Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

U.S. League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist)

Congress Papers #2

Appendix A: On Marxism-Leninism and Why We need A Different Theory, Strategy, and Organization

By the Central Committee majority (Signed by 28 people)

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1. Some background and how we have already made changes

Our organization has its roots in the 1960s and early ’70s struggles of oppressed nationalities in this country. We did not begin as Marxist-Leninists. Out of our experience in seeing the need for revolutionary theory, we became attracted to M-L. This was not because we read some books, but because at that time the leading anti-imperialist struggles of the third world and socialist countries like Cuba, China and Mozambique were led by M-L parties. Marxism-Leninism in practice was succeeding in leading the struggles of oppressed people. Marxism-Leninism helped us understand the nature of class society, imperialism, and the possibility of a better world.

Over time, we have built a unique multi-national revolutionary organization with a unique and creative political line which has been able to have a real impact on the mass movement in this country. Were these accomplishments due to Marxism-Leninism? Well, yes and no.

We can say yes, to the extent that we called ourselves Marxist-Leninist and we strived to creatively apply the Marxist method of dialectical materialism, class analysis and the mass line; and strived to apply what we understood to be Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of our struggle, i.e., the goal of empowering the working class, the right of self-determination, the united front as a strategy.

At the same time, many of these qualities and political approaches have defined our work since before we were M-L, such as our emphasis on relying on the masses, and our understanding of the national question and the united front. Furthermore, much of what we considered to be our “creative application” of M-L, especially on the national question but on other issues as well, have been major revisions and even at direct variance with what is commonly understood to be M-L by most all of those who consider themselves to be M-L. This is a contradiction that runs throughout our development that we must come to terms with.

Our line has been unique because we, in reality, never proceeded strictly from a Marxist-Leninist framework theoretically, nor from its organized tradition practically. The League historically does not come out of the U.S. left, i.e., the U.S. socialist or communist movement with its ties to international socialist and communist trends. Our direct roots are in the civil rights and revolutionary third world movements of the 1960s; and historically, our tradition lies in the struggles of African slaves and then of the African American nation; of the Chicanos forged into an oppressed nation by the forced annexation of the Southwest; of the Chinese coolie workers and Hawaiian plantation workers; of the American Indian resistance to genocide and subjugation.

The national movements in the U.S. have always had a distinct identity and motion, as they have struggled for democracy and self-determination, and have historically had a rocky relationship with the socialist and communist trends of the U.S. working class movement. For while there have been notable exceptions of those who united with and supported the national movements, the main characteristic of the U.S. socialist and communist left towards the national struggles has been one of liquidation, chauvinism, and even outright opposition. This includes the entire history and legacy of the Socialist Party, down to its present day incarnation, DSA; and of the CPUSA, which had maybe 20 good years on the national question out of its 70 year history.

In many ways, this is why we ourselves have had, over the last 20 years, a contentious relationship with the left. We have never felt fully part of the left politically or organizationally, and have never been fully accepted by it. Our experience throughout the 1970s “new communist movement” was, in large part, a struggle against chauvinism on the national question (RU-RCP, WVO-CWP, to a lesser degree the OL-CPML; we struggled also with groups like PRRWO and BWC which came out of the national movements but which liquidated their own work and histories when they adopted M-L). This is not a subjective issue about “how we feel about the left,” but rather a reflection of the reality of U.S. history and society as an imperialist nation. National oppression and racism have been systematically used to divide working people, and the racism which pervades society has inevitably infected the left as well.

Looking at our history, we can see that the basic goals and values that have always guided us did not flow from M-L, and actually pre-date our adoption of M-L – that is, our sense of fighting injustice, standing for fundamental change, and doing what’s best for the masses. We have drawn from Marx and Lenin, but we have also drawn from the theory and practice of other leaders and revolutionaries in the U.S. and internationally, as well as from our own experience. Even as we called ourselves Marxist-Leninist and drew from M-L theory, we never proceeded from M-L as an exclusive guide.

