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

Proletarian Unity League

Moving On: Facts from the 70s, Lessons for the 80s

Editor’s Note: The Proletarian Unity League is a Marxist-Leninist organization which has recently been involved in unity discussions with the CPML and other Marxist-Leninist groups. Over the last year, The Call has published an exchange of views with PUL, as well as commentaries by leading members of the CPML on how to sum-up the past decade of experiences in building a new Marxist-Leninist party. As a further contribution to this debate, PUL has submitted this article to Class Struggle.

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The communist movement heads into the 1980s in a state of flux. It has reached a turning point obvious to all. The last few years have blown away many of the pretensions and illusions which grew up among Marxist-Leninists during the past decade. The claims made by some organizations for their own great mass influence have turned up empty. The boasting about the masses’ readiness for decisive, revolutionary action has quieted down. The confident predictions of easy victories have stopped. Reality has broken through the “left” subjectivist fog that has surrounded sections of the communist movement for years. From many sides comes a new willingness to face up to the realities of the United States, to look to our own peoples and to ourselves for the answers to the problems of our country. From many sides comes a new spirit of humility about how far we have travelled and how far we have to go.

Where does the communist movement stand as we enter 1980?

Twenty years after the most revolutionary section of the old Socialist Party decided to form a Communist Party, that new Party had a membership of 50,000 to 60,000 and had emerged as an acknowledged force on the national scene. Over twenty years after some revolutionaries broke away from the old CPUSA to form the Provisional Organizing Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party, the organized communist groups do not have a total membership one-tenth that size. Not only has the communist movement failed to emerge as a recognized force on the national political scene, but as the events of the last year have shown, the Marxist-Leninist forces do not even have a truly national presence. Look at the effect the Marxist-Leninists had on the last auto workers’ contract struggle. Look at the communist movement’s activity around the recent events in Iran and U.S. imperialism’s response to them. Look at the extent of the support work done so far for the Kampuchean people’s national liberation struggle. Look at the almost total absence of mass organizing activity in response to the Soviet Union’s blatant invasion of Afghanistan, and contrast that inactivity to the U.S. bourgeoisie’s response. Yes, things have been done around all these issues. But what has been done is simply not the work of a national force.

Why hasn’t the communist movement become a national force? Why haven’t the last ten years of hard work and hard struggle produced greater results than they have? Unless we are about building a comfortable, self-satisfied sect, we need hard answers to these questions.

A debate has been underway in the communist movement on this subject, and two recent articles in The Call are part of it. In one, Comrade Carl Davidson replies to a letter of ours on some features of the recent history of the communist movement. In another, Comrade Daniel Burstein calls for “a profound political discussion” on “the correct summation of the past period and a better understanding of the road forward from here” (January 7, 1980). We deeply appreciate Davidson’s response to our letter and the prominence The Call editors have given this vital debate. The CPML has taken a laudable initiative in opening this discussion to a broader section of the revolutionary movement. In this article, we aim to contribute to the developing debate on the recent history of the U.S. Marxist-Leninists and more importantly on the way forward. In the main, we will try to reply to issues raised in our exchange with Davidson and also comment on some of the conclusions reached by Burstein in his article.

Before proceeding, however, we would like to make a few observations about the developing discussion itself.

Davidson has lodged some criticisms against and raised some questions about the line we have followed for a number of years. Burstein also implicitly criticizes some of our positions. We in turn have yet to be convinced by their arguments. But both sides share a willingness to take a sober-minded look at the lessons of the recent past, to evaluate them at their full significance, and to try to rectify openly our errors in order to get on with the business of bringing socialism to this country. We do not expect that the CPML will agree entirely with the analysis we have made of the communist movement. What we do expect is a commitment to face facts, even unpleasant ones. In organizing an exchange of views on these issues, the CPML has made that commitment to the revolutionary movement, and we hope other comrades who may pretend to have all the answers can learn from the CPML’s positive example. For a movement trying to find its own bearings in a country still largely cynical about or hostile to socialism, the important thing is to be good at learning.

