Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Wes Harding

The debate on period and tasks: A review by an RWH member

First Published: The Call, March-April 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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I would like to make some comments on the first series of statements in the debates on major issues of political line by the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML), and the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWH).

In the past the outcome of these kinds of formats has usually been pre-determined. Either the groups, having already agreed to merge, state how their analysis and line came together or debates have been sectarian polemics where lines are drawn to label one group Marxist and the other opportunist.

Neither is the situation here. If the discussion is approached to seek out major unities with a tempered attitude to differences, the disagreements can be aired to bring clarity and hopefully a better line for the whole movement.

Now we need some healthy back and forth in the debate without the inflated rhetoric and posturing of the past.

Though I live in a city where there are no members of the CPML or of the LRS and therefore have little direct contact with them, I hope my comments might help focus some of the future statements. Inasmuch as the first topic was a fairly broad sweep, each group touches only briefly on points that will be developed further. I look forward to future statements on the national question, trade union work, the international situation, party building, and the woman question. But taking this round for what it is, here are my views and questions.

All three groups agree on a number of important general points: three worlds theory, right of self-determination for national struggles around the world and in the U.S., national and labor movements as two key social forces at the core of a broader united front, the need to build an M-L party, the fact that we are in neither a revolutionary nor a pre-revolutionary period. These roughly define what we call our trend. The differences arise when the groups relate these general points to the concretes of today’s U.S. and make judgments of emphasis and relations of tasks.

On the CPML: While the document “Period and Tasks of M-Ls Today” by Komozi had little to disagree with, overall it seemed too general on what we need to do. Some of the characterizations of period were good. I can agree with its views on political errors from the left and right in strategy and tactics, its emphasis on building the united front, the need for a concrete program of struggle, and its general sentiments for unity. But overall there wasn’t enough elaboration. The main question I have is what is meant by party building as the central task.

The article by JRH of the CPML in the last issue of The Call was much more substantive. It was a step in the direction of fleshing out some of the more frustrating issues we have to deal with: intermediate program, the problems we have had with cadre organization, the need for a vision of socialism (both for ourselves and the advanced around us), and what we can say about this now.

While I have reservations around demands for nationalization, his article makes the strongest case I have heard for why it should be part of a revolutionary intermediate program. More views on this are needed. For example how does intermediate program differ from Trotsky’s theory of transitional program?

On the LRS: Their pamphlet, “Repression, Reaganomics, War and Revolution” raised the most questions for me. First some less important points.

I had general agreement with the characterization of the period, although I don’t think it draws out enough implications. For example would they call for an anti-right, anti-Reagan united front?

The LRS made a good point on the illusion of a “democratic foreign policy” that supposedly would oppose Soviet hegemonism while respecting the rights of the oppressed nations. Also they correctly say neither superpower should be viewed as a strategic ally against the other.

But in the past our general recognition of the “nature of imperialism” led us away from the concrete and away from trying to influence government policy. Under Reagan, our role will most often be straight-out antagonism, as around El Salvador. But devising programs to influence U.S. policy-makers still gets tricky around issues like Poland and the recognition of the PLO. Certainly we don’t want to repeat past errors of standing outside the programmatic, wrapping ourselves in the general truths so as to not deal with the concretes. The LRS statement on foreign policy leaves itself open on this question.

“The Soviets are the more aggressive of the two superpowers and the greater source of war.” Developments since Reagan should, at least, force us to deepen our understanding on this and look at it again. As I have understood it, the point was never who was more likely to fire the first shot, but who–because of their strategic position–had more of an interest in an aggressive, military solution to the superpower competition.

Is it possible for the U.S. to move from the strategic defensive to the offensive? Right wing think-tank studies calling for a more militant attitude to the USSR’s spheres of influence certainly indicate that some sectors would like to see the U.S. not just defend its empire, but go after and try to dismantle that of the Soviets. While this is not the operative principle at this point, I do think we need to be clearer on “main danger of war.”

The LRS position on Solidarity Day also seemed to be too one-sided. Shouldn’t there be more particular analysis of what is new here, rather than a restatement of what we have long known about the motives of the AFL-CIO leadership? It seems that we have to be more adept at seizing on situations where broad united fronts are developing. Solidarity Day forced the leadership to take positions that objectively were progressive. It provided big openings and created more favorable conditions for the left and actually sent a message to Reagan.

In general their view of the labor movement was too one-sided. More clarification is needed on who is seen as the labor aristocracy and what is the motion that is whittling away large sections of it. In their treatment of the union reform movements they call for us to participate, but don’t refer to them as united fronts in which the reform leaders should be allied with and even explicitly supported. Hopefully when the LRS trade union statement appears we will get a better idea if they reject the immature stance which characterized our movement in the ’70s. Then many of us saw our main role as attacking the motives of those who were objectively taking progressive stands. Too often this was our excuse to stay on the sidelines, our ticket to isolation from important developments.

Now for a couple more serious questions. The LRS makes it clear they consider party building the main task today. The history of discussion on this question has not been good. Much has been semantics; much has been confusion. But there are some identifiable differences.

Party building must proceed from a sober view of the situation in the movement and among the people. We are a long way from the formation of a genuine M-L party and there are a number of steps needed before one would become likely. There is a very real question of survival, if not for the whole trend at least for a sizeable part of it.

M-L unity between the groups would be an important step forward, but still this would not be a genuine party. Because of the historical rupture between socialism and the people’s movements over the last 30 years, the fusion of these two movements should be an objective guiding what tasks we set for ourselves. The level of fusion should be a criterion for gauging how advanced the situation is. To its credit, none of the LRS predecessor organizations were among the groups rushing to proclaim The Party. But this sorry chapter from the ’70s should make us all wary on this point. The first time it was tragedy. If it happens again, it will be nothing but farce.

