Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Emily Keppler

The Illegal Party and Its Legal Work


First Published: Class Against Class, No. 12, January 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the United States, the struggle to rebuild the Marxist-Leninist Party has been protracted. The legacy of four decades of liquidationism – the abandonment of the revolution and the party of the proletariat – has had a profound effect on the consciousness and organization of the working class movement. In our country, Marxism-Leninism has not become a major political force. Among the working people, the need for the party is not recognized, and the struggle for political power is not a question consciously taken up for solution. This history, combined with the developing conditions within the country today, make the application of Leninism on the building of the illegal party and the development of its legal work a matter of paramount importance to the future of the revolution in the United States.

The struggle to build the illegal party is at the center of the struggle to fulfill the historic mission of the working class. This is the struggle to forge the general staff which is capable of the many and complicated tasks of the revolution in the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution. Only the Marxist-Leninist party can educate, organize, mobilize and lead the proletariat, rally the broad working masses to the side of the proletariat, contend with the bourgeoisie and its repressive state apparatus which is designed to suppress the exploited and oppressed classes and maintain bourgeois rule. Whether ruling under the cover of bourgeois democracy or through open fascist terror, the bourgeois state stands irreconcilably opposed to the interests and objectives of the working class.

The 36-year long struggle against liquidationism in our country has been the struggle to rebuild an illegal Marxist-Leninist party which successfully utilizes all avenues for legal work, boldly organizing and mobilizing the revolutionary masses against U.S. imperialism, for socialism, and making the party a decisive political force in the life of the country.

To achieve this position in the class struggle, the proletarian party, as J.V. Stalin points out, must “master all forms of struggle, to combine them intelligently on the battlefield and skillfully intensify the struggle in those forms which are specifically suited to the given situation” and “to master all forms of organization, bringing them into perfection and skillfully combine their operations at each given moment.”

A History of Liquidationism

The combined effect of the absence of a vanguard party for nearly four decades and the influence of modern revisionism in our country, whose history of liquidationism culminated in the dissolution of the Communist Party U.S.A in 1944, makes it inevitable that the struggle to rebuild the party would mean the application of the lessons of Leninism in building the illegal party and developing its legal work.

This struggle has entailed, and will continue to entail, a fierce fight against modern revisionism, particularly Khrushchevite revisionism and the theory of “peaceful transition to socialism” which promotes reformism, economism and class collaboration and preaches exclusive reliance on legal forms of struggle. It includes a battle against Trotskyism and factionalism, which deny the monolithic discipline of the party and the existence of a single line within the party. It also includes a struggle against the widespread influence of Mao Tsetung Thought which “creatively developed” Trotskyism on the nature of the party, proclaiming the proletarian vanguard to be a party composed of many classes and strata in which factional warfare and “two lines” are inevitable given the so-called objective conditions of the class struggle. Our young Party has already gained valuable experience combatting the poisonous influence of Khrushchevism, Trotskyism and Maoism, both inside and outside the Party. Given the profound influence of modern revisionism, through the course of this struggle some setbacks have been suffered.

An objective look at the historical development of revisionism in our country yields important lessons in the struggle against liquidationism. It was precisely in our country, within the CPUS A, that the first ultra-rightist justifications for capitulation to American imperialism were born. Many of the “theories” of the CPUSA misleaders were later taken up by the Khrushchevites, Titoites, Eurocommunists and Maoists. When the victory against Nazi fascism was on the horizon in 1944, Earl Browder, the General Secretary of the CPUSA, came out openly at the time of the Tehran Conference, advocating abandonment of the class struggle against imperialism in favor of class collaboration at home and internationally, on the basis of so-called changed conditions in which American imperialism was no longer reactionary. Thirty-six years of history have amply confirmed the completely reactionary, blood-thirsty nature of U.S. monopoly capitalism.

To facilitate the rapprochement with U.S. imperialism, Browder engineered the dissolution of the CPUSA, instead creating the Communist Political Association, which in its Constitution upheld “the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and the achievements of American democracy.” For Browder, communism had become “20th Century Americanism.” Though the CPUSA was reestablished in 1945, liquidationism was never exposed and routed from the party. To this day it remains a party of class collaboration, a party of modern revisionism in service to imperialism.

Over the course of these four decades of struggle to rebuild the party and once again embrace Marxism-Leninism, the communists in the U.S. have also battled liquidationism from the “left” which, under the cover of revolutionary-sounding phrases, makes a fetish out of illegal work and secret forms of struggle, hiding the party from the masses, abandoning them to reformism and revisionism.

