Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

The CPML and the tasks of Marxist-Leninists today


First Published: Forward, No. 5, Spring 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: In Forward issue #4, Carl Davidson, once a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) (CPML), contributed his analysis of the demise of that organization.

Davidson continued his assessment of the CPML and the current tasks of Marxist-Leninists in a talk given in several cities in 1985. Parts of that speech follow.

* * *

My topic is what happened to the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML), and the tasks of Marxist-Leninists today.

I believe this topic is important to discuss because the CPML represented, in many ways, some of the best of a generation of young people who came to political consciousness in the mass revolts of the 1960s.

The 1960s was a tremendously positive experience in our lives and the life of the country. Millions of people rose up in righteous rebellion against war, racism and the suppression of democracy. Thousands rallied to the cause of revolution and socialism, and some of these joined or organized communist organizations.

The story of the CPML is also a story of this generation. In this sense, it cannot be understood and should not be judged outside the context of its time.

Our movement began in the 1960s, at the height of the postwar prosperity. The corporate liberal circles of the ruling class were in charge. Many believed that the future was full of promise for major reforms and changes in our country and around the world.

But by 1977, when the CPML was formed, the country had hit the hard rocks of economic recession, the retreat of the liberals and the rise of the conservative right. The left movement had also been weakened by over ten years of repression, including assassinations and the organized disruptions of the Red Squads and the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations.

By this time, a fundamental redrawing of our tactics, especially those developed during the upsurge experience of the 1960s, was long overdue. In fact developing an all-sided tactical program is part and parcel of what it means to build a revolutionary party.

But the CPML pushed ahead and declared itself the party without having accomplished this and other tasks. It claimed the title of vanguard leadership of the working class without having won it in real life. This was wrong, and the events that have taken place since then have proved it to be wrong.

Still, having made this declaration, we were faced with the need to make it come true. In doing so, we painted an unrealistic and idealistic scenario of what we expected to happen in the next few years.


The picture we put forward was that there were tens of thousands of advanced workers “standing on the doorstep” of our party. We believed “propaganda was decisive” in reaching out to these forces – thus requiring work around our newspaper and other literature to be the center of organizing factory cells.

To present ourselves as revolutionaries, we believed we had to aim our main blow at the reform forces, especially the more dynamic and militant reform leaders in the unions. Through various exposure campaigns, we hoped to distinguish ourselves from them and the CPUSA revisionists. In this way, the advanced workers would see the light and quickly join our ranks.

The plans we drew up on the basis of this posture and scenario were, to say the least, overly ambitious. We set up an over-extended press, publishing house and system of bookstores. We set up our own mass organizations with us in the leadership. We tried to build a communist youth organization that we hoped would soon be three or four times the size of our party.

It was amazing that we accomplished as much positive work as we did. Our newspaper, The Call, came out weekly for several years. It had a top circulation of about 12,000.

Our members were involved in a wide variety of mass struggles on the local level. We began to secure some positions of leadership in the unions and other organizations. In many ways, this was a tribute to the persistence, good sense and fighting spirit of the vast majority of our rank and file.

But despite this good work, we were unable to meet our expectations and goals. There were many disappointments and setbacks.

A crucial factor was that the central leadership of the CPML repeatedly failed to concretely solve the real problems arising in the actual work of the local cadres. We became separated from this work. While we in the center worked long and hard on our newspaper and publications, this became a substitute for giving guidance to the mass struggles. Being separated in this way rendered our general pronouncements about the work abstract and bereft of real understanding.

Also crucial were failures in democratic centralism, in a dynamically functioning internal life. This combined with unfulfilled expectations produced a vacuum of real leadership. In frustration, many would drift away to make their contributions to the movement elsewhere. Some became confused and bitter, and others would be won over to various incorrect views.

Ultraleftism and rightism

By the time of its second congress, the CPML had ceased to function as an effective national organization. Only about 400 of nearly 1,000 members remained. While some intellectuals left because their ideas changed, many workers and minority nationality comrades left as the liquidationist line appeared.

We did not see that making revolution would be a much longer and more drawn-out process. In addition to wrong assessments of the right, we also almost totally ignored the social democrats. In this way, we failed in that aspect of party building that requires of anyone claiming to be the vanguard that they put forward a strategic and tactical alternative to social democracy and revisionism that is both clear and viable.

