Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Max Elbaum

Maoism in the United States

First Published: Encyclopedia of the American Left, Second Edition, 1998
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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For a few brief years during the 1970s, advocates of the type of Marxism-Leninism promoted by the Chinese Communist Party constituted the largest and most dynamic trend on the U.S. socialist left. This self-described “New Communist Movement” (the term “Maoism” was then frowned upon) was overwhelmingly a creation of young people radicalized in the tumultuous 1960s. At its height, U.S. Maoism could claim a core of roughly 10,000 activists devoted to its mission of constructing a new, “genuinely revolutionary” vanguard party to supplant the Communist Party USA and other allegedly reformist groups of the Old or New Left.

U.S. partisans of “Mao Tse Tung Thought” were never able to unite into a single Maoist party. But the largest radical newspaper of the time, the 20,000-plus circulation Guardian, was a proponent of New Communist goals from 1971 to the end of the decade. Additionally, the various Maoist cadre organizations (which ranged in size from a few dozen to more than 1,000 members) produced dozens of other newspapers, journals, books and pamphlets which reached thousands beyond the Maoist ranks. The New Communist Movement was the most racially diverse sector of the U.S. left with the highest proportion (25-30% or more) of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and Asian Americans in its leadership and membership ranks. Several thousand New Communist activists rooted themselves in industrial jobs and working class communities, and some played central roles in local and even occasional nationwide struggles. These included support for major strikes, such as the May 1972-February 1974 walkout in Texas and New Mexico by 4,000 mainly Chicana women at Farah Co. (then the largest U.S. manufacturer of men’s and boy’s pants); and mass mobilizations against the initial high court decisions rolling back affirmative action (Bakke vs. Univ of California, 1977-78).

Beginning in the late 1970s – as the Chinese party ever more openly abandoned its earlier advocacy of anti-imperialism and social revolution – the Maoist trend began to disintegrate almost as rapidly as it arose. For a time, the depth of Maoism’s crisis was obscured by the energy of a few “second wave” efforts at party building, which generally avoided the extreme ultra-left tactics and over-inflated rhetoric that characterized Maoism’s early days. But these late-’70s initiatives never attained the size or influence of their predecessors. To the contrary, the always-contentious relationships among the different Maoist groups became even worse. The largest organizations experienced splits and large-scale membership losses if not total collapse. Maoism’s (and China’s) prestige on the broader Left plummeted. By the middle of the 1980s Maoism as a viable trend had disappeared, although various small organizations espousing offshoots of Maoist ideology continued to exist on the fringes of the U.S. Left.


The immediate impetus for the rise of U.S. Maoism was the large-scale radicalization that took place in the late 1960s. The pivotal year was 1968, which saw the Vietnamese Tet offensive; the French May and the Czech August; the assassination of Martin Luther King and subsequent rebellions in black communities across the U.S.; and the forced withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson from the presidential race only to see the Democratic Party nominate Hubert Humphrey as police battered demonstrators in the streets of Chicago. Thousands of young people decided that “the system” could not be reformed and that social revolution in the United States was necessary, desirable, possible and even just around the historical corner. They then set out to discover an ideology, strategy and organization that could bring that revolution about.

This new generation of aspiring revolutionaries immediately encountered the outlook of the Chinese Communist Party at the height of its international prestige. As a variant of Marxism, Maoism offered a systemic analysis linking interventionist war and domestic injustice to the economic imperatives of monopoly capitalism. It presented itself as the prime example and main champion of the Third World national liberation movements which were “shaking the empire.” China’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (more accurately, the claims made for it) seemed to offer a more militant and democratic version of socialism than that of the Soviet Union.

Maoism also stressed the pivotal role of the working class at just the moment when a round of militancy was stirring among U.S. workers, and activists leaving the campuses were chafing at the limits of student and youth politics. More worker-hours were spent on strike in 1970 than in any year since 1952. The powerful in-plant resistance of African American auto workers in Detroit centered by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers appeared to prove the Maoist thesis that the most explosive social fuel for revolution lay at the intersection of class exploitation and racial oppression. And the militancy of young, mostly white workers in the nationally publicized Lordstown, Ohio strike indicated the possibility of radicalism spreading to a sector that had been shunned by most of the New Left.

