Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The Transformation of Line of March

Line of March’s Re-Examination, Re-Direction and Democratization

The Essence of Re-Examination, Re-Direction and Democratization: A Break with Ultra-Leftism

For roughly two years ending in 1989, Line of March was focused on a self-critical review of our history, political line and practice. We characterized that process as one of reexamination, re-direction and democratization (RRD). The essence of RRD was uncovering and making a decisive break with major problems of ultra-leftism that had pervaded the organization, and re-consolidating the Line of March on a firmer foundation. The organization’s self-criticism focused on the particular variant of ultra-leftism we had carried over from our origins in the Maoist New Communist Movement. In many ways, the history of Line of March since is inception in 1976-77 is best understood as a steady evolution away from our Maoist origins.

At the same time, the RRD process was not limited to a re-evaluation of the internal development of Line of March, On the contrary, as RRD proceeded we were able to put our own particular history in a broader historical context, and our views were more and more influenced by changes and developments outside the scope of our own direct practice. RRD allowed us to put Line of March in perspective as one among many of the efforts to build a new revolutionary party that originated in the mass flow of the 1960s and early ’70s, sharing more characteristics with other such efforts than we had previously thought.

The fact that RRD took place during the transition from the Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the Bush presidency also gave us a broader perspective on our work; in particular this helped us realize that many political points which we had generalized were in fact specific to the period of Reaganism. Most importantly, RRD was influenced by the broader process of self-criticism and renewal initiated by the CPSU in the international communist movement. That process of glasnost, perestroika and new thinking includes a deep-going critique of dogmatism, ultra-leftism and distortions of democracy in the communist movement, and simultaneously constitutes a major effort to re-evaluate Marxist-Leninist theory and policy in light of the conditions of the contemporary world. Our interaction with these new ideas during RRD was not nearly as systematic or in-depth as we would have liked. But it was sufficient for us to realize that we could not simply add another element to the critique of Maoism and “return” to what we previously regarded as Marxist-Leninist “orthodoxy.” Rather, in regrouping the organization on a new basis, we have had to take into account the changes Marxism-Leninism itself is undergoing, and especially the new assessments of objective conditions flowing from perestroika and the new way of thinking.

The Concrete Political Conclusion of RRD: A New Identity and Role for Line of March

Through the process of RRD, Line of March made a major transformation in its political identity and how the organization sees its role in the left, communist and working class movements. Previous to the RRD period, Line of March’s identity and role was defined by the following points:

1) The organization saw its reason for being and central task as building Line of March into a new Marxist-Leninist party that would be a revolutionary alternative to the Communist Party USA. For the first seven years of its existence, this proposition was theoretically grounded in the Maoist hypothesis that the CPUSA had degenerated into a “revisionist” party. In 1984, the Line of March dropped the idea that the CPUSA was revisionist, and instead criticized the CPUSA as “right opportunist.” Along with this shift, we adopted the notion that the CPUSA and the Line of March constituted “two wings of a single communist movement” and that party building was in essence uniting the communist movement around a revolutionary line. This official shift, however, did not alter our operative line and actual practice, which remained centered on building the Line of March into an alternative Marxist-Leninist party. In fact, in 1985 we even made the assessment that we were “objectively functioning” as such a party, and that only a few loose ends needed to be tightened up before we could “formalize” the fact that Line of March had become a party, in fact the only party in the U.S. built on a genuine Marxist-Leninist basis.

2) The political perspective of the Line of March was the United Front Against War and Racism line (UFAWR). We believed the UFAWR, though undeveloped in some respects, constituted in broad outline a correct general line and revolutionary strategy for the U.S. As such, we regarded the UFAWR as a revolutionary alternative to the CPUSA’s allegedly right opportunist Anti-Monopoly Coalition (AMC) strategy.

3) The method of organization that embodied the Leninist character of Line of March was our approach to and practice of democratic centralism. The cornerstone of this was our stress on centralism and the need for leadership to be invested with great authority. The democratic aspect of democratic centralism was held to consist mainly in a stress on the need to give “systematic training” to the membership.

