Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee

Confronting Reality/Learning from the History of Our Movement


INTRODUCTION: THE DEVELOPMENT OF BASOC

The Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee (BASOC) began in the fall of 1977, when a number of independent Marxist-Leninists in the San Francisco Bay Area started to meet together. It was a diverse group, including former members of several communist organizations such as Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Union, independent Marxist-Leninists, and a number of people who had worked in the socialist-feminist movement. We had a history of political differences, but also had a common base of experience in the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s. More important, we found that we shared a similar outlook on the movement’s mistakes and direction.

Known in its early days as “the process,” this group developed a brief political perspective (see Appendix A for the text) which affirmed a commitment to Marxism-Leninism and anti-revisionism. This statement recognized the importance of the anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles and the necessity of supporting struggles against U.S. imperialism. Dogmatism and sectarianism were identified as the main obstacles to communist work; in this context our emphasis on work within the reform movements was already explicit. Another part of our initial orientation was our recognition that building a democratic centralist communist party requires full democratic debate and an anti-sectarian approach to struggle.

At the time we realized that this statement was a minimal one. We were not even sure that we all meant the same thing by the same words. We began meeting together in small groups to get to know one another, to explore our politics, and to decide whether there was a basis for further political unity. Different groups were formed to study party building, trade union work, the oppression of women, cultural work, and the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. A “continuations committee” met periodically, usually with many other participants in “the process” attending and speaking. During this period the group held two public events: a forum on party-building positions, and a forum on our members’ experiences in Progressive Labor, Revolutionary Union, Bay Area Communist Union, and Northern California Alliance.

The Study Process

By the summer of 1978 many participants in “the process” were interested in consciously moving to create a local Marxist-Leninist organization. During these months several members formed the Committee for a Party Building Perspective in order to win the whole group to developing political unity on several broadly defined party-building questions. The CPBP argued that developing a position on party building would lay the proper foundation for forming a local Marxist-Leninist organization. After considerable discussion we decided to build our political unity through engaging in a program of study. We eventually reached agreement that party-building questions were crucial in determining whether our group had the unity needed to function as a Marxist-Leninist organization. In October 1978 we adopted a study and discussion program which was structured around five questions:
What are the objective conditions we face in the United States today?
What is the relationship between working for reform and for revolution?
What are the left and right dangers facing the party-building movement?
What is the correct level of democratic centralism for this period?
What is the relationship between “fusion” and party building?

In the fall of 1978 we reorganized to take up these questions. Our plan was to discuss relevant readings in small groups and then sum up our unity in a series of position papers. The small groups were organized on the basis of common interests, in some cases similar mass work; two trade union groups, education workers, health workers, cultural workers, activists in the women’s movement, activists in democratic rights struggles, unorganized workers, and a group studying the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. The plan was for each group to spend half its meetings on the common study plan and half discussing practical work. We elected a new Coordinating Committee, and took the name BASOC.

This plan did not work smoothly. The Coordinating Committee (CC) had difficulty prioritizing its agendas and giving leadership to the small groups. It bogged down in organizational details, and failed to give adequate support to important political activities, such as the national conference of national minority Marxist-Leninists, which two of our members attended. Problems with study in part resulted from BASOC’s tendency to ultra-democracy, insecurity in taking decisive steps, and idealism in our work. The study program began with an overly ambitious survey of ̶objective conditions” that the groups were at a loss to evaluate. Most groups had difficulty structuring discussions of mass practice and in defining a role for the group in helping to improve the members’ mass work.

Early in 1979, several months into the study plan, the women’s group presented its criticism of the problems BASOC was facing, and the entire study program was suspended for several months of internal debate. This was a critical struggle for BASOC.

To begin with, it was a struggle. The group had been proud of its diversity, but many members feared that to raise controversial issues might provoke disagreement or a split. We had idealistically hoped to reach unity through study and discussion, not struggle and debate. When the study program came under criticism, political differences came into the open. It was immediately apparent that struggle was a preferable course of action. We summed up a few months later that “our liberalism was an over-reaction to the sectarianism of the movement; many people doubted that constructive struggle was possible. This led some, who felt the group wasn’t getting anywhere, to leave BASOC. As time went on, our differences simmered, coming out in subjective antagonisms, disproportionate disputes over minor issues, and vague distrust. When we actually confronted our differences, the atmosphere in the organization improved.

There were several points of view in the struggle. Some felt that it was a mistake to try to form a Marxist-Leninist organization and to struggle for a higher degree of political unity; they thought the important thing was to work together to strengthen the mass movements. This position considered the study of party-building questions to be a distraction from practical work together. As a result some people left BASOC, criticizing it for too great an emphasis on theory, others for an overemphasis on organization.

Coming from another direction, others felt that BASOC was not moving quickly enough to become an all-round Marxist-Leninist organization. They felt it was unable to meet the needs of many of its members, particularly in guiding their mass work and in responding to political events in the world. Still others thought that our study program was too superficial, and that we needed a more prolonged period of theoretical and methodological consolidation before forming an organization. A few others argued that instead of concentrating on party-building questions, it would be better for us to focus on particular questions of political line, such as racism and the oppression of black people and other minorities in the United States.