During the 1980s, we made many adjustments in our line which have objectively moved us away from what is commonly understood to be Marxism-Leninism. During that period, when the entire M-L movement in this country had already collapsed, the League was able to survive and even grow precisely because our political line evolved objectively away from M-L.

The analyses we developed in the ’80s – the sunbelt strategy, the role of the lower strata of the working class, the significance of the African American empowerment movement (i.e. Jesse Jackson), the strategy for a progressive electoral majority, the united front against the right, and the concept of a majority revolution were bold departures from traditionally held M-L strategies of the “leading role of the industrial proletariat” and the “sham of U.S. bourgeois democracy.”

In particular, our understanding of the struggle for democracy, rooted in the multi-class united front of the national movements, allied with the labor movement, progressive farmers, women and other democratic sectors, challenged the traditionally-held M-L views on the nature and purpose of the “class struggle” in the U.S. We have emphasized the struggle for democracy, even “bourgeois democracy” (i.e., democratic reforms which are achievable under capitalism, such as minority representation, voting rights and redistricting, etc., as well as education, housing, etc.) as central to the struggle in this country. The struggle for democracy has a profound ability to unleash the broad masses of people, and is a fuel for revolutionary change.

Our line on the united front against the right included forces that Marxist-Leninist theory traditionally identifies as “class enemies,” i.e. the liberal bourgeoisie and the trade union “labor aristocracy.” On these questions, we have taken a tremendous amount of flack from the U.S. left, who have considered our support of Mondale and Dukakis and our line of responsibly building the trade unions, including working in a united front with the trade union leadership, to be “class betrayal.”

Some of our initial views on socialism (1983-4) called for separation between state and party, multi-party elections, religious freedom, a mixed economy and genuine, unconditional self-determination. Our views criticized precisely those features of existing socialism which were repudiated by the people of Eastern Europe as their governments collapsed in 1989, and which today are the key issues of perestroika in the Soviet Union.

We also objectively stopped practicing “party building as our central task,” and have instead tried to build an effective, militant organization while striving to give leadership to the mass movement based on the view of empowering the people themselves. We have adjusted our recruitment policies to encourage lower strata workers, mass elements from the national movements, and new generations of students to join. Since 1984, M-L has not been a criterion for membership. Most of our members who have joined in the last five years or so have done so on the basis of our actual line and practice. For the most part, they were not attracted to us because of M-L, nor have we been able to “consolidate” them around M-L. This has not been simply for lack of study (contrary to the perception that the League ceased to study, most new members have gone through study groups). It has been because M-L theory, and even much of the rhetoric in PJES, has become increasingly distant from and not relevant to our politics and practice in the real world.

2. M-L in the world today

As our line and practice have changed and evolved, we have also been confronted with recent world events that have brought Marxism-Leninism and socialism to a new historical juncture. The practice of M-L under existing socialism has been rejected by the masses of people in those countries. Much of the practice conducted in the name of M-L is simply indefensible, particularly the evolution of the dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the party, the one-party state, and state-run centralized economies.

M-L is no longer the beacon of liberation it was in the 1960s. It has become identified worldwide with the suppression of democracy and economic stagnation. We have never associated ourselves with the practice of the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, but we cannot dismiss them by simply saying it’s not our model and therefore not our problem. Also, countries which we have found to be positive models, such as China, Vietnam, Cuba, themselves face serious contradictions in areas of democracy and the economy. We cannot escape confronting the practical and theoretical problems facing world socialism.

There is also a real problem with saying the practice is rotten but the theory is sound. We believe practice is the criterion of truth. While Marxism-Leninism has been successful at leading revolutionary struggles, from the Russian Revolution to third world anti-colonial struggles, it has had tremendous problems and limitations in building socialism.

Socialism as a system is historically still young and immature. There were no blueprints for Lenin, Mao or others; and the historical period of transition between capitalism and communism (classless society) is lengthy and complex. The experiences of the first 70 years of socialism have brought many areas of progress for the people, particularly in reducing poverty, achieving industrialization in backward countries and meeting human needs like jobs, health care, housing, day care, etc.; but have also produced many practices which are not defensible. While some are perhaps historically understandable (such as the restrictions on democracy when the revolution was threatened with counterrevolution), they were not sustainable or justifiable over time, and have finally come back to bite them.