While we now believe there were major problems with each of the above points, the political practice based on them did give rise to an organization with a number of strengths. These included:

(1) Line of March was one of the only groups originating in the mass flow of the 1960s/early 70s that found its political way, as an organization, to identification with Marxism-Leninism and the mainstream of the international communist movement;

(2) Line of March consistently fought for a number of important political points expressed in the UFAWR line, including: the centrality of the struggle against racism to maturing the U.S. popular movement (including the struggle to combat racism within the left and to build multi-racial left and communist organizations); consistent internationalism; a recognition of material basis for backwardness and political underdevelopment in the U.S. working class, not explaining these factors solely by bourgeois ideological manipulation; the need for joint action among different trends and organizations in the working class movement; the fact that the fight for democratic rights and reforms was on the short-range agenda, not the seizure of state power;

(3) Line of March, at least for much of its history, gave great stress to the importance of theory and theoretical work in a movement with strong pragmatic and anti-intellectual strains;

(4) Line of March put significant energy into practical efforts in concrete struggles. Its activists functioned in a serious and for the most part principled manner in the mass movements. Based on these and other positive features, the Line of March made contributions to a number of concrete struggles and movements since the 1970s (from the fight against the Bakke decision to the Central America solidarity movement to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and ’88 campaigns and the development of the Rainbow Coalition, etc.), produced a number of valuable institutions (such as Frontline newspaper), and contributed to the ideological maturation of the left on a number of points – the struggle against anti-Sovietism, the fight to defeat the influence of Maoist class collaboration, struggles to emphasize the centrality of the fight against racism, etc.

All this produced a body of activists with considerable experience and ideological commitment. And we intend to carry over these strengths into the changed organization that emerges from the period of RRD.

To do so effectively, however, we have concluded that basic points of our previous self-definition must be altered. Necessarily, the RRD period has not focused primarily upon our strengths, but upon our weaknesses. In particular, it focused on the problem of ultra-leftism. We have located the root of this ultra-leftism in idealism, which distorted the relationship between subjective and objective factors in historical change and political practice. Built into our foundation was the notion that objective conditions could be transformed, no matter what their level of development, and mass movements could be built by the willful intense activity of revolutionaries, if they had the correct line.

Problems associated with ultra-leftism surfaced in our work as voluntarist practices in mass work and building our own organization; sectarian errors toward others in the political movement, including a tendency to seek areas of difference and polarization rather than unity and cooperation; neglect of democratic practices within our organization, etc. We have concluded that these problems of ultra-leftism were not merely aberrations marring a fundamentally sound direction. Rather, they were inherent in the three points listed above that defined the Line of March:

1) Through the process of RRD, we have concluded that projecting the central task of Line of March as building the organization into an alternative Marxist-Leninist party to the CPUSA was an ultra-left error. This view of party building was carried over from the New Communist Movement, and rested on a dogmatic and ahistorical application of Lenin’s ideas on party building. More concretely, we operated off an idealist misassessment of objective conditions (the level of development of the class struggle and the working class movement) and subjective conditions (the number, experience and capacity of those forces open to a party building project); on an erroneous political assessment of the CPUSA; on a sectarian perspective on the CPUSA as well as other forces on the left, and on a significant overestimation of the capacities of the Line of March. The Line of March’s 1985 conclusion that it was already “objectively functioning as a Marxist-Leninist party” – which was based on these assessments – we now see as a qualitative misassessment of the organization’s level of development.

2) We substantially overestimated both the positive qualities and degree of comprehensiveness of the UFAWR line. As noted above, we continue to hold that this perspective had a number of strengths which are carried over into Line of March’s future. However, the UFAWR line was also flawed by ultra-left errors including: a tendency to exaggerate the degree of imperialism’s crisis and the immediacy of the threat of fascism; a one-sided stress on the grip of opportunism and racism on the working class and a failure to fully appreciate the bases for class unity; and a distortion (“miniaturization”) of the concept of united front such that almost any form of mass work was “building the united front,” regardless of the real strength and social base of the forces involved. These weaknesses undermined the working class moorings of the organization. Eventually the development of our line on racism and national oppression also stagnated. Moreover, even beyond its specific shortcomings, the general scope and depth of the UFAWR line was vastly overstated; the UFAWR did not and does not constitute either a general line or comprehensive strategy, nor is it correct to pose it as an alternative perspective to the AMC.