Only nine months after the founding of the CPUSA/ML in December 1978, a split was engineered in our Party by a faction of infiltrators. One of the central questions in the split was how to build the illegal party and utilize legal forms of organization and open forms of struggle. The emergence and subsequent purging of the ultra-left, anti-Party faction headed by Albert Thrasher of Birmingham, Malcolm Suber of New Orleans and a group of lawyers from New Orleans, represented a struggle against liquidationism from the “left”. Although in words, the anti-Party faction would not deny the need for the utilization of legal and open forms of struggle and organization, in practice the Thrasher faction called for “secret work to organize the masses”, opposed the utilization of various means of struggle within the reformist trade union movement and national revolutionary movements, refuted to establish open party offices or bookstores and generally refused to carry out public work in the name of the Party.

Throughout the entire course of party building in our country, the Marxist-Leninists have battled “left” tendencies which rejected the proper conduct of legal and open work to propagate the ideas of revolutionary Marxism among the working class. These tendencies isolated the communists from the working class movement and led in many cases to the creation of small sects that issued numerous tracts full of high-sounding phrases, bits and scraps of Marxism taken out of context and not applied to the actual conditions of the class struggle in the country. These “left” tendencies have found hegemony among many small groups. Behind these opportunist deviations lurks a profound misunderstanding on the theory and practice of building the illegal party and its legal work, and an incorrect assessment of the objective conditions in our country today. For example, one of these small groups, the Marxist-Leninist Party, U.S.A. (MLPUSA), has for nearly a decade insisted that open fascist terror is the form of bourgeois rule in the U.S. Behind these “left” deviations looms the most blatant rightist practice of economism, reformism and national chauvinism which has prevented winning the advanced forces to Marxism-Leninism and prevented Marxism-Leninism from becoming a political force in the country.

The Rising Tide of Fascism in the U.S. Today

The danger of fascism in the U.S. is greater today than at any other time in history. The mounting danger resides in the sharpening of the general crisis of capitalism, and the fact that the epicenter of this crisis resides within the framework of U.S. imperialism. Fascism does not require a revolutionary situation to emerge, but it does require a political crisis of hegemony in which the current form of state is no longer sufficient to maintain the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The general alignment of class forces in the country today is one in which the working class movement has suffered many setbacks and the laboring people as a whole are in a defensive position, while the capitalist class is on the offensive. The 1980 presidential elections indicate that the ruling class has rallied around the Reagan regime and its program for maintaining class rule. At present, they have set out on a course of utilizing both the priest and the hangman – both the ideological and coercive apparatus of the state – in order to improve their ability to suppress and exploit the working class and its allies. Though monopoly capitalism in the U.S. has not arrived at the necessity for fascist rule, preparations for fascism are actively underway.

Within these conditions, every reactionary, anti-scientific and mystical trend will flourish. Reformism and revisionism will make new offensives against the Marxist-Leninist ideology and against the democratic and progressive struggles of working people. Within these conditions, it is logical to conclude that the questions of how to build the illegal party and utilize legal forms of organization and open forms of struggle will assume even greater importance in the months and years ahead.

On Legal and Illegal Work of the Marxist-Leninist Party

Today, a rich history exists on how to apply the teachings of Leninism to build the Marxist-Leninist party, as the successes of the parties in Albania, Germany, Spain, Brazil and elsewhere indicate. These parties, too, have waged a protracted struggle against modern revisionism in order to strengthen or rebuild the Marxist-Leninist vanguard in their countries. Though the particular conditions of the class struggle may vary, Lenin remains an invaluable guide. On many occasions through the course of his life as the theoretical and practical leader of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), Lenin addressed the question of the nature of the proletarian party and its many and varied forms of struggle and forms of organization. An article published in “Pravda” on November 7, 1912, entitled “The Illegal Party and its Legal Work” is of particular importance because of the light it sheds on the question at hand.

It is precisely the formulation of the “illegal party” and “its legal work” that from the outset reaffirms the illegal character of the party which is one of irreconcilable class struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeois order and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. At the same time, Lenin is clear that the party engages in the widest possible legal work among the masses precisely because of its nature as the leading, organizing and mobilizing force in the revolution. The party must win to its side the broad masses. With this understanding, Lenin states, “To build the party means strengthening and increasing the number of illegal nuclei, surrounding them by a network of legal strong-points.”

