Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

J.R. Hammond and D. Wayne

Dogmatism, social-democracy and the destruction of the CPML


First Published: Forward, No. 5, Spring 1986.
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.

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. Two other former members of the CPML have responded to Davidson with their own perspective, contained in “Dogmatism, Social-Democracy and the Destruction of the CPML,” which is printed below.

D. Wayne was a founding member of the October League (M-L) and a leading member of the CPML auto commission. J.R. Hammond was elected to the CPML Central Committee at the Second Party Congress and was a member of the steel commission.

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In the January 1985 issue of Forward, Carl Davidson developed some views on the struggles which led to the disintegration of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist). The dust of that dissolution having settled, we agree that it’s time for Marxist-Leninists to sum up the lessons. The CPML was one of the largest communist organizations to emerge out of the ’60s, an organization which had developed fairly deep roots in the working class and in minority communities. A clear understanding of how it came to an untimely end should help keep others from repeating its errors.

Davidson’s view of this struggle, however, reflected a poor understanding of what was primary and what was secondary. We believe it was the inability of the CPML’s leadership to understand the mass line and the relationship between theory and practice that was at the heart of the organization’s destruction. To understand how this inability led to a series of irresolvable struggles it’s necessary to briefly review the CPML’s development, its political line and its organizational structure. Rather than doing an in-depth analysis of every major event and document, we wish to focus on what we view as the primary errors in theory and methodology.

The formation of the October League (ML) in 1972 (the predecessor of the CPML), and its subsequent growth as a national organization served as a rallying point for many Marxist-Leninists who had developed in the struggles of the ’60s. We threw ourselves into numerous areas of work, many of which were new to us. It’s important to remember that we possessed no roadmaps; we had only the general guidelines of Marxism-Leninism.

Rich Internal life

While our early organizational structure was fairly weak and loose, our internal political life was rich. Internal bulletins were filled with the views and summations of rank and file comrades, and in the main, a thoroughly democratic approach of “seeking truth from practice” prevailed. Yet from the beginning there were problems with dogmatism, which led to ultra-leftism. Most of our comrades, and virtually all of our leadership, came to Marxism from intellectual backgrounds. It was much easier to define reality according to preconceived (and often poorly understood) theories, than to develop theories from reality.

As our work expanded, the need for organizational structure increased, and a political center and Standing Committee were established. Our concepts of Party organization were based almost entirely on a weak understanding of the Bolshevik model, with little consideration for the conditions here. So it’s not surprising that more and more of the organization’s political life and resources were given over to the center. By 1977, our early democratic ways had disappeared. Political and organizational structure became highly over-centralized, our bulletins contained only the views of the leadership, and comrades in the various areas of work were often denied direct communication with each other. Work was not summed up by those doing it, but by comrades in the center who were far removed from it. Differences of opinion became equated with “bourgeois vs. proletarian lines.”

For the most part this went unchallenged. We knew our leadership was dedicated (and they were), and our organization was growing and seemed to be developing. It was in this context that the Founding Congress of the CPML was held in 1978.

CPML program

The CPML’s founding documents, the Political Report and Program, showed a good political understanding of the general features of American capitalism. But the analysis of current conditions was characterized by dogmatism and idealism. We severely overestimated the extent of capitalism’s decay and the level of mass consciousness. The Political Report found the following quote from Stalin to be applicable: “The masses of the people have not yet reached the stage when they are ready to storm the citadel of capitalism, but the idea of storming it is maturing in the minds of the masses.” Thus, forces which should have been viewed as allies were placed in the camp of our enemies. Reformist trade union leaders, for example, were viewed as the “most dangerous,” and were to receive the “main blow.” We set ourselves on an ultra-left path of isolation from the real struggles of the people.

By 1979, the comrades in the field were beginning to understand and sum up the serious problems in our work which this analysis had led to. A rank and file revolt on the political and organizational fronts was fomenting. Politically, dogmatism and sectarianism were being rejected. As a result our mass work began to surge ahead in a manner unknown since the earnest days of the October League. This was especially true in areas of concentration such as auto, steel and the Afro-American work. In these areas comrades began to throw off the bureaucratic stranglehold, took control of the work and established functioning networks and commissions. We were once again beginning to play leading roles in important struggles. For the first time, CPML cadre were developing theory from the actual conditions of the American class struggle, rather than following a dogmatic line based on books and formulas.