3) Line of March’s understanding and practice of democratic centralism was qualitatively flawed. We failed to see the importance of developing the democratic life of the organization. Authority was overcentralized; leadership was self-perpetuating and unaccountable (up until the RRD process the organization never held an election); the ideological atmosphere suppressed questions or criticisms of the leadership’s line and decisions, and the organization acquired at least some elements of a cult of personality around the chair of its executive committee. These errors represented a failure even to adopt the standards for democratic centralism that were widely accepted in the communist movement before the advent of perestroika and glasnost. However, on another level, they represent the degree to which our thinking and practice had been influenced by the antidemocratic currents in the international communist movement which are now being criticized as Stalinist distortions of Marxism-Leninism.

Having rejected these cornerstones of our previous identity and role, the Line of March has re-established itself on a new basis. That basis is presented in full in the other documents approved by the October 1989 Delegated Conference. Here we only summarize the main points of our new identity and role on the three key areas discussed above:

1) The organization recognizes that this is a time of debate and renewal in the communist movement and that the content of Marxist-Leninist theory and politics is undergoing substantial change. Based on our roots in Marxism-Leninism and our particular political outlook, we assume a particular responsibility to take advantage of the debates taking place in the international communist movement today to strengthen the theoretical and practical work of the U.S. left. But fundamentally, the Line of March sets itself the task of making a contribution to the maturation of the left and communist movements in the U.S. in the context of activism in the concrete mass struggles taking place in the U.S. today.

2) Our specific political/strategic perspective cannot be captured in a single phrase comparable to our old UFAWR formulation. We see our organization as mainly oriented to strengthening the left and building its unity. We believe we bring a particular point of view to that objective.

Specifically, we recognize that democratic, reform and defensive struggles, not the seizure of power, are on the agenda for the intermediate future in the U.S.. Beginning in the early 1980s, new forms of mass progressive motion – different from the 1930s or the 1960s – began to take shape. A central feature of this new motion is activity in the electoral arena, in particular the emergence of a new progressive trend in the Democratic Party led by Jesse Jackson under the banner of Rainbow politics. This electoral motion has been anchored by the fight for equality and empowerment of the Black community. Beyond the electoral arena, there are stirrings, to varying degrees, in different sectors and social movements, with the most progressive forces in these areas developing off the logic of each particular struggle, but utilizing the Jackson/Rainbow motion as a reference point and place to come together in coalition at election time.

The left is striving to interact with this progressive motion, but remains weak and fragmented, having little independent base or initiative. Line of March, as it participates in the progressive movement, will give particular attention to trying to develop the influence and unity of the left within it. We will try to bring a number of particular perspectives to bear, which include: an analysis that links the overall state of capitalism to the concrete struggles going on; a stress on the centrality of the Black liberation struggle and the anti-racist struggle generally to the further development of the popular movement; an awareness of the material basis for opportunism within the working class; a partisan but not class-reductionist orientation to the women’s movement, lesbian/gay movement, environmental movement, and other “new social movements”; an active internationalism, incorporating the defense of socialism, solidarity with national liberation struggles, and stress on the paramount issue of peace, development and nuclear disarmament.

3) The Line of March will build on the gains of RRD in unleashing the initiative of the membership through real democracy. Its functioning will incorporate election and accountability of leadership and full and open debate within the organization as the basis to strive for unity in action, and an effective division of labor.

The Broader Dynamic of RRD: An All-Round Dose of Reality

While the shift in Line of March’s identity and role was the centerpiece of RRD, the process had a number of dimensions that went beyond even such a major change in political direction. On every level, RRD was an opening-up process in which a host of long-held ideological and political positions were shattered by a hard-nosed comparison with reality. The Line of March, previously caught in a tunnel-visioned mind-set about its supposed mastery of Marxism-Leninism and its alleged “historical destiny,” was forced to come to grips with some unpleasant truths. Many of the “established truths” we had previously taken for granted were distorted or downright incorrect, and we in fact had no preordained appointment with history. Rather, Line of March was just one more among many political efforts undertaken by a small group of activists on the left. We could be proud of certain accomplishments and strengths, but these had nowhere near the world-shaking quality we once believed they had.