Maoism’s advocacy of a disciplined, secretive party also spoke to the frustrations many felt with the chaotic functioning of most New Left formations – as well as to the growing concerns they had about building organizations capable of resisting infiltration and repression. Maoism defended extra-legal tactics, armed self-defense and preparation for military struggle in a way that appealed to those who had directly experienced the massive state violence of the late ’60s; this contrasted sharply with the far more cautious perspectives of Old Left groups. Finally, during its formative period Maoism did not appear to be an ideology distinct from or in competition with broader currents of revolutionary thought, especially the views of the Vietnamese and Cuban Communist Parties and the liberation movements in southern Africa and the Middle East. Thus U.S. Maoism took shape only partly as an orthodox expression of Chinese doctrine: other versions of Marxism-Leninism which gave major emphasis to the struggles of Third World peoples abroad and communities of color at home were also part of the mix.


Though Maoist ideas rapidly gained influence, the Maoist organization directly descended from the Old Left isolated itself badly. The Progressive Labor Party (PL) had been formed in 1962 by a break-away faction of the CPUSA which sympathized with the Chinese when the Sino-Soviet dispute burst open in 1960-61. PL (publishers of Challenge newspaper) sent its cadre into SDS in February 1966 where they played a prominent and controversial role, centering one of the two main factions in SDS’ June 1969 split and collapse. But by that time PL was moving away from mainstream Maoist positions to sharply attack the Vietnamese communists for “selling out” and the Black Panther Party for ”anti-working class nationalism.” These positions alienated the vast bulk of young radicals. So, instead of joining PL (which retreated to its own idiosyncratic brand of Marxism), they began to create new organizations.

This process took shape within a broad left milieu sympathetic to China and “Chairman Mao.” The Black Panther Party, for example, was never a specifically Maoist group, but its members sold Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The prestigious independent socialist magazine Monthly Review also portrayed Maoism in a very favorable light. Within this supportive climate, a layer of activists determined to construct a U.S. Maoist party began to coalesce into study circles and study-action collectives. Between 1968 and 1972 dozens of these were formed by (overwhelmingly white) activists coming out of SDS, especially from the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction which had opposed both PL and the Weatherman group. Similar groups were forged by activists who had spearheaded the Puerto Rican, Chicano, Asian American and African American youth movements. (This racial divide in the New Communist Movement’s origins was never fully overcome; while some organizations and circles became genuinely multi-racial, others developed as overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly people of color in composition.) A small number of older ex-members of the CPUSA, or of PL, took part in the process; and in a few cities (Detroit being the most important) there was a turn toward Maoism on the part of newly radicalized young workers, especially black workers. Informal links steadily developed between many of these circles and individuals. The Guardian took on the role of a movement-wide forum for news, communication and debate. Gradually, nationwide democratic-centralist groups (“pre-party formations”) began to emerge.

A consensus on the political “lines of demarcation” defining the New Communist Movement was soon built: advocacy of violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat; rejection of the Soviet and U.S. Communist Parties for alleged “revisionism” (discarding the revolutionary principles of Marxism-Leninism); defense of Stalin as a great revolutionary and belief that after Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin in 1956 the Soviet Union had moved toward restoration of capitalism and become an anti-revolutionary force. Domestically, the Maoist current saw the key to the U.S. revolution as forging an alliance between the “multinational working class” and the “oppressed nationalities.” Maoism held that the struggles of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Asian Americans and Native Americans had an independent, cross-class revolutionary dynamic and generally characterized them as oppressed nations struggling for self-determination. Supposedly the “spontaneous movements” of workers and oppressed nationalities were growing rapidly in size and militancy; the crucial need was for a disciplined Bolshevik-style vanguard with the correct political line to provide adequate leadership: hence “Party Building Is Our Central Task.” With a few exceptions, Maoist groups had an unfriendly attitude toward the rapidly growing women’s liberation movement (dismissing it as petty bourgeois) and were intensely hostile to homosexuality and the emerging lesbian/gay rights movement. The New Communists also saw themselves in bitter competition with all other trends on the socialist left and – while sometimes proclaiming the need for united fronts – usually adopted a combative posture toward progressive reformers in the mass movements.

