Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Trinkl

Sweeping ’ultra leftism’ out of the Line of March

First Published: Guardian September 14, 1988.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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SAN FRANCISCO–The Line of March is getting increasingly rocky. Scores–hundreds if you count all the grouplets–of socialist, Marxist and Marxist-Leninist organizations were spawned in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many burned brightly for a time attracting hundreds and in some cases, thousands of adherents. But their pyrotechnical displays were brief and almost all have disappeared for a complex variety of reasons. One of the few surviving groups of the “New Communist Movement” of the early 1970s–groups that aimed to build a new communist party and took their inspiration largely from China and Mao Zedong (later called “the party-building movement” in the late 1970s) is Line of March. Although it has outlasted most of the groups from that period, LOM is now undergoing a profound crisis and re-examination of its own. A look at LOM’s experience is of interest not only to those who went through the hothouse period of the 1970s, but to anyone concerned about the long-term prospects of building socialist organizations in advanced capitalist countries.


This isn’t the place for a detailed history of LOM, but some background is needed to understand the present circumstances. Briefly, a part of the leadership of what later became LOM originated out of Guardian Clubs that this newspaper had set up in 1977 to give its politics some organizational form. One of the principal leaders of LOM, Irwin Silber, had been executive editor of the Guardian until he resigned in 1978. A year later Silber and a core of other activists formed The National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs. In 1980 this grouping and other forces mainly on the West Coast became Line of March and began publishing a theoretical journal of the same name.

LOM originated in reaction to the dogmatism and reactionary international positions of much of the “Maoist” movement. It soon adopted a strongly supportive position toward the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement.

According to LOM’s own assessment of that period, as outlined in an 11-page statement just issued by the LOM leadership: “We functioned off the simplistic and schematic formula that had dominated the Maoist New Communist Movement: conduct a brief amount of theoretical work to create a relatively shallow ’general line;’ unite a few hundred activists around that line; and then go out and out-organize all other formations to establish in practice one’s ’vanguard’ role.”

LOM soon became known in the left for a high level of theoretical work and its dedicated, hard-working cadre; but also for a sectarian view that only they had the correct line, and a “vanguardism” that belittled the role of other left forces.

In the early 1980s the founding elan and certainty that they were the core of the future Marxist-Leninist party were enough to keep the group going, with little serious questioning by the membership of its actual functioning. But in recent years the group became frayed around the edges, and a sudden drop off last fall in the organization’s mass work indicated to outsiders that there was something seriously amiss.

A number of problems had been building in the organization. They would have been aired eventually anyway, but the unlikely catalyst for the upheaval in this case was the serious substance abuse problem of one of the top leaders of the organization, Bruce Occena, the chair of LOM’s national executive committee. The continued existence of such a situation in the highest levels of leadership and Occena’s apparent refusal to deal with his problem led to an outpouring of criticism of the leadership’s lack of accountability, the absence of organizational democracy and a host of other problems. Occena was suspended from the group in the fall of 1987.

“The overwhelming majority of the organization came to the conclusion that a thoroughgoing housecleaning was in order,” the LOM sum-up notes. The statement, “Re-Examination, Re-Direction and Democratization in the Line of March,” issued in August, discusses serious mistakes in the political practice and structure of LOM. While LOM has its own particularities and dynamics, the syndrome it experienced is a familiar one. If anything, many other groups were worse.


By 1985 after several years work in the mass movements, LOM developed the assessment that it was essentially functioning as a Marxist-Leninist party and that “only a few loose ends needed to be put in place” before it could declare itself a party. Given this perspective, LOM’s work in the mass movements “was characterized more and more by over-ambitious assessments of what we could accomplish, unrealistic plans that were never fulfilled and a frantic pace of activity by members as they attempted to implement these unrealistic plans.” Recruitment, instead of taking off, stagnated.

LOM now acknowledges sectarian practices: “We retained elements of the notion that we had a monopoly on the correct perspective”–many on the left would think that an understatement–“and missed or blocked many opportunities to build deeper strategic relationships with others on the left.” There were problems of sectarianism with CISPES. LOM had a schizophrenic approach toward the Communist Party. While officially regarding the CPUSA as part of a single communist movement along with themselves, LOM published many polemics against the CPUSA, which greatly alienated it. “In practice we sometimes acted as if the only way to deal with the CPUSA was to stress the points where we differed while struggling to out-organize the CPUSA in the broad progressive movement.”

But the kernel of the problems, was “the severe lack of democracy within the Line of March.” The LOM leadership acknowledges that genuine democratic centralism was not practiced by the organization. “Policy was made almost exclusively by the central leadership with only the formalities of input from the full membership. . . . No mechanism was ever put in place for election or accountability of leadership in the Line of March. . . . Especially damaging was ... the accumulation of largely unchecked and unaccountable authority by a very few individuals in the central leadership.”

LOM attributes its problems to an “incomplete break with infantile leftism,” a phenomenon unfortunately all too familiar to students of the U.S. left. The document defines this problem: “’More revolutionary than thou’ political posturing and sectarianism; impatience about the pace of historical change; oversimplification of the complexity of what it takes to actually lead the class struggle; volunteerism in carrying out political activity, and tendencies to downplay the importance of mass democracy and idealize the role of individual leaders.”


LOM traces the root cause of its ultraleftism to “Maoism.” While “Maoism”–especially as practiced by groups in the U.S. had strong ultraleft elements, it’s difficult to blame “Maoism” for all of LOM’s problems. The whole spectrum of new left groups that came out of the 1960s and 1970s–Maoist, Trotskyist, social democratic and independent socialist–were wracked with problems, many similar to LOM’s. This was a worldwide phenomenon as well. There are few easy answers to the hard task of building revolutionary organizations in the late 20th century.

In a series of recent local and regional conferences, about 85% of the group affirmed a “Re-Examination, Re-Direction and Democratization” perspective to try to overcome the serious mistakes and problems. Most of the minority who disagreed that a serious reexamination was necessary have left the organization, including former leader Melinda Paras. The majority affirms the need for a Marxist-Leninist organization with the overall political perspective of LOM.

LOM will hold its first-ever delegated conference next year. While the group’s tribulations are matters of direct concern mainly to its supporters, democracy in socialist organizations and in building a socialist society remains a paramount task for the left.