Bureaucratic errors

Unfortunately, the leadership was so mired in bureaucracy that they were unable to consolidate these gains. Rather than applying the mass line and using this impetus to build functioning democratic-centralism, they attempted to squelch the struggles. When the struggles grew too strong, the leadership simply stayed on the sidelines. It was under these conditions that a major debate about the relevance of Marxism-Leninism began to unfold within the Standing Committee (SC). Although the changing orientation at the base sparked this debate, the SC’s discussion was isolated from the real struggles being waged by our cadre.

The report of Dan Burstein, The Call editor, to the Central Committee in the spring of 1979 was the opening salvo. (The Call was the CPML’s newspaper.) This report was a rejection of Marxism-Leninism on the part of Burstein and the half of the SC which united with him. They saw the failure of their own dogmatism as the failure of Marxism-Leninism. The other half of the SC, the “left” faction under the leadership of CPML Chairman Michael Klonsky, saw this developing social-democratic tendency as the main danger facing the Party. Therefore, they viewed the defense of the general principles of Marxism-Leninism as their main task. Were Burstein’s views to reach the ranks, the “left” feared these ideas would tear the organization asunder.

“Left” vs. right

Both factions continued to ignore the major concerns of the cadre and the real advances taking place in our work. Instead they focused full attention on their own viewpoints. To make matters worse, they attempted to hide the debate from the rank and file! As late as the fall of 1980, many comrades knew of the split in the SC only through rumours.

As the leadership failed to respond to the needs and advances of the organization, the question of internal democracy became a critical issue. The confidence of the cadre was being destroyed. These problems were intensified by a serious tactical blunder of the “left” faction. They believed that allowing an open debate on the questions raised by the social-democratic faction would lead to confusion and vacillation. They concentrated their efforts on preventing this from taking place. This lack of confidence in the rank and file was a slap in the face to many comrades.

Instead of an organized debate, the very questions they didn’t want addressed were spread through rumours and informal contacts. The “left’s” resistance intensified and the struggle grew more sharp and bitter. The right used this to attack the concept of democratic-centralism and gain sympathy for their views. Organizational paralysis and disintegration grew.

Need for debate

Rank and file comrades, particularly those in the more advanced concentrations, were becoming increasingly alarmed. An organized opposition to the SC deadlock began to develop. This included some non-SC members of the Central Committee. As this force stood with neither the “left” nor the right SC factions, it became known as the “center.” Containing a broad range of views, it soon came to represent the majority of the rank and file comrades. Its basis of unity was the desire for an open debate and a functional organization.

At this point it is important to draw a major lesson from the unfolding struggle. Once questions arise and are seen as significant by a major section of a Marxist-Leninist organization, they must be confronted in an open and timely manner. This is true even perhaps especially if they question the basic tenets of that organization’s existence.

The “left” faction in the CPML saw an open debate as a no-win situation. They thought it the “wrong” debate, in which cadre would become hopelessly confused.

It may have been the wrong debate, but it had to be addressed. We believe that the majority of our cadre would have rejected social-democracy. The “left’s” fear of this debate exposed their lack of confidence in CPML cadre. They became trapped by the methods of commandism upon which they had relied.

“Center” vs. “left”

The center, on the other hand, saw many confused comrades who, only a few months before, had been staunch Marxist-Leninists. It took the position of no taboo subjects; it believed that in an open and organized debate, the rightist arguments could be defeated in the course of correcting the organization’s real problems. The “left” confused the center’s support for democracy with support for social-democracy, and this confusion led them to increase their opposition to democratic reforms. These tactics added fuel to the fire and opened the door wider for the rightist attack.