Not surprisingly, the process of coming to grips with these realities was neither smooth nor easy. To the contrary, it was difficult and often confusing and disorienting for the organization and its individual activists; and in the course of it we suffered a substantial loss of members and lessening of the scope of our political activity. This was due in part to errors made in the course of the RRD effort. But more fundamentally these losses were the cost of many years of functioning under an ultra-left line and a set of profound and deeply entrenched illusions about ourselves and our role in U.S. politics.

Like any re-evaluation of such scope, Line of March’s RRD process began at a shallow level and proceeded to a deeper understanding of the degree of our errors and what was needed to correct them. The first stage of the process (September to December 1987) focused narrowly on our internal workings: criticism of the undemocratic internal procedures and atmosphere within the organization; the unaccountability and abuse of authority by leadership bodies and individuals, and the excessive demands upon and ultra-left methods of ideological struggle directed toward the membership. The reason for this starting point was largely the particular incident which happened to trigger our reexamination: the discovery, in September 1987, that the chair of the organization’s national executive committee had a substance abuse problem of major proportions. If that had not been the trigger, however, some other incident would have set things in motion, since a number of problems were festering and it was somewhat arbitrary which one would spark a re-evaluation.

The second stage of RRD (December 1987 to July 1988) was dominated by a struggle over the nature of the crisis we were facing. Seeking deeper roots for the problems of undemocratic practices and overextension, the overwhelming majority of the organization came to the conclusion that there were serious problems in our line and orientation, concentrated in the “party building line” which was the fundamental political unity of the organization. This majority argued that a process of review and re-evaluation, which came to be called RRD, was in order. A minority of the membership, however, held that the crisis in Line of March was not due to any major problem of line, but to the loss of the former chair from the leadership and the incapacity of the rest of the leadership to lead in a “Leninist” fashion. This minority held that the call for RRD represented the undermining of Line of March’s Marxist-Leninist bearings in a social democratic direction. The ensuing struggle brought us considerable clarity by casting a sharp spotlight on the ultra-leftism and idealism that had flawed the organization’s foundation. At the same time, the struggle took a serious toll on the morale, energy and capacities of the organization, and saw the resignation of the members of the minority faction.

In the remainder of RRD, the organization took up the inter-related tasks of reexamination and re-direction in earnest. From August 1988 through February 1989, the focus was primarily on re-examination, especially re-examination of the long-held tenet that party building was our central task. From February 1989 through our first national delegated conference in October 1989, the focus was mainly on re-direction – formulating a new political identity and role for Line of March. RRD increasingly moved beyond a narrow focus on the internal history of Line of March to situate our development in a broader historical context. We began to see our outlook and practice in the context of what happened to the whole party building movement that originated in the early 1970s, and indeed the experience of the whole generation that took up left politics coming out of the mass flow of the 1960s. We acknowledged the changes that had occurred in U.S. society including in the working class, the progressive movement and the left – in the course of the Reagan years; and the dramatic changes and re-evaluations that were underway in the CPSU and the international communist movement.

The overall impact of gaining this broader perspective was positive – indeed, indispensable – for building a relevant political organization as opposed to a self-satisfied sect. At the same time, breaking out of our previous narrow and “closed” small-circle mentality to interact with a flood of new ideas and fresh perceptions was a wrenching process. In the course of it, we paid the price of years of theoretical and political stagnation which had stifling the independent thinking of our membership. We entered RRD ill-equipped to deal with genuine diversity of opinion among our membership – yet without the insulation of our previous narrowness it was inevitable that such diversity would become manifest. Even on many points which we had regarded as “fundamental, established truths” of Marxism-Leninism diversity now appeared, as previously “sacred principles” were called into question by perestroika and the “new way of thinking.” The changes required to adapt to this new situation were immense, and caused a considerable degree of destabilization in the organization and among individual members. We are convinced that the outcome is a healthier organization, with a richer internal life, a stronger grounding in reality and a hard-won awareness of the pitfalls of assuming a “monopoly on truth.” At the same time, the organization is left somewhat fragile, and it remains a challenge before us to again test ourselves against the political demands of the U.S. left and progressive movements.