In opposition to these criticisms, a number of BASOC members developed a general defense of the direction of the organization, with some criticisms of mistakes made along the way. This group–centered in the Committee for a Party Building Perspective–became the core of BASOC’s leadership and membership. It argued that party-building positions were critical to the coalescing of a local organization in this period. Without a communist level of unity, a group would be unable to work constructively in the mass movements and would be abandoning its political responsibilities as Marxist-Leninists. On the other hand, the committee recognized that the organization we were building would remain limited for some time to come, and criticized people who left because of individual interests that the organization was not able to take up; it argued that an all-round organization must be built systematically and could not take up every issue at once. The committee maintained that the party-building questions would in fact help us define a common approach to mass work that would lay the basis for our unity as an organization.

This struggle helped us to be more critical of the sloppiness of the study program. We realized that it was not sufficiently focused on the basic issues of party building, again because of a desire to postpone controversy. We affirmed the importance of our secondary task of helping the members in their mass practice. However, BASOC’s weaknesses at this time set the stage for the mistakes of the next period. We did not develop a plan for summarizing our discussions of the study questions; as it turned out, the position papers in this pamphlet came to be written virtually independently of the discussions of the readings. Nor did we develop a plan for integrating our discussions of mass work; instead, we tried to accelerate our theoretical consolidation, so that small groups and individual members were still left to fend for themselves in their mass work.

The main results of this period of struggle constituted a political advance for the organization. Different political views were clarified through struggle, and lines of demarcation were drawn on the question of party building. A smaller leadership body emerged that was more politically consolidated and more committed to providing BASOC with political direction. Most important, a majority of the members consolidated around the proposition that party building is the movement’s central task, and on a strategy for developing political unity on party building.

A less positive result was that many people left BASOC because of their disagreements with its developing politics, their dissatisfactions with its limitations, their frustration with the process of building an organization from scratch, or because of sectarian and other mistakes on the part of the majority.

A reorganized BASOC set about studying party-building questions and drafting position papers. Doing so turned out to be a more formidable project than we had anticipated. It involved Coordinating Committee discussions of several drafts, then discussions by small groups, redrafting and further CC discussion, and finally debate at a general meeting. More importantly, our work was difficult because the questions we struggled to answer were more complicated than we had foreseen. However, through this process, our political unity slowly did take shape. The resulting position papers are printed in this pamphlet. We look forward to continuing to develop our understanding of these and other questions through struggles in the communist movement and in the mass movements.

Developing our position papers required a great deal of time from our leadership, and led to many frustrations.

It was difficult to identify the particular tactics and tasks involved and then give to each of them their proper weight. Like any small and consolidating organization, we were often unable to take part in or give leadership to urgent and necessary projects. The temptation to over-commit ourselves or leap from one activity to another had to be resisted with the recognition that in the long run a unified organization would be able to take up more work more effectively than we ever could otherwise. Nevertheless, while developing our unity, we also participated in some of the struggles within the anti-revisionist, anti-ultra-left trend, and in some of the important mass struggles in our area.

Mass Work Initiatives

After our struggle for political direction, BASOC began putting more organizational energy into mass work, and this intensified after the initial formulation of our political positions, as we developed an approach with a sense of significant unity that enabled us to do other work together. The small groups began to discuss their work more systematically and to undertake joint projects. We held a forum on members’ work in the anti-Bakke and anti-Weber campaigns, and on the rank-and-file movement in the culinary workers’ union. In time, our four groups–Health, Education, Community Struggles, and Industrial (now disbanded for a short period)–could be considered collectives.

The Education Collective helped to form a local network for progressive school workers, parents, and community members to oppose attacks on public education and to fight for quality education. The Health Collective members were involved in several union organizing drives, the occupational health and safety movement, and a coalition to fight cutbacks in public health care. The Community Struggles group took up anti-racist work, focusing on the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and on police brutality. BASOC was involved in a variety of political events, including several levels of participation in rank-and-file support work for the San Francisco hotel workers and for other strikes, activities in solidarity with African, Latin American, and Filipino liberation struggles, and Gay Freedom Day marches. Our collectives worked periodically with activists who were not members of BASOC. For example, the Industrial group met with trade union activists for a series of discussions of practical and theoretical approaches to their work.

The mass work of BASOC as individuals and collectives comes out of an organization of activists and reflects a broad involvement in the contemporary movements. At the same time, it suffers from several weaknesses, particularly those of spontaneity and empiricism, resulting from the lack of a general line and a clear and concrete plan for developing mass practice.

Work in the Communist Movement

From the outset, many members of BASOC identified with the anti-revisionist, anti-ultra-left trend, with many members expressing a particular inclination toward the “fusion” strategy for party building and toward the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC). Having worked with other groups besides those in the OCIC, we found ourselves drawing closer to OCIC politics in the context of the party-building debates then taking place. We agreed, however, to define our own group’s unity before taking up the question of joining a national formation. Members of BASOC attended as observers, however, at the OCIC’s first two national conferences and a regional conference on Point 18 (the last of the OCIC Principles of Unity, which states that the main enemy of the world’s people is U.S. imperialism), and participated as delegates at the OCIC-sponsored national minorities’ conference and the health and education fraction conferences.