For the most part, these were “left” errors. By this I mean they overestimated the consciousness of the masses and the possibilities in the objective conditions. We tended to substitute our subjective desires for what was actually possible. We especially overestimated ourselves and our capabilities.

In the beginning we had waged a phony war against rightism. But while doing so, we also grossly underestimated the danger of the real right within the movement, especially the social democrats. These forces and tendencies could not be declared out of existence. They were reinforced by our country’s status as an imperialist superpower. Through the superprofits plundered from the third world, the U.S. ruling class was able to maintain national inequalities and certain concessions to sectors of the U.S. working class.

This underestimation proved fatal, especially as our members became disgusted with ultraleft errors. A faction formed in our leadership that openly rejected ML and embraced social democracy. Some in the faction had previously been the most ardent of the ultralefts.

Weak concrete analysis

Although we flip-flopped from left to right and vice versa, what was consistent was that our line was not adequately rooted in a concrete analysis. In fact it was often arrived at without investigation and by taking historical texts as the starting point.

This instability was reinforced by the class character of most of the CPML leadership and most of the white sector of the new communist movement. The intellectuals and the petty bourgeoisie had a preponderance of influence over those from working class origins.

A certain amount of this instability was understandable, even inevitable. There were many turbulent and confusing events happening in the world which made it difficult for some to hold on to socialist goals.

But it would be a big mistake if we think that what was happening in our sector of the movement was something inevitable for the movement as a whole. In particular, it was not true for many communists who came from the minority nationalities and the working class.

Some in the CPML’s leadership argued towards the end that our problems and our collapse were inevitable because the basic premises upon which we were founded were wrong. They pointed to problems with socialism in the Soviet Union, mistakes made by the Chinese, setbacks in Southeast Asia and problems in our own work. They rolled this up into a theory – that socialism and Marxism-Leninism were no longer necessarily the wave of the future. Perhaps all the things we thought were true – such as the need for revolution, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, for a disciplined vanguard party – were not necessarily so. But these new ideas turned out to be the same old social-democratic dogmas that had been around for decades.

I remember a long argument I had with a writer on The Call who claimed that one of the things that was so great about our government was its independent judiciary. I found myself in liaison meetings with supposed MLs who claimed we had to develop a “democratic foreign policy” for the bourgeoisie in order to unite with them.

At one liaison meeting we were told that liquidationism wasn’t so bad – one group claimed to have gone over to it and now subscribed to what they called the “three levels of federation-ism” – their organization was a federation of districts, the district was a federation of units and the units were a federation of individuals.

Ultimately these were disorganizing ideas. It was at bottom an anti-revolutionary viewpoint that was reinforced daily by what the bourgeois media and society was telling us – that socialism was bankrupt and irrelevant.

Paralysis of the organization

This view, held within our leadership, was what paralyzed our central headquarters and leading bodies. In retrospect, what we should have done was to unfold a firm and clear struggle against this line throughout the CPML. Those of us in the center who opposed this view should have fought it out. Instead we were diverted by a one-sided fight against ultraleftism. If we had unfolded this struggle and accompanied it with self-criticism and corrections of commandist styles of leadership, and real rectification of our internal life, I believe at least a sizable minority could have been won over to affirm Marxism-Leninism, the need for revolution, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the need to continue the CPML as a Marxist-Leninist organization.

Ultimately, the inability of the left grouping in our leadership to rally the organization around Marxism-Leninism was directly traceable to incorrect methods of work and leadership as well as different errors in line. In fact the two are connected; it would have been far easier to correct some of our line errors if we had had a correctly functioning organization.

Need for “mass line”

A good method of leadership is what Marxist-Leninists call “practicing the mass line.” This means taking the experience and ideas of the masses of party members and the people we are working with as the starting point for developing our analysis, rather than taking abstract doctrine or principles as the starting point. From there, real leadership is given by helping to summarize this experience, to evaluate it in view of other experience and the general science of Marxism, then to take it back to the masses in a more advanced and concentrated form.

I do not blame our problems or setbacks on any inherent bankruptcy of Marxism or crisis in Marxism. If anything was worthwhile in these past 20 years, it has been that we stood up for Marxism-Leninism, for revolution and the belief that it was both possible and necessary, even here in the United States.

