Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The Transformation of Line of March

Summing Up and Moving On – Presented by Linda Burnham

Welcome to the last conference of the old Line of March, and the first conference of the new organization that we will be creating and shaping over the next three days.

A major goal of our re-examination process was to shed the hype associated with the old Line of March. But to my mind, the fact that we are here today those of us in this room and those we have come here to represent – deserves a whoop and a holler. We should congratulate ourselves.

In light of the recent history of the U.S. communist movement – the past twenty years or so – it’s something of a minor miracle that we’ve made it even this far. We all know too well that the landscape of the U.S. left is littered with the carcasses of organizations that were built on the same basic premises as Line of March. And we also know that within the broad progressive/left spectrum of activists there are thousands who went through the party-building experience and came out of it politically disoriented, disgusted, cynical, and, in far too many cases, psychologically traumatized.

Many of us, at one time or another over the past two very long years, have felt disgusted, disoriented, cynical and traumatized. But we managed not to all feel that way simultaneously. We pulled each other through a grueling process and managed to come out of it with a relatively deep understanding of the errors of the past and some useful ideas about how the organization can make a contribution to the development of the U.S. left in the future.

It didn’t have to be this way. Certainly we could have exploded or imploded, fragmented into factions or merely all gone our separate ways. The fact that we didn’t is, for one thing, testament to an incredible degree of tenacity, perseverance and sheer bull-headedness on the part of people at every level of the organization: the individual members at the chapter level, the local leaderships, the national board, the national executive committee, the Frontline staff, the administrative staff. It’s a tribute to the man activists who stuck to their posts or replaced others who took a step back in the face of tremendous political flux and unclarity. These efforts made it possible for us to make a somewhat orderly transition to a new type of organization.

Of course it wasn’t sheer will power alone that got us through this. Without lapsing into our former lunacy about the “conscious element,” it is important to note that this process has been a struggle for consciousness. That struggle was captured in the creation of re-examination, re-direction and democratization (RRD). And RRD came to frame and in fact make possible a deepening understanding of who we were politically and the context for our ideological and political development. It allowed us to grasp what we had in common with all the formations that came out of the New Communist Movement, and what was idiosyncratic to Line of March; to sort through what we wanted to chuck from our past and what was deserving of preservation and continuity. In other words, RRD made it possible to bring some of the tools of Marxist analysis to our own crisis, to look at ourselves from as many angles as possible and as objectively as possible. Heaven knows we have re-evaluated and summarized everything in sight: local chapters, “revolutionary mass organizations,” collectives, fractions, campaigns and political lines.

All of us lived through RRD, so I’m not going to torment you by recapitulating it –especially since for many of us the internal focus went on for about six months too long. But it is important to note that RRD was fueled by a commitment not mainly to “save Line of March,” but to learn the lessons of a political crisis so that they might be of use to all those on the left trying to figure out what to make of the wreckage of the New Communist Movement.

We also wanted to base the re-direction of our energies on a common summation. We’ve especially turned our attention to re-direction over the past few months, and we will bring that work to a culminating point today. Last, but hardly least, we were committed to infusing the whole process with the democratization of our organization. In light of our overcentralized, commandist, authoritarian past, it has been crucial to put in place mechanisms for the input of the membership; to make it possible for the membership to really direct the organization and determine its policies.

All this has not been easy. We had no blueprints and little experience. And undoubtedly we still have a long way to go. But our progress to this point is unmistakable: can you imagine a delegated conference like this one in the old Line of March? So, in spite of the hell that RRD was at times, it’s good to sit in a room with people who have a common sense of what they’ve been through ~ arrived at through endless discussions and debates and mountains of papers about this, that or the other aspect of Line of March – and a common commitment to put the lessons of our past to good use in the struggle for a more relevant left and a more just society.

But even more than will power and consciousness combined was required to get us to this point. It wasn’t just that we were tenacious and had a “good line.” The broader political context in which we function has been a decisive factor.

It’s safe to say that had there been a strong, politically sensible and attractive alternative to struggling to keep Line of March alive – either social democratic or orthodox communist – many of us would have taken it, either as individuals or as a deliberate decision to disband and integrate into some other organization. The fact that no other organization served as a strong magnet for us has been both a factor in our survival and an indication of the general weakness of the U.S. left. Then too, the ongoing ebb in popular struggles in the U.S. has had its effect. If the urgencies of a flow in the mass movement had been pressing in on Line of March it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to undertake the summation and reorientation of the organization with the deliberation and thoroughness that we managed to bring to it.