Breaking out of our previous tunnel vision also had a major impact on how we conceived of day-to-day activity. In the past, a tremendous proportion of that activity was directed toward building Line of March and the institutions/organizations it controlled. Often this took on the character of being an end in itself, irrespective of any contribution this might be making to the broader movement. Our approach fostered an inward-looking sectarianism, set up unnecessary obstacles to our activists’ immersion in mass struggles and mass organizations, mystified the role of leadership, and stifled members’ creativity and political development.

RRD has forced a basic re-evaluation of this method, with the organization now looking for ways to consolidate an outward-looking orientation, unleash members’ initiative, and foster more self-reliance and independent thinking. With a more sober assessment of the state of the U.S. left and communist movements and their current prospects, we have gained an appreciation for the need for cooperation and interaction with the widest possible range of left forces. Noting our distance from a revolutionary situation, we can envision a long process of building left unity that will hopefully mean the current array of small organizations and independent activists will grow and find the basis for new alliances and realignments.

Another dimension of the confrontation with reality brought about by RRD has been a serious re-examination of how we approached the task of building a multi-racial communist organization and combating negative racial dynamics within our ranks. Line of March had from the beginning targeted this as a central component of building a viable revolutionary movement; and our practice stands up reasonably well relative to other forces on the U.S. left. But it does not stand up so well relative to the self-satisfied assessment we previously had of our “firm anti-racist moorings.” Rather, as time went on our attention to internal struggle and consistent education about internal racial dynamics faded in favor of suppressing contradictions through the use of centralism and administrative methods. Our line development on racism and national oppression also stagnated. And our efforts to both racially integrate every level of leadership and area of practice in the organization encountered numerous problems.

The RRD process brought to our attention an erosion in our internal standards of our anti-racist consciousness; the degree to which our “build-Line-of-March-and-the-institutions/organizations-under-its-leadership” line had pulled numerous minority cadre away from active involvement in minority communities and much of the minority left; and the “double-duty” forced on minority cadre who were pushed into both the frontlines of mass activity and central posts in internal leadership. These negative patterns, even once identified, could not be eliminated overnight, and in the RRD process itself minority cadre often still faced a double burden of trying to maintain areas of mass activity, while taking central organizational responsibility for our internal apparatus. And this was taking place when, because of our longstanding errors, the organization’s capacity to be relevant to the key struggles of minority communities had been called into question. RRD identified these problems, and led to an affirmation that the new identity and role of the Line of March is thoroughly bound up with relevance to the struggles of the minority communities and the minority left. Developing a concrete and consistent practice in minority communities and among minority leftists is one of the top priorities of the post-RRD period.

Finally, an inevitable corollary of RRD has been seriously looking at the accumulated impact on members of the organization of years of practice under an ultra-left line. This included neglect or postponement of many individual and personal matters, such as securing an adequate income, gaining a marketable skill, having and/or spending sufficient time with a family, etc. These sacrifices were made on the basis of an assessment of the intensity of the class struggle and the significance of the Line of March to it that we now realize was incorrect. Not surprisingly, many comrades have gone through considerable ideological and emotional turmoil in re-evaluating the decisions they made or felt under pressure to make in the past. Comrades have taken this opportunity to make new decisions about long-postponed personal items, and to reconsider how much time and energy they want to put into political activity. This process naturally brought with it an additional set of contradictions the organization had to take into account as it struggled to consolidate on a new basis; and they were further complicated by the fact that individuals’ re-evaluations occur unevenly – with different comrades having different options along lines of class, race, sex and sexual orientation.

Stepping back, what occurred on this level in the Line of March was a phenomenon that took place among most of the political generation coming out of the 1960s several years earlier. But because Line of March kept up an intense pace of work based on an ultra-left line long after most from that generation had abandoned one, the process for us was postponed. During RRD, however, the personal readjustments of people now mainly in their late 30s/early 40s became an important aspect in the Line of March’s break with ultra-leftism.

Altogether, these various factors complemented the basic political shift in Line of March’s identity and role, and added up to a profound, all-round change in the outlook and character of the Line of March. The result is not an organization with a new “general line” which supposedly provides all the important answers to advancing the class struggle in the U.S. Rather, it is an organization with a useful perspective that can serve as a starting point for engaging in a broader political process along with other left and communist forces. Through helping push forward that process, and bringing our particular perspective to it, we believe Line of March can contribute to developing a more comprehensive strategy, a more effective practice and a stronger U.S. left.