Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Trinkl

Not the time for a Leninist party?

Third of three articles

First Published: Guardian, September 11, 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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“People are kind of reeling from their experiences in the 1970s,” remarks Bruce Bodner. He is a former member of the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee, one of the leading groups involved in the attempts to build a new Marxist-Leninist party in the 1970s and early 1980s. Bodner says many who went through that period are “trying to find some avenue of expression for their politics. They’re sort of waiting and hoping that something will happen. There are thousands of them.”

When the mass left upsurge of the 1960s and early 1970s died out, the party-building movement had little base to sustain itself. Some succumbed to the “Big Chill” factor, pursuing their careers rather than radical politics–seeing the two as totally contradictory. But countless others, while lowering their expectations, maintained their goals. “Socialism is still the ultimate solution to many of this society’s problems,”’ Bodner argues.

Activists who took part in the party-building period hold a wide range of views on its lessons for today. The dominant theme expressed in interviews is that ultimately some kind of party is still needed. However, most interviewed now think that a Leninist party as it was understood by 1970s activists is not appropriate for current U.S. conditions.

Charles Kaften, who was involved with the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center, a party-building network, argues that “talk about party building is anachronistic.” The Communist Workers Party recently dissolved itself as a Marxist-Leninist party and is forming a new mass organization.

Others, however, uphold party building as a task and the classic Leninist party as a goal in much the same way as in the 1970s. Max Elbaum, a leader of Line of March (LOM). stresses that “what’s needed is a more orthodox Leninism.”

“We have to have some way of talking to each other about developing some kind of strategy,” says Marxist historian Dan Cohen “Some kind of organization–whether it’s called a party or not–that helps coordinate struggles will be necessary.”

At the same time, there is widespread agreement that the particular conception of the Leninist party activists had in the 1970s was not suited to current U.S. conditions. “In the 1970s people tried to follow the model of the party put forward by the Third International,” comments Chicago area activist Mel Rothenberg.

“In most of the advanced capitalist countries it didn’t work.”

“There is no basis within the U.S. working class right now for a vanguard Leninist organization,” Rothenberg continues. “To have an authentic vanguard, a party must actually represent the most advanced elements of the working class who are looking for revolutionary solutions. We’ll have to settle for something short of that until other developments occur .... There’s no way right now a party can genuinely represent the most advanced positions on a number of different fronts.”

Steve Hamilton of the North Star Network, a loose grouping of socialists, cites the historical model that was held up by the party-building movement. ”In Russia there was a strong revolutionary tradition that they were able to build on. A lot of groundwork had been laid before they began to think they could lay out the correct line and build the party.” David Finkel of the International Socialists, whose perspective comes out of the Trotskyist movement, argues that “the Bolshevik model of the party has one purpose and one purpose only: to organize and lead the working class to power. Here the working class struggle for state power is not on the agenda; it’s not even on the horizon.”


Polly Parks, once associated with the magazine Theoretical Review, maintains, “I don’t think there is such a thing as the Leninist party.” She argues that activists in the party-building movement were fixated only on “the nature of how the Bolsheviks operated in a revolutionary situation in Russia.” Val Moghadam, a former leader in the Iranian Students Association, adds, “People did a selective, one-sided and superficial reading of Lenin’s work. Certain texts were picked up on. They were seized as absolute truth and not looked at in their historical development.” She states that “What Is To Be Done?”–the bible of the party-building movement–“wasn’t seen as a specific conjectural work” advocating a particular form of organization for a specific situation.

What kind of organization or formation is needed then? “It will have to be open to a variety of points of view,” says Bill Fletcher of the Proletarian Unity League (PUL), adding that it is likely there will be “a number of parties and organizations that may eventually group themselves together in some kind of front.” Rothenberg agrees with both of these points, saying that some future grouping “may not be homogeneous and a lot of time will be spent in internal struggle rather than acting as a monolithic bloc. But that’s a price we’ll have to pay.” In Nicaragua, he notes, “a socialist revolution is surviving without a vanguard party in the Leninist sense. Maybe that’s the sort of thing we have to learn from.”

Most do not think a new organization of Socialists could or should be formed in the near future. “That’s a confusing party formation with party building,” says Fletcher. Parks argues for aiming to build up “networks that would facilitate systematic communication.”

Even though many of those interviewed no longer see the Bolshevik party as an appropriate model for the U.S., they still consider themselves Leninists. “We shouldn’t throw out Leninism.” Rothenberg argues, adding, “We still need to see imperialism as an international system, to struggle against reformism and to put forth revolutionary alternatives.” “I still consider myself a Marxist-Leninist,” Parks adds, “but not in the same sort of framework as before.”

Concretely, what are the tasks for socialists today? William Gallegos of the League of Revolutionary Struggle stakes out an orthodox position on party building. He writes that the development of a revolutionary line, integration with the working class and the uniting of Marxist-Leninists into a single organization are three key tasks.

Detroit activist Jim Jacobs dismisses this kind of view as “a mechanical view of party building. You can’t build a party in the absence of a mass movement with a strong socialist component. “The immediate task is to build a mass socialist movement,” he says. Journalist Phil Hill adds that a lesson from Germany’s Greens is that “we need to start with the issues that actually exist and address them. We ought to be issue-oriented rather than ideology-oriented.”

Mel Rothenberg stresses the importance of theoretical journals broad enough to attract independent Marxists and also argues for organizing discussions and perhaps caucuses in various professions and trades where possible. “We need something more than working in the solidarity movements but short of forming a party,” he says.

“This is a period of re-evaluation and of exchanges among different Marxist tendencies,” says Fletcher. “We have a lot to learn from other tendencies.” Steve Hamilton voices similar sentiments: “A lot of the old divisions have broken down and are largely irrelevant to what many activists have been involved in. We can disregard some of those differences.” Marxist historian Paul Buhle sums up this process: “After the experience of the 1970s a lot of Marxist-Leninists found out they were not so different from non-Marxist-Leninists as they thought they were going to be. If there’s not going to be a revolution tomorrow, what do you actually do and how do you look at what’s happening in U.S. society?”


Rather than a homogeneous set of Marxist-Leninists, a number of activists interviewed feel the basis for future revolutionary organizations might be some combination of activists including: those from the “Maoist” party-building movement; independent Marxists; activists from the Trotskyist movement who have rejected their dogmatic heritage: the left wing of some of the existing socialist organizations and especially people who went through none of these experiences but are heavily involved in the mass movements.

Dan Cohen puts the future of party building into a historical perspective: “The Socialist Party, the Communist Party and even the new communist movement were each in part a result of pressure from mass movements: they didn’t just come out of people’s heads. The natural conditions of struggle will constantly force us back to party building in the broad sense whether we want it or not.