But these elements of our political context pale in comparison to what’s been happening in the world around us, and, more specifically, what’s been happening in the socialist world.

Ferment in Socialism

When we realized two years ago that Line of March was in the midst of a political crisis, perestroika, glasnost and the “new way of thinking” were already rapidly unfolding in the USSR. Yet despite the startlingly new propositions being advanced by Mikhail Gorbachev and others at that time, no one could have possibly foreseen the immense and profound changes that the socialist world is presently undergoing. These changes are radically altering many of the basic characteristics of the socialist world as we knew it.

Sorting through Line of March’s problems, which by comparison are absolutely minuscule, has been very much affected by the swirl of world events around us. On the one hand, the questioning of old orthodoxies and the democratization process that are an integral part of glasnost and perestroika framed our tiny process. They gave us some indication that we were on the right track and that the old model of the single, monopoly-on-truth vanguard party had not only run out of steam for us, but was being called into question in situations where the party actually held power and the stakes were infinitely higher. It is an open question whether our re-evaluation process would have reached all the way down to some of the fundamental political basis of our existence as an organization without the backdrop of glasnost/perestroika.

On the other hand, while encouraging us in a certain direction, events in the socialist world over the past two years have also been breathtaking, scary, confusing, and, by turns, discouraging and encouraging. We have been witness to a transformation of absolutely epochal proportions. There has been a shift in relations between East and West that holds great promise. Gorbachev’s unilateral disarmament initiatives and the struggle to “de-ideologize” relations between states have begun to create a thaw in a forty-year old Cold War. This has opened up new possibilities for economic and political relations between East and West Europe, for reducing hostilities between the U.S. and the USSR and for settling costly regional conflicts. It has cast a critical spotlight on the U.S. military budget and perceptibly lessened the threat of nuclear war. An enormous amount of positive change has been brought about in just a few years time.

Yet it must also be said that the Soviet Union does not take these initiatives from a position of strength and simply out of a commitment to world peace. They arise as well out of the economic crisis that has gripped the Soviet Union, the need to drastically slash the military budget and trim costly commitments abroad.

And, while Gorbachev has won enormous respect as a world leader of vision and initiative, the profound problems of socialism as a living system are being revealed daily to the glee of capitalist ideologues and the chagrin of socialists and revolutionaries worldwide.

Why do we focus on this? After all, we’ve been trying to figure out how to bring about revolutionary change in the United States, not anywhere else, and there’s little we can do about the turmoil in the socialist world. But we come out of the ideological and political tradition of Marxism-Leninism, and the changes unfolding in the world – more rapidly than most of us can keep up with them are challenging many of the basic tenets of that tradition. Many, if not all, of what we used to call “Marxist-Leninist principles” have been called into question, are being hotly debated or unceremoniously dumped by parties scrambling to maintain some modicum of legitimacy. For example:

The notion of a “single correct line” has given way to recognition that communist parties are not omniscient, are not always correct, and that views of other forces must be respected and incorporated in developing state policies. Further, communist parties must make room for vigorous debate within them, including public expression of minority views and the possibility of multi-tendency parties – something we thought only social democrats put up with.

The practice of a “single vanguard party” has given way to a situation in Poland where Solidarity is ascendant, if it’s possible to say anything is ascendant in Poland. The Polish United Workers Party could barely hold onto a couple of government portfolios. The ruling party in Hungary is undergoing a dramatic change this very weekend, preparing to compete in open elections for the first time and, evidently, only expects to get about 30% of the vote. The same pressure for the legalization of other parties seems likely to overtake other Eastern European countries. So, whatever we think of the “single vanguard party” as an immutable principle, in practice it is proving to be extremely mutable.

Tenets about “the superiority of socialist democracy” have given way to revelations not only about the enormous transgressions of Joseph Stalin, but also about the absence of basic democratic norms in the Soviet Union long after Stalin was dead and buried. In China, meanwhile, we see the brutal suppression of a mass movement for democracy.

Longstanding views about “the superiority of the socialist economic system” have given way to revelations of economic crisis in the Soviet Union – a crisis of the planned economy that many of us thought was the only rational alternative model to the anarchy of capitalist production. The crisis is indicated by low growth rates, low labor productivity, distribution bottlenecks, lack of consumer goods in quantity and variety, etc., etc. The crisis is very real and is fueling the Soviet Union’s commitment to dramatically cut its military budget and to limit its foreign commitments.