The CPML’s emphasis on not conducting this discussion “behind closed doors” also represents a very welcome development for the cause of communist unity. The CPML can play a central role in organizing the ideological struggle and involving a broad range of individuals and organizations in it. A public exchange of views will allow everyone concerned about the future of U.S. communism to test different perspectives and to form their own opinions. The self-congratulatory pronouncements that have often passed for debate have mistakenly led some comrades to shun any form of public discussion. But the communist movement cannot find a direction to overcome its relative isolation from the mass movement without openly presenting different proposals before the people. Backroom deals will not create that direction. No growing movement can do without public debate. The issue is not “public polemics” or not, but rather whether the Marxist-Leninist forces can finally learn how to exchange views and experiences around intensely controversial matters in a principled and constructive spirit. Davidson’s reply to our letter shows that we can, and we hope that our reply will do the same.

Finally, we would note that as larger sections of the communist movement have begun a serious revaluation of their past work and past understandings, the ideological debate has shifted markedly. A few years ago, the idea that ultra-leftism posed a serious problem to Marxist-Leninist activity sufficed to damn one as a “centrist” or worse. Today, the question increasingly has become not whether ultra-leftism has posed such a problem, but rather just how destructive a force has it been. Not every Marxist-Leninist organization has reached such a conclusion, of course, in part because a few still see little need to make a serious analysis of the recent past. But in the main, the shift has taken place, and in our view it represents an advance for the anti-revisionist forces, one which has come none too soon.

Davidson’s article covers four major issues: the importance Marxist-Leninists should give the danger of ultra-leftism, the nature of a correct party-building strategy, some features of the PUL’s party-building line over the past three years, and the CPML’s own party-building line during that time.

Davidson believes we have overemphasized the danger of ultra-leftism. We have argued that the main threat to the U.S. anti-revisionist movement in the 1970s has come from the “Left.” Davidson agrees that “leftism” posed the main threat during the early 1970s, but believes that “this has 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.” (The Call, October 15, 1979) Davidson raises two further objections. He says that:

PUL’s viewpoint.. .is that “left” opportunism poses the greatest danger to our movement, and this has been the case at least since the 1960s. In addition, PUL makes this assessment form the starting point of its party-building strategy, (emphasis in original)

He further finds one of our formulations about an “’anti-’left,” Marxist-Leninist direction’ for our movement” “one-sided and wrong. Marxist-Leninists are not simply ’anti-“left”’ as this terminology implies. In practice, moreover, this view tends toward seeing ’leftism’ as the only danger” (emphasis in original). Burstein repeats two of these criticisms, without implicating us or any other organization directly when he says:

In our country, I certainly don’t think it’s a matter of just saying, “Oh, ultra-’leftism’ has been to blame for all our problems.” This would not be true, and in fact, it would be exactly the doctrinaire, mechanical method of transposing various international experiences to our own conditions that we should seek to avoid.

.. .We must also not join in with those who want to make opposition to “leftism”–by which they really mean opposition to the basic ideas of Marxism–the starting point for their own work. (The Call, January 7, 1980)

Other comrades have complained that we have raised opposition to ultra-leftism to the level of principle, or that we have made a “dogma” out of the fight against “leftism.”

Before responding to these criticisms, we want to clear up two common misunderstandings about the whole debate on the nature of the main danger to communist activity. These are: the belief that the identification of the main danger concerns simply party-building line; and the belief that the whole debate is really a very abstract question with little relevance to what we all do day to day.

The character of the main danger to decisive advances on our current tasks is not simply a matter of party-building line. Rather, it is a question of the very ideological foundations of communist unification, what we understand as Marxism-Leninism and as a Marxist-Leninist line. The identification of the main danger involves clarifying the nature of the present-day ideological struggle between the two main lines, the bourgeois and proletarian lines. We have argued that throughout the 1970s, this two-line struggle manifested itself as always in a struggle between bourgeois and proletarian ideology. But more particularly, we have argued that this two-line struggle has manifested itself principally in a struggle between semi-anarchist ideology and Marxism-Leninism. The correct identification of the main danger signifies an understanding– however general and incomplete–of the real nature of the two-line struggle occurring in our communist movement. An incorrect identification of the main danger signifies a misunderstanding of that two-line struggle. In the case of our communist movement, that mistake has mainly meant the confusion of semi-anarchist ideology with Marxism-Leninism.

With this in mind, our book Two, Three, Many Parties... (TTM) did not restrict itself to a discussion of party-building; it is not only “our line on party-building.” Instead, the book deals with party-building line, with political line, and with certain ideological questions, showing how semi-anarchist ideology manifests itself in these different areas.