For the center, the main thrust had become the democratic reformation of the internal organization. Many of the questions over the direction of the mass work had been resolved in our day-today practice; we had been correcting this work for almost two years. The inability of the “left” to deal with the issue of democracy, and the right’s ability to seize this opening, played a key role in disrupting the rectification. It was, perhaps, the basic issue which separated the “left” and the center, and the issue upon which the liquidationism of the right made its greatest gains.

A different approach to unity had emerged on the part of the “left” and the center. The “left” believed it could maintain unity only by preventing an “incorrect” debate; the center viewed this as arrogant bureaucratic maneuvering. The center believed it could maintain unity through an open debate and winning over wavering comrades; the “left” viewed this as a cover for rightism. Perhaps imbedded in these views are basic conceptions of the Party: a view based on monolithic unity where centralism is stressed, versus a view of unity based on a voluntary association where democracy is stressed. We believe that during periods of bourgeois legality the second view is most appropriate.

With all these questions in the air it began to appear that the SC deadlock was going to doom the Party. For over a year, the leadership had been unable to call the Second Congress. In a last-ditch attempt to save the organization a number of Central Committee members, including some on the SC, organized an Emergency Conference early in 1981.

New leadership emerges

At the Emergency Conference, the entire Central Committee (CC) was removed and a new leadership was elected. This included a number of previous CC members. The removal of the CC reflected anger and frustration over the inability of the leadership to guide the Party in rectification. But this move also led to the further disruption of the organization.

At the same time, there was hope among many in the rank and file that things could now move forward. Over the next several months the Congress was organized, with the mass work summed up in Congress documents. But in reality the CPML was already in a process of growing disintegration. Many saw the Congress as a final showdown, rather than a time to pick up the pieces and move ahead. By now the majority of the SC had resigned from the organization and didn’t even attend. Although the center won most of the votes on organizational and political matters, it turned out to be an empty victory. The remaining “left” and right factions were getting ready to leave the Party. The struggle had become so bitter that all sides had used sectarian and anti-democratic methods of struggle. The new Central Committee was largely inexperienced, consisting mostly of cadre from secondary leadership positions in the districts.

Dissolution sets in

Thus, a number of major problems now confronted the CPML organizationally and politically. Neither the “left” nor the right had any intention of following democratic-centralism. Both saw themselves as losers, and rather than unite behind a new majority, both left the CPML over the next four-month period. When the old SC quit they simply walked away; there was no orderly transition of power or responsibility. The lines of communication between cities was largely disrupted, and there was no one to help break in new people with national responsibilities.

Even more significantly, the Party no longer had real meaning to its best organizers. It had ceased to play a role in guiding their work. Cadre were now faced with the choice of pursuing their mass work (which was going very well), or putting time and effort into rebuilding commissions, districts and units. There was a general anti-organizational reaction, a rightist disregard for collective effort and a disillusionment which built upon its own energies. Entropy had taken hold, and this situation led fairly quickly to the CPML’s complete unraveling. Although The Call was put out for another year (with the help of the Revolutionary Workers’ Headquarters), the structure continued to spiral downward with more and more cadre dropping away. Eventually only a few districts were active on any meaningful level; these took on the characteristics of local collectives. In other cities a handful of active people remained with no organization. The demoralization was as deep as our previous illusions had been high.

Understand lessons

Many of our comrades remain bitter over these events and the earlier struggles which led to them. Yet most remain active in the struggle for social change and most retain a Marxist world view. For their sake, as well as the sake of those comrades who are emerging out of the struggles of today, it is important to understand this history.

We believe that the CPML was destroyed because those responsible for summing up the organization’s work, for developing theory and strategy, had been isolated from the Party’s front-line struggles. This isolation led to errors of both rightism and ultra-leftism, as they attempted to fit our mass experience into preconceived formulas. The right fought to discard the baby with the bathwater; the “left” couldn’t see how filthy the bathwater had become.

If the scientific socialism of Marxism-Leninism is ever to become a real force in this country, more than mere lip service will have to be paid to the concept of democratic-centralism. Strategy and theory must be based on the real world and those who are fighting to change it. The death of the CPML proves that arrogance and self-delusion lead only to defeat.