Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Mae Ngai

What path to Marxist Leninist unity? A response to John Martin of the CPML

First Published: Unity, Vol. 4, No. 7, April 24-May 7, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In recent months, divergent views have surfaced in the U.S. over the history, present state and political direction of the communist movement. It is now also becoming apparent that there are differing views on how to advance the struggle for Marxist-Leninist unity in the U.S. and how to clarify the political line for the proletarian revolution.

What path to Marxist-Leninist unification remains one of the most critical questions on the agenda of the communist movement. Sharpening international contradictions and the rightward trend in the U.S. ruling class certainly highlight the urgent need for communist unity. Whether Marxist-Leninists can succeed in forging the necessary political unity depends on the serious, nonsectarian and open airing of different viewpoints to aid in the clarification of a Marxist-Leninist line and program. In the absence of a principled line and attitude towards Marxist-Leninist unification, organizations will grow farther apart and serious losses will be incurred for the U.S. revolutionary movement as a whole.

In light of this very serious situation, there is a need to address the views presented by John Martin of the Communist Party (M-L)(CPML) in his article, “The Crisis in Marxism and Marxist-Leninist Unity” in the April 1981 issue of The Call.

In this issue, Martin describes some questions the CPML is facing, generalizes them to the entire international communist movement, and the asserts that on the basis of the way different groups respond to this situation different trends are demarcated. According to Martin, one trend upholds “ultra-leftism as the main danger in the communist movement” and has a “to the masses orientation.” The opposing trend is not specifically defined by Martin, but by implication is itself ultra-left and not “to the masses” in orientation. Martin encourages the CPML to focus its unity efforts on the first trend.

Martin’s second main point is to emphasize the rapid organizational merger of the groups in his trend based on meeting two conditions: “ideological compatibility” and “unity in practice.”

The last main point of Martin’s essay is that there has to be a special “plan” worked out to unite with minority nationality communists, although he did not spell out what this plan should be.

In my opinion, the view put forward in Martin’s article will result in a split in the Marxist-Leninist movement. It is of course correct for Marxist-Leninist organizations to unite when they have achieved clear and principled political agreement. But Martin attempts to define trends in the communist movement based on vague, imprecise and sectarian criteria, which are never defined concretely, in his article. Martin’s essay objectively calls for the division of the movement into two camps on an unclear, unprincipled basis, and before there is a serious attempt to air the existing views in the communist movement.

Martin’s article also proceeds from a chauvinist view on the national question, as it relates to minority nationality Marxist-Leninists. He promotes a view of minority Marxist-Leninists not as equals to communists of other nationalities, but as objects of simply a “plan” to unite them. The chauvinist lack of respect towards minority Marxist-Leninists is long-standing and pervasive in large sectors of the U.S. communist movement. Unfortunately, Martin continues this chauvinism in his current views on Marxist-Leninist organization and unification.

Historical experience and the present-day realities of our movement show the serious consequences both of sectarianism and chauvinism to the cause of revolution and socialism. For these reasons, 1 will try to respond to the main arguments and proposals put forth by Martin and then present my view on how to develop the struggle for Marxist-Leninist unity.


There are some serious political differences among communists in the U.S.: differing perspectives on the international situation, national question, trade union question, tasks of communists in this period, the vanguard party and others. This situation is aggravated by the ignorance on the part of many of what the actual positions of the various groups on these questions are. But rather than putting forth a remedy for the situation, Martin’s proposals will further obscure the key issues.

Nowhere in his article does Martin address the real political questions, the unities or the differences that characterize either of his supposed trends in the U.S. Marxist-Leninist movement. The phrases “anti-leftism,” “to the masses,” “ideological compatibility” and “unity in practice” are never defined politically, never concretely. They are left vague, open to whatever interpretation one wishes to read into them, hinting at views that are left unstated.

The fact that there is considerable confusion among some about the political lines held by various groups in the communist movement is not because there are no lines. The reality is that political lines actually exist in relatively developed forms. The League’s views on most basic questions are public knowledge, but this is not the case for the CPML, which has been undergoing some major changes in line, nor for the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWH) which has not put forward publicly much of its views for the past couple of years. The politics held by these and other groups are at the heart of the current dispute.

A presentation of these views in a principled, non-sectarian and frank way will contribute substantially in developing the overall line for the revolution. Various perspectives and experiences can be shared. Debate over right and wrong can take place. In the least, the clarification of line will lay the basis for principled relations among Marxist-Leninist groups.