Now, while this question of “ideological foundations” may seem very abstract, in fact it has had immediate and practical implications for every type of policy and mass work over the past decade. If we confuse Marxist-Leninist principles with semi-anarchist ones, or start labelling as Right opportunist correct applications of Marxist-Leninist principle, then we inevitably will tend to perpetuate our isolation from the problems, concerns, and activities of most working people in this country. This is what contemporary “Left-Wing” communism has all too often led the communist movement to do.

Take the example of trade union work. Is it a Marxist-Leninist principle not to conclude tactical agreements with reformist trade union officials and therefore a right opportunist error to reach some deals with reformist leaders? Or does the struggle for communist influence in the trade unions necessarily and inevitably require a wide range of such agreements and the conclusion of numerous deals with reformist trade union leaders? In our view, the first position represents a semi-anarchist deviation, and in one form or another it has heavily influenced the thinking and action of the “Left-Wing” in the communist movement, including the October League and the CPML for a long period of time. For a long while, many comrades believed that building a base for communism inside the trade unions meant regarding the more reform-minded sections of the trade union leadership–such as Ed Sadlowski in the Steelworkers–as equally or even more deserving of criticism and opposition than the straight business unionists, like the McBride group in that same union. In 1973, the October League correctly rejected this ultra-left view. But since then until just this last year, the OL and later the CPML (as well as the former ATM [M-L] and many others) believed that this wrong view was consistent with Marxism-Leninism, that rank-and-file activists in the trade unions should boycott critical elections like the one that took place for the USWA presidency, and that those who tried to work inside the established reform movements in unions like the USWA or the auto workers were guilty of right opportunism or worse. The continued weakness of the Marxist-Leninist forces inside unions like the steelworkers, the auto workers, the miners or the Teamsters is hardly an abstract question, and the debate over the main danger goes to the heart of the reasons why we have not made more progress than we have.

Thus, when Davidson recognizes that the CPML (and, though he doesn’t say it, the October League before it as well as others such as the “anti-dogmatist” PWOC) erroneously described the RCP as right opportunist, there is a lot more at stake than the label we stick on a particular group (which in this case happened to be at one time the largest anti-revisionist organization in the country). Davidson says he thinks:

The error stemmed from an ideological weakness on our part as well as an incorrect assessment of the relative strength of “left,” right and Marxist-Leninist currents within the RCP at the time. A similar error was made in characterizing the Revolutionary Wing.

But Davidson does not identify this “ideological weakness,” nor does he consider its implications for his view of the main danger. In our view, the CPML’s wrong characterization of the RCP and the Revolutionary Wing did stem from “an ideological weakness”–a weakness brought on by the influence of “left” opportunist ideology within the CPML. Because of that influence, the CPML and the OL before it sometimes mistook Marxism-Leninism or semi-anarchism for right opportunism, and sometimes mistook semi-anarchism for Marxism-Leninism. These confusions certainly did not affect party-building line alone, and they certainly had very real consequences, from which the communist movement is still trying to recover. As Burstein acknowledges about a related subject, “clearly we had a wrong understanding of some very basic questions.” (The CPML’s willingness to admit this fact demonstrates a communist understanding of our responsibilities to the people and contrasts, so far at least, with the silence of some other comrades who have made some of the same errors.)

Once we realize that the RCP, the Revolutionary Wing and others widely and erroneously regarded as right opportunist, “ultra-right,” etc. in fact pursued a “left” opportunist and finally “left” revisionist course, then Davidson’s historical perspective on the main danger is obviously open to question. He defends the long-time October League and CPML position that right opportunism became the main danger in the mid-1970s, though he confines his explanation here to “the emergence of a strong centrist trend which pushed a line of capitulation to Soviet revisionism.” But the historical evidence runs completely against this view. The communist movement had not successfully beaten back the threat of “left” opportunism in the mid-1970s. On the contrary, “left” opportunism raged throughout the communist movement. Ultra-leftism went on to destroy the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, just as it had played the main role in destroying the Black Workers Congress. It went on to destroy the Revolutionary Workers League, the February First Movement, and the African Liberation Support Committee. It went on to destroy the RU/RCP as an anti-revisionist organization. “Left” revisionism went on to claim the Workers Viewpoint Organization and its Communist Workers Party and the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee and its Communist Party U.S.A.-M-L. Ultra-left thinking went on to steer the October League into the formation of the Communist Party (M-L), and into a series of ultra-left policies which the CPML is only now beginning to rectify. And ultra-leftism affected and continues to affect a number of other Marxist-Leninist organizations.

