Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Interview with RWH leader: The struggle for M-L unity

First Published: Special Supplment to The Call, Vol. 10, No. 8-9, November-December 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Call Note: This interview is with Donald O’Connell of the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters on Marxist-Leninist unity. O’Connell has been coordinating liaison work between the RWH and other revolutionary organizations for the past two years.

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The Call: What is the general perspective of the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters on Marxist-Leninist unity?

O’Connell: The Reagan-led offensive underscores the critical need for a unified, nationwide, multi-national Marxist-Leninist organization. At present there are a number of organizations, local collectives, and individuals who are part of the historically pro-China Marxist-Leninist trend. Although the unity process has been stow and frustrating, it seems to ire that the increased necessity to unite will open up our freedom to do so. And although there have been many casualties in the recent past, the confusion and dissolution is strengthening the desire of the remaining Marxist-Leninists to achieve organizational unity. Especially since our congress in August 1980 we haw been committed to forging M-L unity. Through our efforts we have gained a better understanding of the different parts of the party building task.

What is your general approach to achieving unity?

We think that, overall, the motor force of unity efforts has to be at the bottom, in joint work. Unity depends on the development of concentrations of cadre committed to collectively applying Marxism-Leninism in the factories, communities, nationality struggles, and social movements. A firm foundation can be built for a party if cadre shed sectarianism, join together in the interests of the mass movements, and work together to develop line for these areas, based on their practice.

Are you saying that everything depends on joint practice?

I am saying that the forging of united local cores to wage the practical struggle as well as political and ideological struggle is primary. Work at the top to achieve unity between the national leaderships of various groups, to clarify and coordinate the line struggles plays a complementary, but secondary, role. It’s a two-legged strategy and both have to be paid attention to.

This assessment is based on the small size of the Marxist-Leninist movement, its past negative practice with top-down leadership, its dispersal in so many movements and so many parts of the country, its lack of integration with the masses, and the importance of practice in today’s process of rectification, summation, and line development. We are in an intense period of strengthening our ties with, and understanding of, the mass movements –movements which, I might add, are in increasing need of class conscious leadership.

At times, formal unity processes at the top can become principle. We think, for example, that our present efforts to merge with the CPML now require extra effort at the top to consolidate and thrust ahead the unity from below.

Can you give us an example of how you might apply this strategy?

Since our split from the RCP, we have managed to retain cores of activists to the extent that we have been able to serve and pay attention to district and branch level organization, mass work, and collective life. In the earliest days of the RWH, this local emphasis was somewhat one-sided and was influenced by the sectarianism which, in part, was a carry-over of RCP attitudes.

But as we united around our responsibility to consolidate as a national organization in a larger M-L movement, we carried out a campaign to unite around formal statements on the trade union, national, party building and international questions and initial lines on the woman question. We could do this because we generated discussion and struggle locally around papers based on areas of advanced practice and summation. The centralized process of bringing together and synthesizing rational line statements was the “second leg.” We admit to weaknesses and mistakes on both levels, most noticeably in national functioning. But we think that the general orientation toward situating ourselves and organizing among the masses is what has kept us from disintegrating.

Why didn’t the Committee to Unite Marxist-Leninists succeed?

The attempt to form CUML ultimately broke down because none of the major organizations could agree sufficiently on a common approach. In the case of the CPML, these differences were internal as well. We have participated in many discussions and been close to many agreements, not only in the CUML, but also in bilateral relations. Time and time again we have seen agreements break down. We think that this is not the result of poor intentions, but because, overall, the movement is still poorly grounded.

Concretely and politically there was a wide and unstable disparity among the various organizations in their assessments of the effects of two historic problems of our trend, liquidation of the national question and ultra-leftism in the realms of mass work and organizational functioning.

Ultimately the validation of the political questions being debated lies in the practice of the organizations. As I have already said, the approach that gives priority to joint practice and the concentration of more forces to apply and deepen the lines has a much greater chance of success than one that places primary emphasis on hammering out an elaborate, three-way unity at the top as an immediate prospect.

Too often these supposedly higher level debates become circular discussions divorced from practice. We think that the demands of the mass movement will thrust Marxist-Leninists into closer cooperation and that a stronger basis of common understanding could make the goal of the CUML realizeable in the future.

How is the RWH pursuing Marxist-Leninist unity at this time?

Since the demise of the CUML, we have primarily emphasized merging with the CPML, but also have tried to develop relations with the LRS, PUL, MLL, and many independents and socialist-minded activists including ex-members of some organizations. This has been fairly scattered and localized but relations are generally improving. In order to formalize lines we will be holding a series of commission or broader meetings to sum up work, set priorities, and work out positions that can be the basis of unity. These meetings are being organized by the CPML and the RWH, but others are also being invited to participate. We are jointly organizing these because we have had similarities of approach to many questions. We do not have as close relations with other groups, but we want the whole movement to participate.

What are the elements of the merger process with the CPML, as the RWH sees it?

We advocate the “joint work, political report, organizational links” process. This is in keeping with the two legs I mentioned earlier. In some areas joint work has meant close, collective planning, carrying out, and summation of mass work in areas of concentration. We have worked to develop organizational links at all levels to overview the joint work and the merger process, cautioning against premature local mergers. We have advocated merged meetings alternating with separate meetings and stressed organization integrity.

A draft political report was drawn up by individuals from both organizations as a vehicle for focusing discussion and debate around questions of period and tasks, evaluation of the past ten years, the crisis of Marxism, the face of communist organization toward the masses. In addition initial lines for the major areas of work of the merged organization are to be worked out based on joint commission meetings. The draft political report will be published for public commentary.