The OCIC’s plans for local centers and industrial fractions raised serious questions for BASOC. In particular, the Education Collective was involved in planning the national conference for education workers and struggled before and during that meeting for a different conception of the fraction and its tasks. We felt it was important to discuss work in different localities specifically and to reach unity on political questions relating to schools work before joining together in a democratic centralist formation. (See Appendix B for the position put forward by BASOC at the education fraction conference.) At the same time we were learning from our own experience that organizational consolidation requires political unity on the basic tasks facing the organization, and cannot substitute for that unity. It became increasingly clear to us that the OCIC was attempting to enforce organizational discipline without an explicit basis in political unity.

At the same time, our dissatisfaction was growing with the fusion approach to party building that dominated the OCIC. Many of us had taken seriously the original fusion program of the simultaneous “independent elaboration of Marxism-Leninism” for U.S. conditions while struggling to fuse such a “workers’ communism” with advanced workers. But leading proponents of the fusion strategy were never able to develop a coherent program based on this view. For example, PWOC’s formulations on fusion became more confused and contradictory. Theoretical work was in fact neglected, and the specific characteristics and capacities of U.S. advanced workers were ignored. Precisely because we took seriously the struggle to link theoretical work and mass work in party-building line, we became convinced that the fusion theory was inadequate.

Any last doubts about the OCIC were resolved by the campaign against white chauvinism launched by the OCIC’s steering committee in 1980. This campaign appears to us to be an attempt to purge opposing viewpoints within the OCIC, cow the membership, and blame racism among the cadres for all the limitations of the OCIC. The campaign is particularly disturbing because its viciousness undercuts an effective struggle against racism in our movement. We believe that this struggle must be conducted in the context of a struggle against racism in the whole society, based on a sound political line and with a spirit of unity-struggle-unity within the movement.

Some Lessons

We believe the history of BASOC presents some useful lessons for this task. Critical, as already indicated, is the need for political unity to precede organizational unity. We have learned from our own experience that leadership and discipline do not appear because they are desirable; they must be developed through struggle for a common political orientation. Over and over we have had to fight the tendency to create organizational structures as substitutes for political struggle. At one point, for example, the Coordinating Committee developed a thorough plan to restructure BASOC at a higher level of activity; the membership criticized this plan as premature when we had not yet reached a common position on party building, particularly on the nature of “fusion.” People were not willing to take on additional responsibilities in an organization whose political direction remained vague. We believe that the temptation to build organization on flimsy political bases is a persistent danger in the party-building movement.

Related to this is our understanding of the nature of the unity needed for communist work. When we began meeting together, we had idealistic expectations of what a heterogeneous group of activists could accomplish together. We do not think it is possible for our movement to achieve unity quickly on all the questions which confront us, but we believe communists must have unity on their approach to mass work and revolutionary strategy, their method of organization, and on their understanding of the historical mistakes of the left. Most important of all, in this period they must have unity on the need to develop a general political line that can lead to the forming of a genuine communist party, and a commitment to formulating the strategy and tactics that can accomplish these important tasks.

In order to reach unity on such questions, open discussion of differences and frank criticism/self-criticism are essential. Criticism/self-criticism based on the desire for unity strengthens us: as we have learned to raise our differences more openly, we have found it easier to work together despite differences, and we have found that apparently insurmountable disagreements can be transformed into a workable level of unity.

This pamphlet presents our initial political positions addressing important elements of the general line that our movement must develop. It will at the same time be apparent how much our group has not had a chance to discuss. Some questions, such as racism, trade unionism, and gay oppression, we expect to address in the next few months; other questions are on the agenda for the future.

A Summary

BASOC’s history portrays an organization which has come a great distance, yet has far to go in its theoretical development, mass practice, and work within the communist movement. As these papers indicate, we do not see revolution on the immediate horizon. The weakness of the communist movement, the low level of popular struggle, and the resiliency of the U.S. ruling class mean that we face a long period of struggle and development. Critical to our success will be an approach to the mass movements, that is, to reform struggles–an approach that on the one hand builds these movements, developing the people’s ability to resist, and on the other hand struggles to transcend them, winning more activists to communism. The anti-revisionist movement in the United States has in the past failed in these responsibilities through a consistent tendency to left sectarianism, downplaying the importance of mass struggles and of the masses themselves. For communists to lead people to revolution, organization is essential. We believe that party building–the creation of a Marxist-Leninist national organization–is our major task. To unify communists in an organization, we need to develop a general line, not just make declarations of our own importance. This political unity will grow in the course of struggle in the communist movement and work in the mass movements. Especially while this task is being pursued, open discussion and airing of differences will be critical to establishing a healthy movement that can one day unite the people and transform capitalist society.

(December 1980)