Regarding the point about ultra-leftism: since when have Marxist-Leninists in the U.S. divided the movement into two camps on the basis of what was considered to be the main danger in the movement? This issue has been debated for over ten years in the contemporary communist movement in the U.S., but it has never become the splitting issue Martin wishes to make it today. Not even in the CPML’s own history has it taken such a sectarian stance as this: in the period of about 1972-75, the October League (OL – predecessor organization of the CPML) held that ultra-leftism was the principal danger in the communist movement, but the OL (which Martin now says was ultra-left and sectarian) did not even make this a dividing line with whom it would consider unity efforts.

What is new today is that under the banner of fighting ultra-leftism and sectarianism, Martin is advocating views which will objectively result in a split in the communist movement.

Furthermore, it is remarkable that Martin wishes to designate trends on such vague sectarian criteria in the communist movement even though he admits in the beginning of his article that the CPML has yet to “begin an all-sided sum-up of our party’s history, an initial sorting out of right from wrong and take even more definite steps towards rectification” which will begin at the CPML’s upcoming Second Congress. To say the least, it is impetuous and irresponsible for Martin to try to divide up the U.S. Marxist-Leninist movement into distinct trends on an unclear, unprincipled basis when the CPML itself has not yet even begun the formal summarization of its own history and line, let alone participate in a principled and serious airing of views in the communist movement.

In some ways, Martin’s call for the division of the Marxist-Leninist movement in such an ambiguous and self-serving way is a similar mistake as that committed in the past by the “Revolutionary Wing” which split the movement into “Bolsheviks and Mensheviks” on the basis of some abstract qualities and generalized principles. It is even similar to the old Revolutionary Union (RU) during the National Liaison Committee (NLC) in which it excluded some forces (such as the OL) without a principled and upfront basis. In both the cases of the Revolutionary Wing and the Revolutionary Union, the objective effect of such sectarianism was the belittlement of political line and the necessity of communists to have principled exchange. It resulted in sharp polarization and bitterness for some time.

“To the masses” orientation

The second of Martin’s criteria that distinguishes his trend is a “to the masses” orientation. Martin, though, never really explains what this means nor what this is in contrast to. Is Martin claiming that other Marxist-Leninist forces today are advocating some other path that leads away from the masses? One does not know from Martin’s essay, even though he puts this forward as one of the two criteria of his trend.

It is wrong to put forth such a vague “dividing line,” but even more seriously, it clouds over the more critical question facing communists. We should go “to the masses” with what and for what? The “to the masses” slogan obscures the real issues before the communist movement and hides the reality that political lines do exist in our movement, lines that address the masses with what, and for what. The differences in the Marxist-Leninist movement are not that some groups have a “to the masses” orientation and others have an “away from the masses” orientation, or a “to the books,” or “to the closet” orientation. No, the question is what are the actual political views and lines that are being put forth as the path for the mass work of communists.

Martin’s “to the masses” orientation is similar also to his advocacy of “fusing cadres” with the mass movements, which avoids the question, again, of what communists should be fusing with the mass movements.

The responsibility of communists is to fuse socialism with the mass movements, not just cadres. To say our task is just “fusing cadres” without spelling out with what and for what could lead to rank opportunism. With the current rise of right-wing forces and racist organizations in society, such an approach could even rationalize tailing reactionary and racist trends of all sorts. It could give rise to a big resurgence of national chauvinism in the communist movement.

There are historical precedents of this kind, and fairly recent ones. In the 1970’s, the Revolutionary Union advocated a similar line of “fusion” that belittled the question of what communists should be fusing with the mass movements. In my view, the RU’s incorrect conception of “fusion” led them in part to their tailing of the racist organizations in the Boston busing crisis. The RU echoed the racists’ cry of “Smash the Boston Busing Plan” and tried to stand against the tide of the national democratic and national revolutionary struggle of the Black masses.

Issuing such slogans as “to the masses” and “fusing cadres” in this fashion belittles the question of what line and program should unite Marxist-Leninists. It could open the door for all kinds of incorrect lines and ideas.


Similar problems run through the second main point of Martin’s article – his advocacy of rapid organizational merger of groups in his trend on the basis of “ideological compatibility” and “unity in practice.” He portrays such organizational unity as being “propelled forward” by these two factors, as if merger in large part was already taking place. Let’s examine these two “criteria.”