How can we say that the centrist line within the Guardian newspaper, the PWOC and some affiliated local collectives posed a more serious threat to the communist movement in the mid-1970s, if we make a sober evaluation of the existing balance of forces at that time? What wrecked the most promising organizations working in the Afro-American liberation movement–centrism or ultra-leftism? What line bears the main responsibility for the tiny influence Marxist-Leninists have managed to acquire in the country’s most important unions? What line did the comrades who rebelled against the Avakian leadership of the RCP have to fight? To what line does the CPML and most of the other nationally-prominent Marxist-Leninist organizations have to devote their main attention right now? The pages of The Call tell the story: the study articles printed there in the last several months have placed their main emphasis on “left” errors. And we agree with Daniel Burstein when he says, “it is imperative to pay more attention to the problem of ultra-’leftism.’” It is imperative today, and it was imperative five years ago.

For that reason, we cannot agree when he says that “most of the struggles against rightism were useful and correct.” On the contrary, a number of those struggles were destructive and quite incorrect– such as the struggles against the R.U/RCP’s alleged “rightism,” the struggles against the Revolutionary Wing’s alleged “rightism” or “ultra-rightism,” and those struggles against the centrist line which treated it as the main ideological and political problem in the communist movement. These struggles were destructive–they necessarily led the communist movement deeper into ultra-leftism. As a by-product, they also strengthened the centrist line, since the “Left-Wing” comrades fought centrism not so much with Marxism-Leninism as with a Marxism-Leninism mixed with some “left” opportunist assumptions.

Has PUL raised opposition to ultra-leftism to the level of principle? In one sense, yes: we have believed that Marxist-Leninist principle demanded an opposition to ultra-leftism and “left” revisionism as well as right opportunism and right revisionism. We have also believed that slogans about the “fight on two fronts” are not sufficient–they do not give any direction about the situation the communist movement has found itself in. On the basis of an analysis of the statements, actions and effects on the real world of the major communist groups, we concluded that the principal shortcomings of the anti-revisionist forces stemmed from ultra-left errors of policy and practice. In TTM, we further set out the reasons for the growth of contemporary “Left-Wing” communism in the U.S. Marxist-Leninist movement–its social, historical, ideological and philosophical roots. We do not know whom Burstein has in mind when he warns against adopting “the doctrinaire, mechanical method of transposing various international experiences to our own conditions” or “falling prey to a new dogma” that “there is no rightist danger, only the ultra-’left’ one.” In TTM and other publications, we tried at least to make the “all-sided dialectical summation of the past” that he calls for. Without ignoring the existence of rightism, we argued, on the basis of U.S. conditions, that the danger from the “left” constituted the danger of which “little is known” (Lenin), “the deviation against which we had ceased to fight” (Stalin). We concluded that those comrades, like the October League, who regarded right opportunism and semi-liberalism as the main ideological enemy “’are building the new Communist Party but don’t know where the bourgeois line is’–in the ’left,’ not the as yet relatively weak Right line within the communist movement” (TTM, p. 234). We therefore put forward party-building slogans which brought the danger of ultra-leftism to the fore–such as our formulation about the need for an “anti-’left,’ Marxist-Leninist direction” for the communist movement. We simply did not think it sufficient to issue slogans about “fighting on two fronts” when one deviation, on one front, was destroying Marxist-Leninist organization after organization.

We think it significant that for three years, most nationally-prominent organizations apparently chose to ignore publicly this analysis. Until recently, you could not even buy it in bookstores affiliated with any of these organizations. Yet we believe that those three years have confirmed the main lines of the analysis we made in that book. Those three years have also demonstrated the errors in the main lines of the analysis of the communist movement made by the “Left-Wing” comrades. And today, The Call prints study guides and articles like Burstein’s attempting to shed light on the danger of which “little is known,” the danger “we had ceased to fight.” That danger is ultra-leftism.