Going back to that period in the late ’60s and early ’70s, many of us turned to Marxism-Leninism because, of all the outlooks on the left, it gave us both a vision of a new society and a means for achieving it. In a general way, it indicated how to approach organizing ourselves and the masses, how to unite the many to defeat the few, how to make revolution here in the U.S.

One problem was that we had no practical guides. We were new and inexperienced; we had no ties to the old Communist Party except for a few notable individuals. We were called the new left and, later, the new communist movement, to distinguish us from the old left or the old communist movement.

What especially distinguished us in those years was our fervent commitment to the equality of nationalities, to an end to national chauvinism, racism and imperialism. Some of us had been through a baptism of fire in the Black Belt of Mississippi and the civil rights struggle. Inspired by the Black Liberation Movement, we were appalled by a CPUSA which called Malcolm X a police agent and attacked militant Black fighters as lumpen criminals.

Revolutionary outlook

In seeing the need for revolution, we correctly pointed out the violent nature of the capitalist state. Those of us who worked in Chicago will never forget the bloody night in December when the police and FBI pumped their bullets into the body of our friend and comrade, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, as he lay sleeping in bed. Anyone who believes in the peaceful transition to socialism should first explain why his murderers, whose names are public knowledge, are walking the streets unpunished to this day.

We learned from other costly defeats. The CIA-inspired overthrow of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile, taught us two things: In order to make revolution you needed the broad support of the people. And second, that there could be a peaceful transition was a foolish, even criminal illusion promoted by the CPUSA and other revisionists.

We knew that the bourgeoisie would never give up without a vicious fight. The assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King attested to the vicious nature of the bourgeoisie even against some of their own more liberal leaders or moderate forces among the masses.

We believed in a disciplined party because we knew that the bourgeoisie was organized. Given the wide-ranging efforts of the FBI, CIA and other agencies to disrupt and derail our movement, we knew that if the working class was not consciously, seriously and meticulously organized, we would have no hope of ever being able to bring capitalism down.

We believed in internationalism and the fight against imperialist war. We were inspired by the struggles of the third world countries, especially by the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people against U.S. imperialism. A firm commitment to national liberation, to the right of national independence and sovereignty, to the right of self-determination of all oppressed nations – this led us to consistently oppose not only U.S. aggression, but also the international adventures of the Soviet Union.

No regrets

I still believe in these views. I have no regrets. This is how we distinguished ourselves from opportunism and reformism and became, in the process, a new communist movement. I believe they are still applicable today. And the weaknesses of the CPML, which led to its end, still do not diminish the contributions that it made.

One of the things I liked best about the CPML was its militant, fighting spirit. We used to say that the main reason our party existed was to wage class struggle – and we certainly did a lot of it, even if we did not always fight wisely and well.

The dissolution of the CPML should make us even more aware of a number of things – the necessity to base communist organizations in the working class, to pay attention to the correct functioning of democratic centralism, to practice the mass line, to combat male chauvinism, individualism, posturing, arrogance and get-rich-quick schemes.

Need to move on

Our errors were our own. We can’t blame Marx, Lenin, China or anyone else. We can only own up to them, look them square in the face, seek their roots and move on.

After all, the new communist movement did not end with the CPML. While important, it was still only one component. Many members of the CPML and the groups preceding it have gone on to make contributions in the mass struggle and in the communist and left movements. Other communist organizations with their roots in the ’60s and ’70s have continued and developed to the present.

The League of Revolutionary Struggle is one of them. It has a particular legacy, coming predominantly out of the movements of the oppressed nationalities. This was the other major sector of the new communist movement, and the League, founded in 1978, united several of the major communist organizations coming out of it.

Coming from this background also meant that a majority of its cadres were from the working class. Combined with a generally correct Marxist-Leninist line, this has helped the League avoid most of the errors which befell our sector of the movement. The League prudently never declared itself “the party.”

When I joined the League a while back, I was struck by some of the differences in its functioning and methods of work. To tell you the truth, I was somewhat surprised at the size, breadth and depth of its work in many areas. The League is one organization that has not puffed itself up. In fact, it is probably the only organization on the left that suffers from a public image which projects it as quite a bit less than it actually is.

To be sure, the League has made errors. But it has also been able to sum these up in good time and to correct them.