This particular article was written, along with numerous others, in the period of 1907-1912, in struggle against liquidationism in both its right and “left” forms, which had emerged as a distinct political trend in opposition to Marxism, due to the social and political conditions prevailing in Russia at the time. Liquidationism arose at a time when the party was under attack and forced to make a retreat following the defeat of the 1905 revolution and the ensuing period of counter-revolution. It emerged at a point when the working class movement in Russia was disorganized, influenced by the reformism of the petty-bourgeoisie and liberal bourgeoisie who capitulated in the face of reaction, and was at an ebb. Finally, it developed from a deviation into a full-blown political trend at a time when the RSDLP was split into two factions and the party was riddled with opportunism.

Liquidationism from the right is an open repudiation of the revolution, in the face of hardship, difficulties and setbacks, going over entirely to the legal struggle for reforms. Liquidationism from the “left” is also a repudiation of the revolution – from the inside out – by making a fetish of illegal organization and secret work, rejecting the legal struggle among the broad masses, and thus crippling the party’s ability to wage the struggle to win the masses to its side and the cause of revolution. Liquidationism from the right leads to liberal, bourgeois politics. Liquidationism from the “left” leads to anarchy and adventurism. Liquidationism is, as Lenin states, “not a trend within the party, but a withdrawal from the party.”

During the period of 1907-1912, the Bolsheviks were fighting to preserve the RSDLP in order to lead the revolutionary struggle in Russia, despite the fact that it was weakened and disorganized due both to the counter-revolution and the attacks of liquidators. Both the right and “left” liquidators were calling on cadre to leave the party. Among the masses they criticized and attacked the party. From the right they criticized it as unnecessary, and in fact harmful, to the working class movement. The right liquidators said that for the party to carry out work in the legal workers’ societies would mean their ruin. From the “left” the liquidators attacked the party for carrying out legal work, particularly the work in the Third Duma (parliament), calling it a bowing to the bourgeoisie and liberalism.

In his analysis of the line and practice of the right liquidators of his day, Lenin rejected their view that the party must “change” because of the “new conditions”. He rejected their view that only open work by a legal organization would reach the broad masses. This call by the right liquidators was a call to abandon the party, in favor of a bourgeois legal labor party of the British type. Lenin explained that the party didn’t change, that it retained its essential illegal character dedicated to revolutionary aims, but that the party tailored its combination of illegal and legal work to the conditions.

He rejected the view that only by drawing the masses into open and legal work could the party be built, for the building up of the party goes on both in times of ebb and flow in the working class movement. Lenin states, “it is sheer nonsense, for anyone knows very well that an ’organization takes shape’ even without strikes and demonstrations. The organization is always there, while the masses resort to open action only from time to time.” Lenin never denies the significance of legal work, led by the illegal organizations, but it is clear that the building of the party and the spreading of its influence is not dependent on the open struggle of the masses.

Finally, Lenin clarified the point that the question of forms of struggle the party engages in and the forms of organization it utilizes cannot be divorced from the content of the work – from the program and slogans. The party must engage in the broadest possible legal work in order to propagate the ideas of the illegal nuclei, the ideas of the revolution and socialism, among the masses and to defeat the influence of reformism and opportunism. The position of the right liquidators was to go over entirely to legal work. The position of the Bolsheviks was to build up and take advantage of legal strong-points in order to build up the illegal party apparatus. In the face of reaction, the position of the liquidators was to abandon the revolutionary struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The position of the Bolsheviks was to continue the revolutionary struggle, fighting to build and strengthen the party, adapting its forms of struggle and organization to the conditions of reaction.

In combatting liquidationism from the “left” – an equally dangerous and completely anti-party trend – Lenin exposed the “left” liquidators (the Oztovists) who rejected work in the legal workers’ societies and in the Duma, calling instead for “secret work to organize the forces.” As Lenin explained, “the work of learning the lessons of experience, of digesting new lessons, of accumulating strength, may be, and often is, performed in secret. But the organization of the forces cannot be performed in secret even when all work is driven underground. In 1901-1903 the organization of the forces proceeded illegally, but not secretly.”

