Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Trinkl

Amid partybuilding’s ruins: What went wrong?

Second of three articles

First Published: Guardian, September 4, 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Beaten armies get a good schooling. Frederick Engels

“Embittered by having political commitment and personal sacrifice ground up by the mill of bureaucratic practices, dogmatic politics and sectarian and chauvinist attitudes, many of the left’s most experienced activists are exceptionally leery of all new organizational initiatives, if not of the internal life of the left altogether.” Thus one Boston observer sums up the feelings of many of the thousands of activists who devoted so much of their political lives to the movement to build a new Marxist-Leninist party.

Born in the late 1960s, by the early 1980s the movement had all but died. Scores of revolutionary organizations were launched with high hopes. Most soon sank or found a snug ideological harbor safe from U.S. realities. What is to be learned from this period? What went wrong?

Interviews with some 20 participants or observers of this movement and sum-ups written by a number of groups provide no easy answers to these questions, but the broad outlines of some of the factors can be discerned. A third article will discuss some of the views of Marxists-Leninists and others about what is to be done today.

The student background and sheer youth of much of the party-building movement was one factor in its lack of stability. It had no real background in socialist practice.

“What experience did we have really? We had the experience of the things we went through in the 1960s, an experience of having become revolutionaries in a period of upsurge and upheaval, and involvement in the youth movement that gave a certain one-sidedness to our experience,” notes Carl Davidson. A leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, Davidson became a key figure in the strongly pro-China October League and its successor, the Communist Party (M-L). “When the 1970s happened and we had a period of ebb, we really lacked the maturity to be able to deal with it and clung to one-sided conceptions that had developed in a different period.”


Many activists were inspired by China, and “Maoism” became the strongest ideological current in this upsurge. This had positive aspects–thousands of activists were won to Marxism by studying Mao’s writings. Struggles in the third world were seen as central and the anti-bureaucratic perspective meshed with the rebellious mood of the times.

But there were negative consequences as well. “There is an idealist tendency in Maoism–particularly the wav it was interpreted here,” argues Marxist historian Dan Cohen. Many activists came to believe that “if you want to do something, you can do it without considering the necessary material conditions. If you get the right line, somehow you can do whatever you want,” says Cohen. In addition, some groups soon followed every position of China uncritically, whether or not it was appropriate to U.S. realities.

The movement defined itself as “anti-revisionist.” meaning if opposed what it saw as the reformism and conservatism of both the Communist Party USA and the Soviet Union. The rejection of revisionism was sufficient to launch a movement for revolutionary politics, but this alone proved unable to sustain the movement. “The self-definition of our movement as antirevisionist put us in an oppositional framework; we said what we were opposed to but not so much about what we were for,’’ says Bill Fletcher, a Black activist with the Proletarian Unity League, a small Marxist-Leninist organization based in several cities.

There was a misassessment of the period, an erroneous analysis of the capitalist crisis. A crisis did occur in the mid-1970s. But many on the left still did not realize that, although crises are inevitable, the system might be able to restructure itself and lay the foundation for a new period of growth. Economic crisis did not automatically imply revolutionary crisis.

The overall ultra-leftism which infected the movement led to excessive optimism. “We believed that tens of thousands of advanced workers were standing on our doorsteps,” says Davidson. “A lot of people believed you just had to pass out the right leaflet at the plant gate,” says Charles Kaften, who was involved in the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC), a network of “anti-revisionist, anti-dogmatist” party-building groups. “It was a very idealist, non-materialist approach to how people think and how to change the way people think. It was assumed people have the ’seeds of socialism’ within them.”

Bruce Bodner who was a member of the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC), the leading group in the OCIC, noted. “There was a lot of frustration in the organization at the slow progress made in carrying out our party-building line in the working class.” This frustration led the leadership of both PWOC and the OCIC to blame individual members for the failure to attract workers, particularly Black workers. This led to an orgy of recriminations which destroyed both organizations.