This does not mean that “socialism has failed” or, by any means, that “capitalism is better,” although forces in some of the Eastern European countries seem to want to give capitalism a chance. Overall, though, the people of the socialist countries have a tremendous challenge to redefine and reform socialist society. And those of us who are still battling capitalism must be able to offer an alternative vision that is both inspiring and viable in today’s world. The theoretical and practical questions of how to achieve a truly democratic and non-exploitative society will be a matter of discussion, debate and experimentation on the part of oppressed and struggling people the world over, including ourselves, for some years to come.

3. Our strategy for change – moving beyond M-L

For ourselves, as we have tried to develop our understanding of how change will come about in the U.S. and what kind of society we are struggling for, we have come to see that much of our own strategy and our vision have moved beyond Marxism-Leninism.

Our strategy is to win majority support for fundamental social change, with the premise that an electoral majority is possible and achievable. Some people have mistakenly interpreted this strategy to mean that we think there will be simple election and a peaceful transition of power with no struggle. This is not real, as we have no illusions about the violent nature of the capitalist system. To even hold such an election where the will of the majority can be expressed will require a fundamental challenge to the system, brought about by a mass movement which is very strong and which employs a variety of tactics in coordination with an electoral strategy, e.g. strikes, direct mass action, etc. We also have always believed, and continue to believe, in self-defense, including armed self-defense, and we must be prepared to defend the will of the majority from any violence by those opposed to the majority.

The point of our strategy, however, is that we believe that change can only come about with the support of the majority. We are not organizing for a minority to make an armed seizure of power, regardless of any democratic mandate or process. We do not believe in a “vanguard” seizing power and declaring its “representation” of the majority without a verifiable democratic process.

We also believe that the nature of how fundamental change is achieved in this country is more likely to be through a process, and not in one fell swoop of a “revolutionary overthrow.” Lenin’s views of the state, as a monolithic entity of “class dictatorship,” which therefore must be overthrown and replaced with the dictatorship of another class, one-sidedly emphasizes the repressive aspect of the state and underestimates the success that the masses have actually had, through tremendous struggle, in transforming and democratizing aspects of the state under capitalism.

For a long time, many of us, like others around the world, viewed revolution as a decisive break with the past. The communists of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba etc. all saw themselves as bringing an end to capitalist and imperialist oppression and rule, and ushering in new eras of socialism and people’s democracy. At the time of the Russian Revolution, Lenin thought the capitalist system was on the verge of global collapse and that revolutions would sweep the industrialized West, along with the anti-colonial movements.

The reality, of course, has been different. Capitalism as a system, while fraught with contradictions and ultimately doomed, has shown itself to be remarkably resilient economically and adaptable to changed conditions. Clearly, it is also continually aggressive to protect its interests. In this context, many liberation movements today, such as the ANC and the Sandinistas, take a different, more long-term view of the struggle. While the Sandinistas clearly brought an end to the authoritarian rule of Somoza, and the ANC will inevitably eliminate apartheid, they do not expect a clear and decisive break with the past. Eleven years after the overthrow of the white minority government in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), white landowners continue to control a disproportionate share of Zimbabwe’s wealth and power. This is not because the leaders of ZANU “sold out” or were coopted through the Manchester Accords, but because conditions within the country have made this form of power sharing necessary. Capitalism cannot be defeated or eliminated at once. The same will undoubtedly be true in post-apartheid South Africa, and was already the case in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas have for many years sought compromises with local and foreign capital.

In the United States, our view of the struggle will very likely follow a similar path. Rather than producing a fundamental change all at once, the struggle in this country may first produce various forms of power-sharing and transitional forms, in which the struggle to empower the oppressed and re-prioritize society’s needs will continue to take place.