As Lenin argued from 1907 to 1912, and as Stalin later summed up, the proletarian party must master all forms of struggle and all forms of organization, combining them skillfully on the battlefield in order to propagate the ideas of the party, win over the working people to the side of the party and organize them in the struggle for socialism. The Leninist party, by its activity and irreconcilable struggle for the overthrow of bourgeois rule, must be viewed as an illegal party, even when parts of its apparatus function legally and members of the party operate openly. In order to become a live political force, to place itself at the forefront of the class struggle, the Leninist party utilizes the widest possible avenues for legal work, “strengthening and building up the illegal nuclei, surrounding them with a network of legal strong-points.”

To Build the Party, Unite the Progressive Forces, And Wage the Anti-Fascist Struggle

Both right and “left” liquidationism has infected the working class movement in our country for many years. At the time of its formation, the CPUSA/ML considered the struggle against liquidationism an important aspect of the correct building of the new Party. The task before the Party comrades was to learn what this struggle would mean in reality, in practice as well as theory. Clearly, the struggle against the anti-Party infiltrators, who tried to steer the Party on an ultra-left course, was a lesson in practical struggle against the influence of liquidationism. In addition, over the last period, the Party has come to recognize a growing mood of liquidationism in our country.

As U.S. monopoly capitalism prepares for imperialist war abroad and fascism at home, the period ahead will be one of increasing attacks against the working class, the progressive forces and the Marxist-Leninist party. In this situation, the Party must step up its struggle against both right and “left” liquidationist tendencies which grow nationally, and will continue to grow. The reformists in the trade union movement will preach even greater “caution”, oppose any nation-wide political activity and more openly attack the communist and revolutionary workers. The social democratic parties will step up their organizing efforts and the promotion of class collaborationist, liberal policies. The revisionists will make even greater concessions to the bourgeoisie and elaborate even more treacherous “theories” to justify support for U.S. imperialism, either under the guise of opposition to the Soviet Union as the “main danger” or in favor of “detente” and collusion between the Soviet social-imperialists and the U.S. imperialists.

The increasing assaults against the Marxist-Leninist ideology and state-inspired or terrorist attacks against the Party can never become a justification for abandoning the program, slogans and revolutionary activities of the Party. Even within the conditions of increasing repression many legal opportunities exist and broad avenues for open struggle remain, through which the Party can promote its program, strategy and tactics among the working masses.

Our Party has a special responsibility and role to play in the unification and organization of the anti-fascist forces in our country. To fulfill this role, any tendency to abandon the revolutionary propaganda and activity of the Party – either by toning it down or hiding it from the masses – must be exposed and defeated. Any tendency to underestimate the repressive measures of the State (as if “it can’t happen here”) or any tendency to weaken vigilance in defending the Party, its program and norms, must be fought. In the same manner, any tendency that calls on the Party to “organize in secret” and abandon open forms of struggle and legal forms of organization, must be fought. Any tendency, in theory or practice, which opposes Leninism on how to build the illegal party and advance its legal work, must be defeated. As four decades of history prove, the failure to defeat these opportunist deviations will mean a failure to build the party, a failure to place it in its proper relationship to the masses, a failure to make it an active, decisive political force in the life of the country.

Today, our Party policy includes stepping up the work of strengthening and increasing the illegal factory nuclei and basic units of the Party. It includes strengthening and expanding the central apparatus of the Party and the Party’s press. It includes waging the ideological struggle to steel all Party cadre and temper them in battle by waging the class struggle.

Our policy dictates engaging in the widest possible legal work; building the revolutionary mass organizations; working in the reformist organizations; widely distributing the Party’s press; opening bookstores and Party offices, and running candidates in elections where possible. It includes carrying out the campaigns of the Party though well-considered, bold, revolutionary actions in order to place the Party in its proper relationship to the masses and through the most effective means, to promote the program, strategy and tactics of the Party in the struggle for democracy, peace and socialism. We are building a Party which will become a visible, active, militant political force; which will be indentified as the Party of unity, the Party of revolution, the Party that represents the only road out of the crisis of imperialism, fascism and war.

Despite the relative youth and inexperience of our Party, a small, highly organized and highly unified Party, characterized by a Bolshevik discipline, guided by Marxism-Leninism, with close ties to the masses, can play a decisive role in the anti-fascist struggles which he ahead.

The correct application of Leninism on the illegal party and its legal work – building the Party, its illegal apparatus and its legal strong-points – will be required for the Party to defeat liquidationism, overcome four decades of the abandonment of the revolution and unite all the progressive and democratic forces in the country against the fascist menace.