I don’t think the LRS is saying we should take that route, but their emphasis of mainly looking to develop line for the advanced and their concentration on party building leads away from the concrete steps and emphases that could belter consolidate, stabilize and define our trend. To a large extent, I think this means proceeding from the actual terms of the struggles confronting the American people, building them up, developing line through this, and on that basis, building up Marxist organization. I think the LRS proceeds too much from the absence of a real party and not enough from the present stage in the building of such a party.

One of the ways in which this misplaced emphasis comes down is a one-sided view of concentration policy. The LRS says we should focus on the “low paid, more oppressed sectors.” If this were a general guide to root our work among the production workers, I could agree. But the statement implies a de-emphasis on work in the highly unionized, relatively high-paid sectors like steel, auto, rubber, postal, phone, etc. Aren’t these the main pillars of the economy where the working class has the greatest leverage and the greatest potential consciousness of its role in society? These concentrations have a disproportionate influence on the character and state of the labor and other social movements. They contain large numbers of workers from the oppressed nationalities.

They say that mass work must be influenced by the party building central task. They say that the more oppressed sectors are more active in struggle, more open to communism, and more accessible to cadre. By proceeding from party building, I think they distort an analysis of where the key sectors are and what propels people into struggle. They end up with a one-sided view of where the advanced are and what combination of conditions are more likely to produce cores of revolutionaries.

As someone who has done organizing in both sectors of industry, I know that the more oppressed sectors are more volatile and there is more immediate potential for recruitment. But the greater amount of oppression and weak union representation also means greater intimidation and hesitation to stand up for basic rights, as well as more instability in terms of workforce turnover.

The sweat shop was also nowhere near as important strategically in terms of the economy, the labor movement, and local politics as was the more highly paid and organized industry I’ve worked in. As far as the militancy of this sector, history is full of examples of the leading role played by the key industrial work forces: our own coal miners, iron workers in Czarist Russia, shipyard and mine workers in Poland and oil workers in Iran.

The point is not to pit one against the other. We have to do both. It is a reflection of the state of the movement that no organization can claim anything near a well-rounded concentration of forces in the various sectors, including the unorganized.

I think it is a mistake at this point in our practice to identify one sector as objectively more advanced that the other. This can lead to serious sectarian errors. Advanced in terms of what? Where communists can recruit? Or advanced in terms of those sectors and struggles that have the biggest roles in national resistance to Reagan and his class? I think the LRS puts its organizational needs above those of a sober analysis of the needs of the people and the movement.

On Summing Up the M-L Movement: While it is arguable whether left or right opportunism is the main danger today, it would seem clear that the overwhelming character of the errors of the past ten years were “left.” Maybe many of these were inevitable given the class composition of the movement and the battle against revisionism as the organizations emerged.

The left errors were not just deviations such as “dogmatic book worship, left sectarianism, and belittling mass work,” but also proceeding from our own subjectivity in concocting programs for the mass work, viewing united fronts as all who could be united around us, building super-centralized organizations, and declaring the independent role of Marxist-Leninists as opposed to winning it–as well as other left errors.

My point in raising this is not to call for rehashing debates over which error was primary in the past, nor do I want people to crystalize too quickly over what trends these days are and are not opportunism. But it seems that the LRS misanalysis of the past must be reflected in their current practice and inevitably has to catch up with them.

Finally on the RWH: Overall the main strength of the RWH statement was its treatment of the actual terrain of the struggle, both the objective situation and the state of our movement. Its call for an anti-Reagan front to be built from the defensive struggles, its view on the crisis of Marxism, past problems with democratic centralism, and its analysis of the motion in the socialist movement were all good. While there might be some particulars to disagree with, overall I was struck by the accurate identification of contradictions we face.

But the other side of this strength is a weakness, a one-sidedness. The RWH statement tied up current tasks too little with our overall goals. And it had little more to say beyond identifying the contradictions.

If the LRS is one-sided toward line and work with the advanced and for building a party, the RWH–although I think its orientation is more on target–does not pay enough attention to questions of line summation, work with the advanced, and organizational consolidation. While much of this is a reflection of the actual state of the RWH, a more elaborate view of how to move forward must be developed.

I’m told that one of the LRS’ criticisms of the RWH statement is that it is too ambitious for us to think that we can influence the direction of the anti-Reagan front, given the weakness of our forces. This is a question we should consider, though at this point, I think a strong “mobilize the masses” approach within the movement could actually advance the demands and the character of the front.

Some of the questions the RWH should take on directly are: What forms would an anti-Reagan front take? How do we play a special role while building struggles and united fronts? What views of the road forward do we propagate in the course of this? Here I feel the RWH has to go in the direction of hammering out some of the details of an intermediate program along the lines of the JRH article in the last issue of The Call. A danger would be to concoct a program outside the terrain of the struggle, not realizing that many of the features will emerge as classes become more antagonistic. But the other danger is agnosticism. Delay on this is not a realistic choice, as there are already other views gaining currency, ranging from die neo-liberal managed economy to various Trotskyite transitional programs. We have to advocate policies between the localized struggles we are involved in and the long range answer of revolution and socialism. Projecting a vision of socialism is a task on the same order as the elaboration of intermediate program. We need this for our own ideological development, even more than for our mass work.

I hope my comments and criticisms will be taken in the spirit of promoting a back and forth that can have productive results. Clearly there are many more things to say about the statements. If I have misunderstood or confused points particularly in relation to the LRS where most of my sharper comments were directed, I welcome correction. I hope that at least some of the questions raised here will be addressed in future rounds of presentations.