Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

What Went Wrong?

Articles and letters on the U.S. communist Left in the 1970’s

Edited and introduced by Charles Sarkis

Section I: Introduction

This section brings together articles and letters that belong to a debate over the crisis of the US communist Left. A part of this larger debate, the papers here were exchanged between the Proletarian Unity League (PUL) and the Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist (CPML). Throughout the latter half of the 1970s, the Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist was the most prominent representative of the communist groups to the left of the Communist Party USA.

In July of 1979, the Call newspaper carried a report by Carl Davidson on a struggle within the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC), the best organized section of the so-called “anti-revisionist, anti-dogmatist” tendency on the Left. The Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee and the Proletarian Unity League constituted the two poles in that struggle: the former exercised leadership on the OCIC Steering Committee; the PUL did not belong to the OCIC. The first PUL letter found here replied to Carl Davidson’s article, and Davidson in turn responded to that letter in his “Fight on Two Fronts” (The Call, October 15, 1979). Among other things, Davidson disagreed with the importance the PUL assigned to ultra-leftism in explaining the crisis of the US communist Left. A short time later, Call editor Dan Burstein attempted to summarize what the 1970s had meant for Marxist-Leninists in this country (“Communist Movement in the 1970s: Strengths and Weaknesses”). Already Burstein gave a much stronger emphasis to the damage brought on by ultra-leftism than Davidson’s article did.

The PUL article, “Moving On: Facts from the ’70s, Lessons for the ’80s,” then used the second Davidson article and the Burstein piece as a starting point to assess what communists had and had not accomplished, had and had not learned, from the past decade. Dated February 20, 1980, “Moving On...” first circulated separately and then was published by the CPML in their journal Class Struggle (Summer 1980).

Three months after “Moving On...” began to circulate, the Call published an article by CPML chairperson Michael Klonsky entitled “A Look at First Three Years of CPML” (June 9, 1980) and a two-part series by Central Committee member Charles Costigan on the CPML’s labor work (June 9 and 16). (The Costigan article also appears in the Class Struggle of Summer 1980, and the Klonsky article has been widely distributed in mimeographed form, so neither has been republished here.) Where Carl Davidson had argued back in October that

In the early 1970s, I believe “leftism” was the main problem but that this shifted in the mid-1970s with the emergence of a strong centrist trend which pushed a line of capitulation to Soviet revisionism. At present, I think both right and “left” deviations pose serious problems.

Klonsky now said, “The main criticism and self-criticism that is being voiced is against ultra-’leftism’ and doctrinaire thinking which has severely hindered the progress of the revolutionary movement in the US.” Klonsky still maintained that, “The CPML has moved rapidly forward since 1977, in getting the Party planted firmly on its feet.” And he became vague on crucial issues: “in a certain sense [the CPML] has veered off to the ’left’ in its effort to play its leading role in the class struggle.” Klonsky failed to explain in exactly what sense this was true or, more to the point, whether he believed there was some sense in which this was not true. Finally, in what was once characteristic CPML fashion, he continued to identify the CPML with the wider communist Left: “What is happening in our movement today, particularly the break that is slowly being made with ’leftism’ and doctrinaire-type thinking....” After all, the fight against “Left-Wing” communism developed more slowly in some quarters than in others. These reservations aside, Klonsky’s article clearly acknowledged the destructive role that ultra-leftism played within the communist Left during the 1970s, and for that reason his piece represented an advance over the position put forward by CPML spokespeople as late as the fall and winter of 1979-80. Similarly, the Costigan articles came out clearly against the policies adopted by the OL and then the CPML in the trade unions since 1975.

Unfortunately, these realizations were too little and came too late. The crisis brought on by the old policies had already overtaken the CPML. Burstein, Costigan and others have long since left; Klonsky, the October League’s and the CPML’s chairperson since each’s founding, has left as well. The weekly Call, cited as a “positive achievement” in “Moving On...,” is now a monthly, and the survival of even that in doubt. The leadership could never reply to “Moving On...” because it no longer had unified views on almost anything. An important section of its leadership has advocated outright dissolution in favor of a unified socialist organization apparently embracing most tendencies on the Left. If Carl Davidson’s call for an even-handed ideological struggle against both reformist and ultra-leftist tendencies did not apply to the situation he raised it in, it has acquired a great deal more relevance in the meantime. The need remains to settle accounts with the much weakened ultra-leftism of the 1970s, an ultra-leftism that persists in several groups of the communist Left and has gained a second wind among those “anti-dogmatist” groups that have gravitated towards the Soviet Union. But a defeatist current that would liquidate the remainder of the communist Left has also taken shape in the last year, in good part out of the CPML itself, and demands an equally determined response.

This section concludes with “On the October League’s Call for a New Communist Party.” Originally written to the October League but never responded to by them, this article dates from February of 1976. It has gone through two printings as a pamphlet since then, and also appeared in the May 1, 1976 issue of The Communist, newspaper of the now dissolved Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist). It is included here because “Moving On...” refers to it and because it helps set a facet of the PUL/CPML discussion in some historical perspective.