Martin’s criterion of “Ideological compatibility”

Martin stresses the need for “ideological compatibility” in a communist organization, defined by him vaguely as a “general agreement of views on the stand, method and viewpoint of Marxism and on certain fundamental questions.” The certain fundamental “questions” he lists are things which the great majority of Marxist-Leninists in the U.S. (including those outside of his previously “defined” trend) would generally agree with. So this is not really the cutting edge. The key, then, is Martin’s idea of “stand, viewpoint, and method of Marxism” – but what is this? Martin does not say, but leaves it open to anyone’s interpretation.

In my view, this is gross subjectivism. Other than personal preference, what is the yardstick by which Martin decides what is ideologically “compatible” or “incompatible”? The nature of one’s ideology is determined only through the concrete manifestation of line and practice. There is no way to judge one’s ideology or method in the abstract. Martin’s vague use of “ideological compatibility” shows an actual disdain for concreteness and practice and obscures once again the issue of the real lines involved.

Such a subjective “criterion” itself cannot hold up, so Martin actually contradicts his own arguments in the same article. In one place he claims that “to expect a high degree of ideological unity as a precondition to organizational unity only holds back Marxist-Leninists from having maximum effect on the class and national struggles. Differences, major or minor, should not be covered over, but it should not be forgotten that a high degree of unity already exists.” But earlier, he had eliminated major groups in the communist movement from those he feels the CPML should focus on trying to unite with on the grounds that his own trend is so ideologically united on a high level that it warrants demarcation from other groups.

So which is it? Is there a high degree of ideological unity in the Marxist-Leninist movement or not? Is Martin saying a high level of unity already exists in his trend or is he saying that people should not expect “too high a level of unity”?

Is the criterion of “ideological compatibility” really a contrived rationale for excluding one or more groups that Martin by implication deems to be “incompatible” with his or other views prior to any serious attempt to actually debate the political issues?! In my view, it is.

Martin’s criterion of “unity in practice”

On the criterion of demonstrating unity in practice: Martin here identifies an obvious condition for Marxist-Leninist unity. It is generally acknowledged by most communist groups that to merge, political unity must be demonstrated not only in words, but in practice. I agree with this, and the experience of my own organization confirms it. In all of the mergers of organizations into the League, the groups involved conducted joint practical work in the context of carrying out principled discussions and struggle to unite on line. Such joint practical work enabled us to share experiences, and to deepen and add new dimensions to the unity being forged on politics.

What I disagree with is the method of conducting joint practice that subverts the democratic centralism of one or another group. An example is where joint organizational forms are established that bypass the democratic centralist process or structure of the organizations involved, or in more extreme cases where whole districts of two organizations are “merged” before there is an actual decision made through the democratic centralist channels of each group for the organizations to merge. Such methods may be justified under the banner of giving play to “rank and file” or “local” democracy, but actually they make a mockery out of the concept of democracy. Steps are taken to “merge” organizational bodies, units, districts, etc., before there is full democratic discussion and a decision to merge in the organization as a whole. Under the slogans of “unity in practice,” “bringing democracy into full play,” and “involving the cadres,” the democratic centralism of the entire organization is undermined.[1]

In summary, I believe that Martin’s call to build a trend on his terms of “ideological compatibility,” “anti-leftism,” a “to the masses” orientation and “unity in practice” is not a call to unify the Marxist-Leninist movement, but would lead to splitting it. In my view, the communist movement needs to struggle for clarity and a correct orientation. To take the path Martin proposes will lead to neither.


Martin makes the statement in his article that “a revolutionary orientation to the national question remains the first commandment of Marxist-Leninist unity.” On the national question, one of the foremost issues in the communist movement, Martin unfortunately promotes not a revolutionary orientation, but national chauvinism. His article belittles the role oppressed nationality Marxist-Leninists must play in the movement. That role cannot be restricted to the national question, but is vital and central to the overall U.S. revolutionary struggle.

Martin’s chauvinism is manifested in his paternalistic call for a “plan” to unite with “minority Marxist-Leninists.”

“Minority” Marxist-Leninists – or Marxist-Leninists of any color, sex, or background – do not need a special “plan” to be united with. Communists need a concrete line around which to unite and do not require any sort of arrangement, agreement or process other than that which it takes to forge a genuine communist organization united around a clear and definite line. “Minority” Marxist-Leninists are of course concerned about the national question, but the assumption that the national question is the main or even only question that minority communists are concerned about, or should be concerned about, does not give communists of the oppressed nationalities due respect.