Now that you cannot find a nationally-prominent Marxist-Leninist organization that will openly defend the idea that right opportunism has constituted the main danger to the communist movement throughout the 1970s–now that some organizations have begun to maintain a polite silence on the whole question–some comrades have begun complaining that we have given altogether too much emphasis to the need for a determined fight against ultra-leftism among the Marxist-Leninist forces.

Imagine a forest after months of drought. For various reasons, most of those concerned about the forest prepare to fight a forest fire coming from the east. Day after day they prepare for a fire coming from the east. A smaller group of people argue that the conditions for a fire are much more dangerous to the west. They call for making the main preparations to fight a fire in the west. The larger group dismisses them or ignores them, reminding everyone of the eastern fire danger. When fires develop to the west, they even call some of them eastern fires and devote still more energy to fighting fire to the east. Well, some small fires break out on the eastern front. But meanwhile the fire in the west burns down half the forest. Afterwards, some people admit that something should have been done about the possibility of fire to the west. But, they say, the fight against the eastern fire danger was in the main “useful and correct.” And they state that, yes, the western fire danger was real, but those who warned against it went overboard.

The destruction and isolation for which the “left” line bears the main responsibility has demoralized many people in and around the Marxist-Leninist movement, including a number of people in some major communist organizations. The CPML and other comrades are now correctly trying to identify and rectify the errors that for years have ravaged the communist movement. But that rectification cannot take place if we downplay the extent of the damage or worse, attempt to justify the policies which caused the damage done in the first place.

Davidson’s “correct approach to Marxist-Leninist unity” in fact summarizes just about every party-building approach in the movement today, including our own (if we leave aside for the moment the matter of alleged “blocs”). Who doesn’t believe that we should proceed “on the basis of established unity on basic principles of ideological and political line, to fight for organizational unity on this basis and to struggle against both right and ’left’ deviations in the process in accordance with the conditions at hand”? The catch comes with that last phrase. What distinguishes one organization’s party-building strategy from another is precisely their analysis of “the conditions at hand” and what accords with those conditions. We have argued that the “conditions at hand” in the 1970s included the dominance of an ultra-left line within the communist movement; that the establishment of unity on “principles of ideological and political line” required first of all a fight against semi-anarchist principles of ideological and political line; and that unless this fight was prosecuted successfully, organizational unity around a sound Marxist-Leninist line was out of reach. We think that particularly since 1975, the OL and then the CPML (as well as other groups that have leaned to the “Left”) made an erroneous analysis of “the conditions at hand,” and consequently elaborated a number of erroneous policies which failed to build significant organizational unity.

Party-Building Strategy

Davidson faults us for making our assessment of the main danger “the starting point of its party-building strategy.” In his article, Burstein repeats this criticism, without naming us. To combat the alleged “one-sidedness” in our party-building strategy, Davidson offers the following:

Instead of forming blocs with opposition to either right or “left” deviations as their starting point, I think the correct approach to Marxist-Leninist unity is to proceed on the basis of establishing unity on basic principles of ideological and political line, to fight for organizational unity from this basis, and to struggle against both right and “left” deviations in the process, in accordance with the conditions at hand. (emphasis added)

In reply to our position on the main danger, Davidson simply says, “I think both right and ’left’ deviations pose serious problems,” and calls for a “fight on two fronts.”

In our view, Davidson’s position begs the issue at hand, and therefore offers no direction for the communist movement at this critical juncture.

The slogan “fight on two fronts” can have a positive effect in that it gives greater prominence to the struggle against the “left” deviation than some other slogans have. But it cannot answer the questions before the communist movement. Like the phrase, “revisionism is the main danger,” a formulation which has caught on in some circles in the last couple of years, it is a truism that tells us very little about our tasks in the here and now. Of course we should not abandon the fight on either front; but which should have gotten our main energies during this past decade? Similarly, you could say that revisionist influence of one type or another is always the main danger within a communist organization, party or movement. Calling revisionism the main danger and then failing to specify whether it is revisionism of the “left” or right is like saying that opportunism is our main internal enemy. Such a position–like the “fight on two fronts” slogan–does not tell us what distinguishes our situation from any other, what special tasks we should take up in order to cope with our own situation, and where to direct our main fire. In this way, it deprives us of the ability to formulate a plan for founding a unified Communist Party, for developing a strategy and tactics to that end.