But the failure to attract working-class members in any significant numbers was wide-spread. The International Socialists (IS) which came out of the Trotskyist tradition also had set party building as its main task, but was also having the same problem. David Finkel of IS remembers, “We expected that in a few years our organization could have a substantial leadership of working people. But the depth of radicalization was not what we or anybody expected.” The Socialist Workers Party’s “turn toward industry” during this period encountered similar difficulties.

The party-building movement was critically hindered by its poverty of theory. Many people’s Marxism was learned from the Chinese Cultural Revolution and ill-digested chunks of Lenin’s writings. Concerning the kind of party so many were striving to build, Chicago activist Mel Rothenberg writes, “The major efforts . . . simply took the self-description of the Communist Party of China, added a few slogans from Mao and Stalin, added the practical experiences of their older cadre from the CPUSA . . . and projected this stew as the party they were going to build.”

There was a split between theoretical development and practice. “Marxist theoretical development was largely isolated in the academy away from what was going on; activists weren’t developing theory,” notes Dan Cohen. But there were problems even in those party-building groups that did concentrate on theory, such as the group that published Theoretical Review (TR). TR’s “primacy of theory” position “had no practical application,” says former TR member Polly Parks. “They weren’t willing to take seriously what the theory meant in practice.”


Line of March (LOM) also conducted theoretical work, which it characterized as the “rectification of the line of the communist movement.” LOM strongly criticized “Maoism” and the LOM journal regularly cited “the disarray in the Maoist trend.” Max Elbaum of LOM says that “when Mao was discredited, people who clung to a Maoist perspective were unprepared and unable to find their bearings.” But PUL’s Fletcher argues that the problem was much broader. “LOM wants to blame Maoism, but the problem is a problem of Marxism that faces every Marxist trend,” he says, citing the orthodox communist parties in advanced capitalist countries, Eurocommunism, social democracy and independent Marxist groups such as Italy’s Il Manifesto. “Blaming Maoism–or Leninism as some are doing–is superficial and doesn’t get at what’s going on. It has to do with what road to power do you take in advanced capitalist countries.”

The party-building movement got to take very few steps, along that road. An overall ultra-leftism led to dogmatism and sectarianism in practice. Harmful contradictions emerged between the party-building movement and the “new social movements,” particularly the women’s movement, between party building and the working class, and between the leadership and membership of party-building organizations and parties.

With few exceptions, pre-party and party groups had little real leadership of mass struggles. ̶The mass movements didn’t play any major role in party building,” says Jim Jacobs, who was active in the OCIC and a local group in the Detroit area. “In Russia of Lenin’s time the leaders of mass struggles were important in building the Communist Party. But the U.S. party-building movement had almost no leaders of strikes, community leaders or major figures.”

The relationship to the movements that did exist, the women’s movement, the antinuclear power movement, the ecology movement, the gay and lesbian movement and others often was “abysmal” and “disastrous,” according to those interviewed. Concerning the women’s movement, Polly Parks says, “The Marxist-Leninist left didn’t come up with a vanguard position on anything. At best we trailed and sometimes we were reactionary.” Dan Cohen cites “the racial division in the left itself” as a key problem most Marxist-Leninist forces never overcame. Charles Kaften criticizes “the superior ’revolutionary’ attitude of ’we’re the proletarian leaders’” toward the new mass movements, rather than trying to understand in a deeper way what role such movements could play in a common struggle.

Relationships of leaders to members were often marred by a lack of democracy. Groups as diverse as t0he OCIC, TR and the Puerto Rican group MINP-El Comite, were wracked with this problem. Parks described her experience in one organization as “12 wise men sitting in a room and telling the masses what they should do.”

Was the entire effort wasted? Those interviewed said no, citing the number of Marxist-Leninists and Marxists who were educated in the movement, the organizing experience gained, the strengthening of an internationalist perspective and the laying of some of the groundwork for today’s struggles.

“We have things to criticize ourselves for,” concludes Parks, “but I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed of. It’s still better to have tried.”