This lack of respect is evidenced, too, in the attempt to dismiss or ignore wholesale the views of sizeable numbers of oppressed nationality Marxist-Leninists on the pressing questions confronting our movement.

Martin, for example, asserts that “one of the most serious left errors of the ’70’s was the tendency to liquidate the national question, viewing it merely as a workers question,” and makes no mention of right errors on the national question.

The League has raised in its publications that we believe both “left” opportunism and right opportunism have had a damaging impact on the revolutionary movement, including the national movements in the U.S. We have pointed out, for example, the ultra-leftism which predominated in the RU’s line on the national question in the RU’s latter period, but also the right opportunism that was more prevalent in the early RU history. This right opportunism and chauvinism led the RU to engage in such despicable activity as trying to smash the Red Guard Party in the Chinese American national movement, testifying in court against the Congress of Afrikan Peoples (CAP) and the Black Panther Party, and adopting an explicit policy of trying to smash CAP in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1970’s.

Not to even mention the existence of right opportunism on the national question, when so many oppressed nationality communists pointed this out, is to give the impression that one either condones those lines and activities, or considers them so petty they need no consideration at all.

I believe that Martin’s advocacy of dividing the Marxist-Leninist movement into two trends before it even begins a public exchange and debate over political line would lead to a splitting of the movement on unprincipled terms. Though Martin never names the “other” trend with which he is drawing a line over “ideological compatibility”, his vague references make it clear that he is casting the League into the “other camp.” Certainly, there are serious political differences in the communist movement, and the League has never made light of these. And, of course, we have made very clear we disagree with the view that ultra-leftism is the main danger. But we are not interested in dividing our movement on the basis of generalized phrases, innuendo, or vaguely and ill-defined trends. The communist movement needs to put aside sectarianism and chauvinism to carry out a frank and open airing of views.


The League has recently offered proposals and perspectives to several Marxist-Leninist organizations, including the CPML and RWH, on how to advance the struggle for Marxist-Leninist unity. I would like to sum marize the main outlines of our view and proposal here.

The developing economic and political conditions place tremendous responsibilities on the shoulders of U.S. Marxist-Leninists. We need to provide concrete answers as well as a comprehensive overview on the direction and path of our revolutionary struggle. We need to provide a clear and realistic alternative of struggle for the masses against the rightward direction in which society is heading.

It is clear, also, that there are now sharper political differences on political line than before, when Marxist-Leninist unity efforts first began among the presently existing groups. These differences have profound implications for the future of our revolutionary struggle.

The League believes that this situation calls not for a split, but rather for U.S. Marxist-Leninists to squarely confront the requirements of forging Marxist-Leninist unity in a principled and nonsectarian way. We believe that the central focus of Marxist-Leninist unity efforts must be the attempt to clarify the ideological and political questions and programmatic issues that face our movement. This effort should be undertaken in a way that as many Marxist-Leninist organizations can participate as possible, and as soon as possible.

We propose a broad public debate be coordinated among the Marxist-Leninist organizations and groups in the U.S. The debate should focus on the main ideological and political issues that need to be addressed and answered. The debate should be a nonsectarian one, addressing serious issues and not dwelling or nitpicking on unimportant ones.

We believe strongly that this debate must be public, conducted through the publication of written positions. Making it public is important to involve as many groups as possible. If groups or even individuals choose to participate, they can. The publishing of written, public positions is important to ensure that there is clarity on the various positions held, and so they can be distributed as widely as possible. This will help to prevent misunderstandings and also the situation where there are even fabrications, which in some cases exist now, about what agreements were or were not made in private.

We believe that the open, public debate of written positions is essential to lay a principled basis of relations among forces with like as well as differing views. Without focusing on politics and line, relations among forces can become affected by innuendo, past conflicts, unprincipled attacks and slanders or even misinformation and assumptions – all of which are unfortunately beginning to be seen again in the Marxist-Leninist movement.

A more thorough, genuine, sincere and democratic debate over politics is the key immediate task that should be organized to help clarify the situation and advance unity efforts in the communist movement. To retreat at this time behind closed doors or to stifle exchange among-communists would be a disservice to all honest Marxist-Leninists.

I also believe it would be destructive for certain groups to decide to “unite first” on vague and ill-defined terms before carrying out in earnest the public debate of views, and then “deal with” other groups later. In my opinion, this is the direction in which John Martin’s views point, if carried to their logical conclusion at this time in the present situation. It is not wrong for two groups to merge on clearly spelled out concrete political principles and line, but Martin advocates the opposite – building one trend against another trend on the basis of sectarian and ambiguous terms.