Suppose a truckdriver is taking a truck down an unmarked narrow road bounded on both sides by steep cliffs. Because of the height of the truck and the narrowness of the road, she depends on her partner to keep a look-out for the cliffs. The road bends sharply just ahead. Would it do any good simply to warn the driver, “watch out for cliffs on the left and the right”? She already knows there are cliffs on the left and right; where else could there be cliffs? Or would it do any good to shout, “watch out for the cliff? No, it wouldn’t–the driver would still have to decide on her own which cliff her partner was talking about. By that time, the truck might go over the edge. The only helpful guidance in this situation would tell the driver, “look out on the right” or “look out on the left” (naturally, the driver must not overcorrect for the bend in the road and send the truck over the opposite cliff).

For a number of years, we and other comrades have been mainly saying “Look out on the ’Left.’” For the last five years, the OL, the CPML and a number of other groups have been mainly saying, “Look out on the Right.” Both those positions offered concrete guidance, although we think one was correct and the other wrong. But to raise now the need for a “fight on two fronts” will not help the communist movement understand what has produced its present situation and get us on the move again.

Davidson takes exception to our having made an assessment of the main danger “the starting point” of our party-building strategy. But as we argued in TTM, in order to elaborate any coherent plan for party-building, we must start from some assessment of the chief obstacle to the accomplishment of our tasks. The general requirements of any strategic plan involve an identification of the principal enemy of that strategic period. Indeed, the best-known concepts of Marxist strategy consider the determination of the direction of the main blow “the most important function” (Stalin) of any such plan. But we need not rely on classical formulations of strategy to see the logic in a party-building plan which begins with an assessment of the main danger. If we are having problems and we want to overcome them, we can’t make a plan to deal with them until we have decided what they are. Explicitly or implicitly, every party-building strategy in the movement has based itself on an analysis of the chief obstacles before the Marxist-Leninist forces. Among those strategies, we would certainly include that put forward by the October League in 1975, when it identified right opportunism as the main danger and effectively made that erroneous judgment the starting point of its call for a new communist party and of its party-building policies. We will have more to say on this latter subject below.

Some features of the PUL’s party-building line over the last three years

Davidson believes that our “one-sided” emphasis on the danger of ultra-leftism has in practice led to some wrong policies in the struggle for Marxist-Leninist unity. In particular, he criticizes the PUL for “bloc-building.”

It has sought to form a loose alliance or bloc of all those who see “leftism” as the main problem. This bloc would aim its main fire against anyone guilty of “leftism,” including the Marxist-Leninists. At the same time, PUL would independently struggle within the bloc on other matters of political line and principle.

And he provides a brief summary of the struggle that took place between ourselves, several other Marxist-Leninist groups, and the top leadership of the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC).

... PUL took part in a bloc containing both Marxist-Leninists and pro-Soviet, revisionist groups, such as the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC). The bloc targetted the CPML, the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS) and other Marxist-Leninists as the chief enemy within the revolutionary movement and PUL, to a certain extent, went along with these attacks.

As PWOC moved to consolidate its bloc around its more and more blatant pro-Soviet, anti-Marxist line, PUL and others took a stand in defense of basic Marxist viewpoints, especially the theory of the three worlds. The result? Several Marxist-Leninist groups were compelled to leave the OCIC, and PUL was kept out of formal membership altogether.

In opposition to his view of features of PUL’s party-building tactics, Davidson offers an alternative line.

Does it move things forward to bloc with pro-Soviet revisionists against other Marxist-Leninists? Or is it better to make Marxist-Leninist unity the main point and win over the honest forces from among the “anti-’lefts’” while at the same time criticizing errors within the Marxist-Leninist trend internally?

Here again Davidson’s recommended course does not lay out any definite policy. In fact, we believe we can show that we pursued precisely the line he advocates.