Some of this exists on a local level already, where city governments, school boards or other administrative offices have been won by progressives who seek to serve the interests of the people, but must cooperate with corporate and other conservative interests in order to obtain resources to achieve their goals. In the state of California, for example, where a majority of residents will soon be minorities, it will eventually be necessary, as a result of the people’s struggles, for the rich white males who currently hold political and economic power to negotiate with people of color for control of resources and the decision-making apparatus. This is also likely to occur at the national level, as the demand for change escalates and the struggle of the people intensifies.

We can expect this process to be uneven, and, in a fundamental way, dependent upon the level of organization and struggle of the people. Far from being limited to a series of gradual reforms, we envision a revolutionary process whereby the people’s movements struggle for and can win increased political and economic power, aimed at eventually transforming the basic nature of society.

We are also not interested in having any group take power in any society in order to oppress anyone else. We are against dictatorship in any form. We are for a society where human needs are more important than private profit; where working people have the right to a job, housing, health care, education; where society has democratic structures for the people to control their communities and workplaces; where there is national self-determination, political and religious freedom, rule by law, and individual rights.

Given the nature of the struggle in the U.S., we also think it is problematic to say it must be led by a “vanguard party of the working class.” We don’t think that only one party can or will have “the correct line” with its implication that all other parties and lines are “incorrect” or “not working class” (and by definition therefore “incorrect” or “not as revolutionary”). The working class itself is made up of many strata and sectors. Therefore, the working class contains many different views and does not adhere to “one line.” There are also in this country a substantial petty bourgeois strata. The movement is comprised of all these forces, and is therefore quite diverse.

Since we are for the majority, we are by definition for the working class, as the working class is the majority of the population. But we do not want to say we are for the working class exclusively. We need to build an organization which stands for the interests of the majority, can capture the diversity and creativity of the people, respects the interests of all the class forces that are part of the struggle, and which can have as members and utilize the various contributions of individuals from all walks of life.

Within this organization and the movement we are trying to build, the question of respect and empowerment for workers should be upheld. By empowerment of workers, we mean that we are building an organization and a mass movement in which working people are able to participate fully in the struggles and issues that affect their lives (from education to electoral representation, from unionization and job safety to drugs and crime). We also want to build an organization and movement that has respect for oppressed nationalities and opposes racism. But we think it is wrong to say we will represent only one class in a multi-class struggle, and we think people from all class backgrounds can and should contribute in different ways to our common goal of fundamental change. This, in turn, broadens our organization and what it can do, and builds a stronger, more effective movement.

An important example is our approach to the Jesse Jackson campaigns. Jackson represents the middle and upper strata of the African American nation. By classical M-L definition, he would be considered “reformist” and “limited” in his “thoroughness.” Even among that section of the left which supports the Black Liberation Movement and Jackson, the predominant view of the left was that he needed to be “struggled with” so he wouldn’t “sell out,” and that the left, being the “true representatives” of the working class, was obligated to struggle with Jackson to protect the working class1 interests and eventually to replace Jackson with working class forces. This was the theoretical basis for their sectarian and destructive behavior.

Yet we understood and appreciated the Black Liberation Movement’s leading role in fighting for democracy for all people, and Jackson’s ability as a leader of the BLM to articulate the aspirations and demands of the masses of people, including the working class, for democracy and a more just society. He was more effective in doing so than the entire left. Therefore we understood the importance of fully supporting Jackson and his campaign, because it concretely advanced the mass movement.

The question of a vanguard party is not just a theoretical question but also a practical one. The Leninist form of organization is practically inappropriate for our struggle. Our strategy calls for winning the political support of the majority, which we cannot do as a Marxist-Leninist organization, because by definition this must be “secret.” At this time, one cannot be an open Marxist-Leninist and be a credible force in the mass movement.