Notions about “the basic unity of the International Communist Movement and the leading role of the Soviet Communist Party within it” have given way to a multi-polar socialist world with many strains and discordant notes. These become apparent as communists in the developing socialist countries and Marxists leading national liberation struggles must adjust to the new realities whether they wish to or not, whether they agree with the direction of glasnost and perestroika or not, and whether their own strategic and tactical thinking coincides with broader pressures to seek rapid political settlements to conflicts. We see the differences at their sharpest in such events as Cuba’s banning of Soviet publications and the Soviet Union’s Namibia vote at the U.N. Of course, many liberation movements are doing some “new thinking” of their own as numerous and complex economic and political realities create pressure for settlement of conflicts in Afghanistan, Cambodia, southern Africa, the Middle East, El Salvador and elsewhere.

We could not have foreseen any of this even a few years ago. And it is impossible to predict today how things will develop over the course of the next few years, or what all this means for the long-term development of socialism. Ideologues in the West, of course, are heralding the end of communism (even the end of ideology and history) and the unchallenged supremacy of the “capitalist democracies.” As partisans of socialism, we reject those claims, and look hopefully toward the renewal and revitalization of socialism. In the Soviet Union, at least, a corrective mechanism has been put in place. But despite our partisanship, we have to recognize that there is no guarantee of success.

All this has been, to put it mildly, very unsettling for those of us who cut our eye teeth on “communist verities.” And under these circumstances, the pull toward pragmatism is profound. With socialism in turmoil, and U.S. capitalism not in or near a revolutionary situation, there appears to be a major disjuncture between the debates in the communist movement and the issues immediately confronting progressive activists. There is a strong temptation to abandon the effort to build a distinct socialist presence, and instead to take up one or another pressing immediate issue and be the best possible progressive activist.

Carrying on and Building the Left

Given all this, why continue with the revolutionary project? Why put more time and energy into trying to build a socialist organization and attempting to strengthen the U.S. left?

First because the injustices that brought us to politics and to Marxism in the first place have not been redressed, and there is little evidence that capitalism is capable of redressing them. Most of us have come to a socialist vision out of participation in day-to-day struggles against racism, U.S. aggression and war, poverty, and the many forms of discrimination nurtured by U.S. capitalism. These problems have hardly disappeared, and for many sectors of the population the capitalist system is as predatory as ever. As the draft unity statement prepared for this conference argues, “U.S. imperialism constantly changes form but never changes its essential character.” It is an inherently unjust and exploitative system.

Second because of the explanatory and analytic power of Marxism – the approach of examining the world via the methodology of dialectical and historical materialism. It may be true that many ideas long thought to be basic tents of Marxism are up for re-examination. But it is just as true that no other ideology or outlook offers as much insight into the way society works and the social forces that might be able to change it. Our organization has developed in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, and we share the responsibility to participate to the extent we can, and along with others, in the effort to revitalize Marxist-Leninist theory.

Third because the injustices inherent in U.S. capitalism are bound to produce new waves of mass activism, even if we cannot now predict exactly when these will occur or what forms they will take. And the existence of an active and more united Marxist left – even if it is a small one – will make a difference in whether or not the participants in those upsurges have access to the lessons accumulated through years of difficult struggle.

Fourth because we have been through and summarized a particular set of political experiences and have something to offer the effort to build and strengthen the left overall. The documents prepared for this meeting express a particular point of view on the re-evaluation taking place within Marxism-Leninism and socialism, the current juncture of U.S. society, the pivotal role of the fight against racism, the relationship between the class struggle and the new social movements, etc. It would be a contribution to add these ideas to the process of dialogue, cooperation and experimentation that will be required for the left as a whole to break its marginalization in U.S. political life.

Fifth because as activists we do our most effective work in the progressive movement when operating out of a collective setting. Organization provides the arena for the exchange of ideas, summation and collaboration, and enhances what any individual can do on his or her own.

And finally because, for all the uncertainty and difficulty of this moment, it’s a tremendously exciting time to be a Marxist and to grapple with the breathtaking changes going on in the world.

We have a lot of work to do in the next few days. The old Line of March is dead and we are in the process of trying to construct an essentially new organization, from the bottom up. There is an important measure of continuity in our politics but in basic ways we are setting out on a new and different political course. As delegates elected by the members in chapters around the country, it is our job in this conference to begin to chart that course as carefully as we can. We’re shedding the hype, but our deliberations must be serious; we will be making a number of important decisions and we will undoubtedly have debates and differences. This is a new experience for us, and we may well hit some snags and make mistakes. But if we proceed in the open, democratic spirit that’s begun to take hold in our organization over the last two years, there’s every reason to believe we’ll meet our goals.