The largest Maoist groups in the early ’70s were the Revolutionary Union (RU) and the October League (OL) – both of which emerged mainly out of SDS – and the Communist League – formed when some former SDSers joined with a core of activists who had left the CPUSA after defending Stalin in 1956-58. The RU was founded as the Bay Area Revolutionary Union in 1968, grew into a nationwide organization in 1970-71 and declared itself the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in September 1975. It published Revolution newspaper (later the Revolutionary Worker) and at its height included upwards of 1,000 members. The OL was formed in 1972 through the merger of local collectives in Atlanta and Los Angeles, grew to almost 1,000 members (about one-third activists of color, a greater percentage than RU and more typical of the “multinational” New Communist organizations – those that did not focus on a specific oppressed minority). OL published The Call newspaper, and proclaimed itself the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) in June 1977. A third group, the Communist League – unusual in that it had stronger roots in pre-1956 Stalinism than in post-1968 Maoism – made its biggest impact when it recruited a large number of activists from Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1971. Somewhat smaller than RU and OL, CL declared itself the Communist Labor Party of North America in September 1974; it published the People’s Tribune.

Other groups formed in this period (some of which, in various combinations, became more prominent during New Communism’s second wave) included: I Wor Kuen, formed as a nationwide organization by a 1971 merger of New York and San Francisco collectives of Asian American youth; the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, formed by the section of the Young Lords Party which turned to Maoism in 1971-72; the Black Workers Congress (BWC), an outgrowth of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which for a time after its 1971 founding congress existed as a loose national “mass/cadre” hybrid and, after a series of internal battles, consolidated as a small Maoist group in 1972-73; the August Twenty-Ninth Movement, which grew out of a section of the Chicano movement in the Southwest and held its “Unity Congress” in 1974; the Revolutionary Communist League, whose roots lay first in the Committee for a Unified Newark and then the Congress of Afrikan Peoples, which was active in several of the key expressions of the early-’70s Black Liberation Movement such as the National Black Assembly and the African Liberation Support Committee; the Workers Viewpoint Organization, initiated by ex-PL members as the Asian Study Group in 1973 and becoming the Communist Workers Party in 1979; the Marxist-Leninist-led Union of Democratic Filipinos, which anchored U.S. solidarity work with the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines; and the Central Organization of U.S. Marxist-Leninists, which later became the pro-Albania Marxist-Leninist Party. The Chicago-based Sojourner Truth Organization and the loose “Midwest Federation” of collectives which it led also functioned within the New Communist milieu, although its unorthodox brand of Marxism owed more to influences from the Italian extra-parliamentary left (among others) than to Maoism.

The height of optimism about uniting Maoism’s different strands into a single party came in 1973. That spring, spokespeople for almost all of the major Maoist groups participated in a series of forums sponsored by the Guardian. The biggest, entitled “What Road to Building a New Communist Party?” drew 1,200 to a New York City auditorium, and the tape and transcript were heard and read by thousands more across the country.


But it was downhill from there. Capitalism was proving far more resilient than the radicals of the late 1960s had believed and expectations of imminent revolutionary upheavals were rapidly receding. The 1974 recession led to a decline rather than rise in worker militancy, affecting not just Maoism but all trends on the far Left. The mass movements from the 1960s in which Maoism had first found a base – the student, antiwar and Black Liberation Movements especially – were ebbing; meanwhile the currents on the rise – the women’s, lesbian/gay and anti-nuclear movements – were far less hospitable to Maoist views. Rival trends on the U.S. Left – in particular, a social democracy re-energized by the emergence of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the launching of In These Times newspaper in 1976 – began to give Maoism serious competition. Entrenched problems of sectarianism, doctrinaire orthodoxy and anti-democratic practices began to sap membership morale and repel potential supporters.

Simultaneously, the policies of the Chinese CP began to put U.S. Maoists in a serious bind. In 1974 the Chinese unveiled their “Theory of the Three Worlds” as a justification for alliances with reactionary governments in the Third World, conservative European politicians and even the U.S. military against the Soviet Union, which the Chinese began to describe as the more dangerous of the “two superpowers.” Maoism’s initial attraction to 1960s activists was largely that it seemed more militantly anti-U.S. imperialist than the Soviet Union; now the Chinese Party was cozying up to Washington, calling for a stronger NATO, attacking Cuba as a Soviet puppet; and distancing itself from the most vibrant national liberation movements in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America because they received Soviet support.

Until the final end of the Vietnam War in spring 1975, the consequences of China’s new posture remained somewhat muted. But matters came to a head just a year later when conflict broke out in Angola following the successful conclusion of that country’s long battle against Portuguese colonial rule. China sided with South African and CIA-backed mercenary armies against the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola – which had led the anti-colonial struggle – because the MPLA was backed by Cuba and the USSR. U.S. Maoism was faced with a choice between following Beijing or sticking to its anti-imperialist roots, and the result was a bitter rupture: most of the largest organizations backed China, while the Guardian, the CLP, dozens of smaller circles and most of Maoism’s periphery supported the MPLA.