Furthermore, it is no longer possible, nor is it correct, to sustain the level of discipline needed to implement our past level of intervention in the mass movement. It is not in line with current conditions, and is not sustainable by the level of the movement. We believe the level of sacrifice we ask of each other should be in line with the level of the mass struggle. Along with adjustments in our cadre policies and plans based on what people are willing and able to contribute, we also think we need to change some of the ways we have done our mass work, in which some mass campaigns are almost entirely self-generated by our mass organizations, or almost entirely carried out by our cadre. This also means that the level of sacrifice needed to maintain a core of full-time professional revolutionaries (which a Leninist organization needs in order to function) is not possible at this time. We therefore need to find new ways to continue our mass work – in this way, we are taking responsibility for the movements that we have led and worked in over all these years.

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Based on our view on the struggle in this country and on the experience of Marxism-Leninism in practice in other countries, we believe we need to reject the M-L framework. In particular we feel there are major aspects of Leninism which we disagree with or feel are not appropriate to our historical conditions – the dictatorship of the proletariat, the concept of a single “correct” ideology, and the Leninist party. Our strategy is very different from the traditional M-L approach.

At the same time, as we have stated, we are not rejecting everything that Marx or Lenin ever said. In particular there is much we can still uphold – the Marxist approach and method (dialectics), its analysis of classes in society and its understanding of capitalist economics (how profits are derived, exploitation, etc), and other aspects.

So while we can draw lessons from Marx and Lenin, we are discarding some major tenets of Leninism, and we do not think it is appropriate or viable to call ourselves “Marxist-Leninist.” We prefer to identify with many revolutionary forces around the world who are fighting against oppression and injustice, and for democracy and liberation. If we look around the world, we can see that M-L is not the exclusive guide to fundamental change. There are many revolutionary organizations and fighters of diverse ideological and theoretical trends, who are successful and effective. Who is to say that M-L is the “best” guide for any struggle? Only the people of each country can determine their own leadership, theory, demands, and struggle.

Many forces around the world study Marxism and will say they find much of it useful, but still do not label themselves as “Marxist” or “Marxist-Leninist.” Many third world liberation leaders have drawn from Marx but found M-L to be too Euro-centric or inconsistent with their religious/cultural values; the bottom line for them was that they had to proceed from their own history and culture and the practical conditions of their struggle. Nelson Mandela described the ANC as being “practical men and women” who are fighting to end apartheid and build a new democratic South Africa. They eschew any labels of “capitalist” or “socialist”; instead they see putting forward their vision of post-apartheid South Africa concretely.

We should see Marxism-Leninism not as an ideology that stands qualitatively apart or above other revolutionary theories. Marxism-Leninism needs to be understood in its own historical conditions as well; like all other things, it has its historical origins and relevance, and its historical limitations. Lenin discarded aspects of Marxism which were no longer relevant. Similarly we feel it is appropriate for us to take from M-L what we continue to find useful, and discard what is not, as we develop the theory and program we need for our struggle.

5. How should we approach creating a revolutionary theory?

Clearly, the need to develop a theoretical approach to our work is one of our most important concerns as we build this new organization. Our theory will have considerable influence on our mass work and on the politics we publicly project as an organization.

As we develop the analysis and perspective which guides our work, we should be encouraged in knowing that every revolution since 1917 has required the development of original and indigenous theoretical approaches toward waging the struggle. Particularly within the last 10 to 15 years, liberation struggles carried out in Southern Africa, the Middle East, Central America and the Caribbean have been guided by theory created and formulated largely through their people’s experience in the struggle.

Amilcar Cabral, of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde Islands stressed the need for the PAIGC to work in a manner which conformed to the sensibilities of the people. He suggested that we “consider the national liberation movement as the organized political expression of the culture of the people who are undertaking the struggle. For this reason, those who lead the movement must have a clear idea of the values of the culture in the framework of the struggle and must have a thorough knowledge of the people’s culture, whatever may be their level of economic development.”