Has this process led to greater unity?

To the extent that it has been implemented, it has. The problem has been that due to the general level of confusion in the pro-China M-L trend and its lack of firm grounding in struggles, the organizations have continued to disintegrate. The RWH has not been immune from this process, but the biggest tragedy has been the devastation of the CPML.

In retrospect we now realize that some of the impetus for our decision to push for a relatively early merger with the CPML was based on subjectivism. We were aware of some of the dangers of investing too much of our efforts by leadership and cadre in merger work. But we were not prepared for the rapid disintegration of the CPML and the lack of a stable political line and leadership structure which resulted. We have paid a heavy price for the view that saw merger as a cure-all for our own problems, particularly our problems of functioning on a nationwide basis.

We think that this is once again confirmation of the line that stresses the forging of local cores as the principle leg. When we have viewed national unity discussions as the key, we have, in fact, hindered the ability of our national leaderships to play the role which can most move things forward. That role is to coordinate summation and clarify line struggle based on the work at the base, to provide some overview, to give leadership to a limited number of well-chosen national campaigns, and to produce educational and analytical material useful to the cadre.

Where do we go from here?

We are actually quite close to an organizational merger which can unite most of the remaining cadre of the Headquarters and the CPML. This will depend particularly on developments within the CPML. They plan to conduct a referendum on merger within the next few months.

Joint commission meetings are being set up to collect the opinions and experiences of cadre and other advanced forces so that initial strategies and points of unity can be formulated. At this point it is not clear if the draft political report or some other form will serve as the basis for unity around broader questions like period and tasks, etc.

We don’t think there is much possibility for a trilateral merger because there are still too many outstanding differences with the LRS.

Some of the differences we have perceived in discussions and in practice are: attitude toward union reform movements, relations between struggle and unity in united fronts, party building as central task, guidelines for open role of communists in mass movements, organizational functioning, work with non-Maoist leftists, and perhaps the national question.

Due to geographic separation and their resistance to joint practice where we do have overlaps, we see no quick form for resolving these differences.

We would not view the unity of CPML and RWH as the party. It would merely be a Marxist-Leninist organization on an equal basis with the LRS. Ultimately we want to unite all Marxist-Leninists into one organization. But it will be a complex and protracted process. We think that the M-L movement will remain somewhat fragmented, localized, and without a very strong national leadership for some time.

What about the trilateral debate between the CPML, the LRS, and the RWH?

We are participating in it. We see it as helpful in clarifying points and exchanging views. However as I have said we place more importance in the bilateral process with the CPML. We think that unity with different organizations moves with different tempos and according to different contradictions. The first topic is “Period and Tasks.” These papers are almost ready for publication. They may be able to provide a basis for our bilateral merger as well as a better three-way understanding. The debate can also involve other organizations and independents and contribute to the sense of a Marxist-Leninist movement.

The LRS has its origins in the movements of oppressed nationalities and they are more concentrated in this work than either the CPML or the RWH. Could a CPML-RWH merger result in a polarization of the Marxist-Leninist movement along nationality lines?

We are very concerned about this. Because of the chauvinism that has existed historically in the Marxist-Leninist and the workers’ movements this is a possibility. We think that polarization and a retreat from the goal of the broadest multi-national communist unity would be a serious setback. If it occurred, we would engage in comradely struggle, while seeking out the closest possible relations and working unity.

The separate identities and characters of the nationality and workers’ movements is the basis for the tendency toward separation in the work of Marxist-Leninists of different nationalities. (Just as the inter-penetration of these two movements is a basis for unity.) Today no organization can truly say that they are well-concentrated in both the nationality movements and in the multi-national working class. Bringing about a scientific core, a M-L organization, and then a party that is well rooted in both is an historic responsibility and will require strenuous efforts, both practically and theoretically.

Because the organization we split from, the RCP and before that the RU, liquidated the Black and Chicano national questions in theory and practice, we still suffer from this legacy. We are only minimally concentrated in the movements of the oppressed nationalities. We have done an extensive criticism of the RU/RCP line both internally and in our pamphlet, “Build the Black Liberation Movement.” It took us too long to produce this criticism and suspicions lingered as to where we were coming from. We think that this theoretical work and our practice in fighting discrimination and upholding the principle of self-determination show that we have a generally correct approach to the national question.

We have popularized and supported struggles for Black political power in the North and in the Black Belt South. We were the initiators of the support campaign for the United League in Tupelo, Mississippi, for example. We readily admit that we, like everybody else, make mistakes and look forward to learning from the broad and varied experience of other Marxist-Leninists around the national question.

Where does the Headquarters stand on the crisis of Marxism?

We believe that such a crisis exists based on the difficulties of Marxist-Leninist organizations and parties both in our own experience and historically. We do not, as do some of the people who have left the CPML (as well as the RWH) believe that most Marxist-Leninist principles should be tossed out or that efforts to build M-L organizations should be halted until these questions are resolved.

These questions cannot be resolved isolated from protracted efforts to apply Marxist-Leninist principles. Unless there is an extremely coherent critique based on a long period of intense practice of some aspect or another of Marxist theory, it is irresponsible to abandon it. Much theoretical work needs to be done. We see ourselves as part of the historical tendency of Marxism-Leninism and are willing to accept the responsibility to develop that theory according to the concrete conditions of this country-to make Marxism-Leninism a specific set of ideas geared to making revolution in America.