While this split was still raw, Chinese internal politics exploded. Mao died and the winners in Beijing’s subsequent power struggle arrested his closest allies (the “Gang of Four”). They quickly reversed the policies of the Cultural Revolution and embarked upon even greater cooperation with the U.S. Shortly thereafter, China’s closest ally, Albania, denounced Maoism; China’s protégés in southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge, were exposed as genocidal killers and overthrown by a Cambodian faction backed by the Vietnamese (1979); China then launched an unsuccessful invasion of Vietnam.

All this left Maoism in shambles. Some Maoist groups (OL, for example) proclaimed loyalty to whatever faction held power in Beijing. Others decided to hold up the banner of the ousted Gang of Four (RCP, which lost 40% of its members to the breakaway Revolutionary Workers Headquarters in the process) or the Albanian Communists (the MLP and a split-off from the BWC called the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee, later the Communist Party USA-ML). This unraveling process took a few years to unfold, however, and when it began some of the weaker forces from Maoism’s first phase believed they could build a party that avoided the blind loyalty to Beijing and infantile left posturing that they hypothesized had wrecked the initial Maoist efforts.

These new initiatives were both smaller and more politically diverse than those earlier in the decade. At one pole were those circles who had broken most sharply with China’s policies in the controversy over Angola: they formed a loose “anti-dogmatist and anti-revisionist trend” which included the Guardian, a network of local collectives calling itself the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center, the Union of Democratic Filipinos and sets of activists grouped around the new journals Theoretical Review and Line of March. A round of internal battles in 1977-82 produced the roughly 400-member Line of March group, which published Frontline newspaper and steadily moved close to Soviet positions in world politics, eventually defining itself as “anti-Maoist”; other activists and circles from this trend joined Line of March or abandoned the party building project. At the other end of the spectrum was the League of Revolutionary Struggle, formed in 1978 by a merger of I Wor Kuen and the August Twenty-Ninth Movement, with the Revolutionary Communist League joining a year later. LRS, publishers of Unity newspaper and somewhat larger than the Line of March, stuck close to the official positions of the Chinese Communist Party until the Tien An Men Square massacre in 1989. The other group to attain significant size in these years was the eclectic Communist Workers Party, which gained national attention after five of its members and supporters were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen at a demonstration in Greensboro, North Carolina in November 1979. Smaller organizations that attained a measure of influence during the late 1970s and early ’80s included the Boston-based Proletarian Unity League, which promoted the notion of a purified Maoism free of infantile left tactics; and the California-centered Democratic Workers Party, which advocated an unorthodox strain of communism (“world systems theory”) and was notorious for its cult-like functioning even in a movement hardly known for democracy or openness.

A few of these organizations remained vibrant into the 1980s and played significant roles in the Central America solidarity movement, Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, and the Rainbow Coalition. But by this time they were a disparate set of competing parties rather than any kind of identifiable trend. And even these were shattered by the profound crisis which overtook every section of world communism beginning in the mid-1980s. CWP transformed itself into the non-Leninist New Democratic Movement in 1984 and then disintegrated altogether; Line of March officially disbanded in 1989 and the League of Revolutionary Struggle in 1990; the OL/CP (ML) and most of the other groups from Maoism’s first wave had collapsed earlier in the 1980s.

Today only a few organizational remnants of 1970s Maoism survive – and these are either tiny or unrecognizable as Maoist or both. The RCP and the Maoist Internationalist Movement (the only two groups which would admit to the Maoist label), as well as PL, exist as minuscule sects totally isolated from the rest of the Left. The small Freedom Road Socialist Organization (formed via a merger of the Proletarian Unity League and a shrunken Revolutionary Workers Headquarters) carries on without any regular press or public presence. The bigger and more active League of Revolutionaries for a New America can trace its roots to the now-disbanded CLP but today it is neither explicitly Marxist-Leninist nor a political party.

Far more numerous are the thousands of individuals who passed through New Communism and now play influential roles in various social movements, especially in the trade unions and in communities of color. But the diverse lessons they have drawn from their Maoist experience do not add up to a coherent set of politics. By the late 1990s, it seemed that the popular 1970s Maoist prediction, “The Future Is Bright, The Road Is Tortuous” had proven only half correct – and not the inspiring half that once infused U.S. Maoism with tremendous self-confidence and revolutionary zeal.