Our movement has witnessed such sectarian attempts to split Marxist-Leninists in the U.S. in the past, and they are damaging in both the short and long run. In 1972, the RU opposed the inclusion of the October League in the National Liaison Committee (NLC) on no principled basis whatsoever, saying that “these groups should get together first” and “deal with the OL later.” In the end, the RU’s sectarian and splittist methods applied to the groups inside the NLC as well.

The League’s proposal, the details of which can be discussed and further developed, can help direct the Marxist-Leninist movement on a more principled path and help rectify some of the sectarian attitudes and methods which presently exist. It is a proposal that correctly brings into focus the urgent need of our movement for forthright clarification and debate of views, and will help lay the foundations for principled Marxist-Leninist unity.


[1] The subversion of a communist organization’s democratic centralism and integrity under the banner of “joint practice” is reminiscent of the “democratic centralism of a new type” advocated and practiced by the Revolutionary Union (RU) in the early 1970s through the National Liaison Committee (NLC). Of the various “party-building” methods used by communist groups in the 1970’s, the NLC was one of the most destructive, especially in its institution of “democratic centralism of a new type.” The NLC has been inadequately summarized by some to this day, and in light of the current debate on the path and method to Marxist-Leninist unification, it is important to bring out its negative methods and impact.

The NLC was conceived and initiated by the RU in 1972, its stated purpose being to promote liaison discussions and relations among the participating groups. In 1972, the Black Workers Congress (BWC), Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO), I Wor Kuen (IWK) and the Revolutionary Union (RU) joined.

The RU in the early 1970’s opposed the position that party building was the central task of Marxist-Leninists, holding instead that “building the consciousness, unity and struggle of the working class” was the central task. But while denying party building as the central task, the RU did not refrain from pushing its own party-building schemes. It used the NLC to objectively weaken, wreck and split other groups.

The RU used the slogan “build the consciousness, unity and struggle of the working class” to create an image that it was mainly concerned with “practice,” “mass work” and “fusion.” When it conducted relations with other Marxist-Leninist organizations, it presented itself as the great advocate of “joint practice,” “involving the cadres,” and so forth. But this was actually an excuse for the RU’s refusal to carry out principled discussion and exchange over political questions in favor of implementing their policy of “merge ’em or smash ’em” (a policy they hid for awhile, but later brazenly admitted). The RU never seriously engaged in discussions of line with other groups, but persisted in its own line.

The RU, through the NLC, took advantage of contradictions and problems inside other organizations to factionalize and promote splits. It is clear that the BWC and PRRWO had their own internal problems and contradictions, but the RU served to aggravate them.

Under the guise of being “broad-minded,” and “subordinating individual organizations to what was coming into being,” the RU won over the representatives of both PRRWO and BWC to the idea that the NLC should function on the so-called principle of “democratic centralism of a new type.” The RU had claimed that they were the most “creative,” somehow anointed by history as the most farsighted and the most receptive to new conditions which called for new theories – from “nations of a new type,’’ to “democratic centralism of a new type.”

This “democratic centralism of a new type” meant that the NLC would establish “joint work-teams,” “joint commissions,” “district level local liaison committees” up to the national “liaison committee.” These groups functioned outside the context of the democratic centralism of each individual organization. This was supposed to “liberate” the cadres from the “stultifying” democratic centralism of their organizations. But this kind of policy actually enabled the RU to undermine the functioning of PRRWO and BWC.

In the case of PRRWO, it was subordinated not to “what was coming into being,” or from their own “stultifying democratic centralism,” but to the RU. PRRWO and BWC representatives showed internal documents to the RU when these papers were not even available to those organization’s own leading bodies, let alone cadres. PRRWO and BWC files were opened to the RU when even the cadres of PRRWO and BWC were not able to examine these papers or even know of the existence of these “internal documents.” Certain “local liaison bodies” functioned as if the districts were merged. The representatives revealed membership lists, complete internal information, and overrode the decision-making processes of the individual groups, while even the membership never knew what was taking place. In fact, the RU leadership knew more about PRRWO and BWC than most of the cadres of those organizations. In this way, the democratic centralism and integrity of entire organizations were flagrantly violated, and over a period of time the impact was devastating.

The negative lessons of the NLC are pertinent today as the Marxist-Leninist movement grapples with the question of how to forge principled unity.