I was particularly struck by its attitude towards correcting errors in line. When I first joined, some people in the leadership of the League had just resigned – and were upholding a basically nationalist line. The report and summary of what happened was essentially a self-criticism from the leading bodies. There was no effort to attribute everything wrong to the departing people. Instead there was a sincere effort to sum up what was wrong in both the line and practice of the League which led to this kind of error developing and the inability of the organization to save these comrades.

The method of leadership in the League is modest, down-to-earth and focuses on solving the problems which come up in the mass work of the cadres.

Methods of LRS leadership

I feel that this approach to leadership is partly due to the preponderance of women in the leadership. I don’t know of any other ML organization where the leading core was mainly women – and women from the minority nationalities at that.

I believe it has resulted in a reduction of needless posturing, arrogance and commandism. Those of you who had any contact with the CPML can probably appreciate that, having seen the male ego do its legendary thing any number of times. It has also meant greater sensitivity not only to the needs of the mass work, but to the personal and particular situations of individual members as well.

I have been through one Congress of the League. There was a period of democratic discussion and debate within the organization beforehand. At the Congress itself, opposing views were aired in a principled, respectful and comradely fashion and were voted up or down. In one case, what had started as a minority position became a majority position and won out in this process.

The League practices an internal system of collective child care for its cadres with young children. This along with other policies regarding women have helped women develop in the League and assume positions of leadership in great numbers. The same down-to-earth approach that has helped women has also made the League an organization in which working class comrades generally can develop and play leading roles.

I say these things about the League because when I joined I didn’t know quite what to expect. I believe the League is far from perfect and has a ways to go in many areas, especially in developing its theoretical work. But I believe that in the League, there is the basis to build a communist organization which can grow and learn along with the development of the mass struggle.

The League is not the only communist organization in the U.S. today, but I believe it has a unique contribution to make. It has a regular press capable of presenting Marxist-Leninist analysis in a timely fashion. It has some relatively strong concentrations in major sectors of the people’s struggles – the oppressed nationality movements, among youth, among lower stratum workers. When this is combined with a genuinely multinational membership and a positive internal life, I think that its future growth and success is something which all of us who believe in communism want to see.

While I have mentioned the CPML’s strengths, I have especially stressed the weaknesses so we can learn lessons for the future. I feel it is important not to gloss over these errors, but to look at them honestly and objectively. After all, this is the main reason for summing up the past – to help chart the path for the future.

We on the left have tremendous responsibilities in the rest of the 1980s and beyond. The mass movement is stepping up, but what direction it will take is still an open question. The ruling class is obviously concerned. It is strengthening its ideological control as well as other, more direct means, to put a damper on the developing resistance.

The left must face this challenge – and not let the mass movements down. We need to deepen our ties with the masses. We need to be involved in the major struggles against the right and provide the best leadership we can. We need to keep our sights clearly on the enemy, and avoid the bickering and divisiveness which have plagued the left movement for too long. If we are both modest and optimistic, we can be successful. With that perspective, we can look forward to the future with confidence.

Tasks today

My last point is connected to this issue. What should be our main emphasis in party building and combating liquidation and disorganization today? Is it recruitment or regroupment? I believe we must make every effort to regroup the activists from the 1970s. We must keep every door open.

But I also believe that we cannot look backward primarily. The main forces for today’s party-building activities must be the new generation of activists, the young people in the factories, schools and communities who are newly awakening and full of energy and desire to change the world.

This is as it should be. Every successful revolution has been made mainly by the youth. When they took power in Cuba, the average age of the central committee was 26. Fidel was the old man at 35. The Chinese people’s army was essentially millions of teenagers, led by a party in its 30s. Chu Teh was the oldest general, at the age of 50. Or think about this – when Lenin wrote One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, a classic in organizing the Bolsheviks, he was only 24 years old.

Our struggle requires incredible amounts of discipline, experience and organization. For those of us who have this experience, it is a duty to bring it to the new generation. This is how we will win. We may not see socialism, but those after us certainly will. We will fight from one generation to the next.

If we can bring some experience, it is the youth who bring audacity. And revolutions are not made without audacity. We made many mistakes in the past, but you should not worry about making mistakes. You can always correct your mistakes. What you have to avoid at all costs is the biggest mistake of all, to do nothing out of fear of losing. Then you have surrendered before the fight has begun.