Similarly the Sandinistas worked to build an organization and develop an ideology which was based principally on the history of Nicaraguan resistance to national and imperialist oppression. Drawing upon various strains of progressive thought in Nicaragua, including the liberation theology of the Catholic church, their own writers and intellectuals, as well as the revolutionary theory developed in other countries, the Sandinistas formulated their own unique outlook and approach. Unlike many before them, they saw no contradiction between the revolution and the church, between various forms of public and collective ownership and private enterprise, and between holding elections and the practice of democracy through other more participatory forms of government. The Sandinistas set their own course based largely on their desire to tangibly improve the lives of the people, and thereby maintain their support. To attain these goals, they had to experiment with different forms of economic planning and work closely with the independent organizations of the people (unions, youth and women’s organizations, etc.)

As we build our new organization which we hope will capture the hopes and aspirations of the masses and provide leadership in the struggle for fundamental change, we too must develop theory and methods which are based on an accurate assessment of social and economic conditions and the political climate of the country. It must be rooted in part upon an understanding of the history of resistance to oppression from various national movements and sectors of this society, and it must be relevant to the perceptions of the masses with regard to their needs and their dreams for a better life.

Our theory must be flexible, so that we are able to be innovative in our strategy and tactics. But it must also clearly define our goals and objectives and our commitment to eliminating all forms of oppression. It must be complex so that it sharpens our understanding of the forces at work in society, and it must be simple so that it can be conveyed with little difficulty to ordinary people. We already have a history of creatively developing theory which flows out of the experience and practice of the people in the U.S. And as we redefine our theoretical framework, we are retaining and building on the revolutionary essence of what has always characterized our work and the “fighting spirit” that is precious in our history. This is an important foundation for us to build on, theoretically and in practice.

Beyond developing our theory there is also a need for us to envision what the new organization will look like with respect to its internal structure and external posture. While most of the details will be worked out collectively in the months ahead, there are organizations which can provide us with valuable experience and lessons.

One of these is the African National Congress. The ANC is the oldest national liberation organization on the African continent. It is a mass organization that is now making a transition into a political party that will contest elections. Over its 70-year history, it has changed from being primarily a civil rights organization similar to the NAACP, into a fighting organization which engages in activities as varied as foreign diplomacy and armed struggle. Now, as it prepares to assume political power over the entire country, the ANC will have to change once again as it inherits the new responsibilities of running a government and leading a country.

The ANC is a vanguard of change in South Africa not because it simply claims to be so, but because it is recognized as such by the people, and now, reluctantly, by the South African government as well. It is a disciplined organization that requires accountability not only from its rank and file members, but from cultural workers (i.e. Miriam Makeba) and from its leaders as well. It has a straight foward and concise program, the Freedom Charter, which spells out its view for change in South Africa, but is also guided by developed theoretical perspectives which address questions pertaining to nationalism, sexism, power sharing, economic transformation, relations with other countries, etc., all within the context of the struggle and the future of a free South Africa.

The Sandinistas are another example of a mass party that we can learn from. It is comprised of workers, intellectuals, peasant farmers, businessmen, artists, and priests. Its clearest priority is a commitment to improving the lives of the poor and oppressed, but it puts forward a vision for a new Nicaragua that includes people of all classes and cultures. Most importantly, like the ANC, the Sandinistas respect the freedom of the people to organize themselves independently in trade unions, political parties, cultural organizations, etc., without interference or manipulation from the Sandinista party.

The ANC and Sandinistas are clearly revolutionary and disciplined organizations, though neither proclaim themselves as socialist or Marxist-Leninist. Individuals who identify themselves by such terms may be found in both organizations, but the theories guiding their work are derived largely from their own experiences and study. Both organizations have made decisive breaks from older, foreign forms and structures (i.e. the Cuban, Soviet, and Chinese models), yet they both remain fighting organizations based among the masses of people.

Clearly, there are important differences between us and the ANC and Sandinistas, and in the economic and social conditions of our respective countries. Yet it is important to recognize that models do exist. While the transition to a new form of organization is unsettling for many of us, if we can be clear on what we are trying to become, then we need not be so worried that the change will result in a weakening of our political stance or our work among the people. In making the change in our organization, we can increase our effectiveness within the struggle for change in the United States, and increase our impact within the particular struggles we take up.