. Yet the OCIC forces called for the establishment of national groups with democratic centralist discipline over members’ industrial work. The sense of urgency and self-importance, the substitution of hopes for analysis, typifies the “left” approach of recent years.

The rectification forces analyze the basic line of the OCIC as pragmatist and economist; the emphasis on fusion with the working class and the devaluation of communist theory are seen as right errors. We argue that the fusion approach might be a right error in certain contexts, but that in fact the OCIC is predominantly making left errors. Its undeclared fusion line is part and parcel of its left sectarian and left economist approach. This line emphasizes the subjective will of communists, perpetuating the myth of permanently favorable conditions. In the OCIC view, the working class is ripe for communism–an assessment based on overrating the role of advanced workers and the significance of militant trade unionism. The OCIC’s economism is “left” economism used as a justification for its emphasis of organizing the OC over the development of a general line. As such, the fusion strategy in this context is part of the OCIC’s ultra-left constellation along with sectarianism, voluntarism, and dogmatism.

When it became clear that the OCIC was not achieving the goals it set for itself–independent elaboration of Marxism-Leninism, the unification of the anti-ultra-left trend, the creation of a communist current in the working class–these aims and strategies to achieve them should have been reevaluated. Instead the OCIC took a classic “left” position: blame the cadre. The OCIC was torn apart by a campaign against “white chauvinism” as well as “petty bourgeois chauvinism” and “bourgeois feminism.” This witch-hunt, fueled by guilt, was based on the assumption that the failures of the OCIC were due to the inadequacies of its rank and file–rather than the incorrect lines of its leadership and its overestimation of objective conditions.

It is ironic that the OCIC continues to maintain that ultra-leftism is the greatest danger within the trend, without seeming to recognize its own “leftism.” On the other hand the rectification forces consider the main danger to the trend to be rightism, which they identify with the OCIC. The Line of March groups are undertaking serious theoretical work; nothing comparable was ever attempted by the OCIC. However, the monthly forums sponsored by Line of March have seen the presentation of some positions that should have been offered in only the most tentative formulations, if at all. The criticisms of Mao Zedong’s united front work or of the Polish workers’ movement, for example, were highly questionable analyses. Particularly instructive was the forum on trade union work, which demonstrated the classic “left” fear of economism and the familiar dogmatic approach that a thorough understanding of What Is To Be Done? is what we need to save us from economism. There was no analysis of the specific problems of trade union work in this period and no critiques of the lines and practices of rectification or other trend organizations.

Because of these features of both the OCIC and rectification forces, we consider that ultra-leftism remains the main danger within our party-building trend. We have not studied recent developments in other communist trends to see whether they have made significant shifts away from ultra-leftism. We are, however, cautious about the analysis put forward in the October 1980 Organizer asserting that CP-ML and other groups have swung to right opportunism. It is a natural corollary to an ultra-left position that over views appear, by comparison, to be rightist. Furthermore, the history of the anti-revisionist movement has seen other occasions of temporary reverses in orientation, without resolution of the basic tendency to “left” errors; if CP-ML and other groups now appear to veer to the right, this phenomenon may be a superficial one.

Correcting “Left” Tendencies

We have described the “left” forms of sectarianism and economism that dominate the U.S. communist movement, and some of the ideological and organizational underpinnings of these errors. Looking at conditions in the movement and in the world, it is not surprising that ultra-leftism has been so difficult to change. Given a new and inexperienced movement with a poor grasp of Marxist theory, relatively isolated from its intended base in the working class, in conditions which make it extremely difficult to test and improve its politics, in a bewildering international political scene, without guidance from more experienced communist parties internationally–the overwhelming disposition of such a Marxist-Leninist movement is likely to be, as ours is, toward ultra-leftism. The fact that a few thousand people have begun over the last five or six years to identify themselves as anti-dogmatist or anti-sectarian does not change the fundamental conditions in which we work. Consequently, the struggle against ultra-leftism must be seen as a longterm and difficult one.

We are convinced that the direction of our movement can be corrected. We have insisted on the seriousness of the obstacles we face because the first step toward change is to recognize the magnitude of the problem. At the present time our movement does not agree upon the identification of ultra-leftism as its greatest failing, nor do we share a common understanding of the nature of “left” errors. Developing this analysis is clearly the first step–but it is only a first step. It would be a “left,” idealist mistake to think that understanding alone can change the movement.

To reach a common view of ultra-leftism will require study of our own movement and the international communist movement. The points in this paper are only a tentative outline of some aspects of the problems we need to address. Other important work has been done on this subject. (We would recommend PUL’s Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type?, Line of March’s first issue, and numerous articles in Theoretical Review, particularly Nos. 13, 14, and “Leninist Politics and the Struggle Against Economism” in No. 15.)

Along with a review of our background, our movement must undertake to examine itself. On the one hand, this means open communication of opinions between different organizations, developing a more amiable style of criticism/self-criticism than the traditionally bitter polemics of our movement. Equally important is internal criticism/self-criticism; we have spoken already of the way over-centralization stifles the impetus to change. The movement must learn to evaluate its work in light of concrete effects, not intentions. To do so, we must taken seriously the reactions of other people to our activities– both other communists with differing perspectives, and non-communists.

Of crucial importance will be our movement’s ability to develop a theoretical practice and, ultimately, a general line that breaks with the ultra-left ideological practices of idealism and dogmatism. A general line based on an accurate assessment of the political situation using a renewed Marxist theory can, in the long run, change the tendency of our movement to ultra-leftism as the composition of our movement itself changes through mass practice based on such a line. As activists become more experienced, changing their class stand through struggle, and as more working class militants join the movement, attracted by its relevance to their problems, the conditions in which ultra-leftism flourished will be transformed.

At the same time, the dangers of rightism should not be ignored. Frustration with the slow pace of work in this period and an overreaction to ultra-left politics can lead to cynicism about our communist tasks of party building. The danger of right forms of economism–immersion in the mass movements without concern for communist unity or theory–can be seen among our movement’s dropouts and is a tendency that must be combatted. Furthermore, changes in the orientation of the Chinese Communist Party may have repercussions throughout the U.S. communist movement. In addition, the social composition of our movement in general means that many have the option of joining academia or accepted political institutions and withdrawing from active struggle.

Recognizing then the need to analyze right errors and to combat them as they arise, we continue to think that the predominant threat to our movement is from the “left.” The tradition of ultra-leftism has not been thoroughly criticized and is bolstered by the concrete conditions in which we work.

There is no shortcut to the painstaking, protracted struggle that we must undertake to organize the people of the United States to fight for socialism. Rightist evasions and “leftist” daydreams will not arm the working class and its allies with the necessary revolutionary consciousness, strategy, and determination. For us to begin to approach this task in a sensible manner we must first of all identify and repudiate our ultra-left heritage. A serious critique of ultra-leftism is only one of our tasks; we must also analyze revisionism if we are to break new ground and develop a program for socialist revolution in the United States. But at this time, with so many important tasks, it is essential to prioritize our work to be sure that the most important activities are undertaken first. It is in this spirit that we emphasize the continued political priority of combatting ultra-leftism.

(December 1980)