Our tactics in the struggle for Marxist-Leninist unity have rested on two general precepts. First: ...we “stand for the different sections of the communist movement using their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. To surmount the disunity and relative isolation of the Marxist-Leninists, we have to unite all who can be united and mobilize all positive factors in the Marxist-Leninist camp and in those sections of the mass movements interested in Marxist-Leninist work.” (from the introduction to The Ultra-Left Danger and How to Fight It, January 1978)

Not all sections of the communist movement have shared exactly the same weaknesses. But viewed as a whole, the communist movement has erred principally in the direction of semi-anarchism or ultra-leftism, rather than in the direction of semi-reformism and right opportunism. Second, therefore, we have sought to unite all who could be united on a Marxist-Leninist basis against the main danger to decisive advances on our current tasks. And here is a crucial point: we have identified that danger as the ultra-left line, not those organizations temporarily dominated by that line. The subtitle to Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type? consequently reads, Against the Ultra-Left Line, not against the ultra-leftists, or against this or that organization. At no time did we call the CPML or the LRS the “chief enemy” within the communist movement, and we invite anyone to prove otherwise. Indeed, our original alternative proposal to the OCIC forces called for involving “those organizations who may agree on the kinds of problems we face, disagree on the main danger, yet have demonstrated a commitment to anti-sectarian, principled ideological struggle” (Party-Building and the Main Danger, pg. 11).

To understand the specifics of our tactical line over the last three years we have to recall both the situation that existed in 1976 (when we began our struggle with the PWOC and affiliated groups) and of course what we actually did, and not what some have rumored that we did.

In late 1975 and through 1976, the prospects of convincing some of the leading Marxist-Leninist organizations about the damage ultra-leftism was doing were not very good. Davidson says we should have made “Marxist-Leninist unity the main point.. .while at the same time criticizing errors within the Marxist-Leninist trend internally.” We tried our best on both counts. Because we made Marxist-Leninist unity the main point, we saw the need for a determined and prolonged fight against “left” opportunism. No one has ever suggested that we failed to criticize “errors within the Marxist-Leninist trend.” Now as for criticizing those errors “internally,” we are hard put to know exactly what Davidson intends. But let us consider our efforts with the October League.

When the October League issued its “Call” for a new Communist Party in November 1975, we wrote a reply to it, which eventually became a short pamphlet (On the October League’s Call for a New Communist Party: A Response). We wrote letters to and requested meetings with the OL to discuss our views on this proposal; we even journeyed some distance to have such a meeting. But the OL and the Organizing Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party which formed on its initiative would not meet with us; did not answer most of our letters; and never responded to our reply. We would read in The Call about the OCMLP’s willingness to “walk the extra mile” for Marxist-Leninist unity and wonder why the OCMLP could not walk around the corner to mail us a reply to our letters or to our pamphlet. We had gone quite a few extra miles to meet with the OL, only to have the meeting cancelled. We are not talking here about sectarian excesses committed by a few over-zealous members of the OL, but rather of the line taken by the top OL leadership over a number of years. And the experience we describe was not ours alone; a number of other organizations had similar difficulties at that time in their attempts to struggle “internally” with the OL and OCMLP.

Now the CPML has at least orally made self-criticism for some of this history. We raise these events only to explain why a small organization might not have seen “criticizing errors within the Marxist-Leninist trend internally” as the single correct tactic in 1976.

So when PWOC and other groups began organizing for a conference of those opposed to “dogmatism” as the main danger to the communist forces and also convinced that U.S. imperialism stood alone as the main enemy of the world’s peoples, we saw an opportunity to advance the struggle against the ultra-left line. That organizing effort provided the first national arena for debate and struggle over issues which organizations like the CPML and a section of the RCP were later to recognize as critical to the development of communism as a material force in this country. Indeed, Burstein has written:

...the key to the development of communist thought and practice in the 1980s will be a careful, critical examination of the past and the creative application of Marxism-Leninism to the U.S. revolution in a way that, at least to some degree, has been held back until now by reliance on book-knowledge and experiences of other countries rather than making primary what our own life and work teach us. (The Call, January 7, 1980; emphasis added)

Further, Burstein has said, “now other forms of ultra-’leftism’ are becoming more apparent. Here I would especially underscore the problems of dogmatism and doctrinairism” (ibid.). Here, back in 1976, was a national forum for struggle over exactly these issues. We believed, and still believe, that Marxists-Leninists had a duty to try to mount a struggle with the PWOC line at that time.

The opportunity presented by the PWOC-initiated organizing efforts was all the greater because the ideological features of the “anti-dogmatists” grouping had yet to become defined. That grouping therefore attracted both collectives with a generally Marxist-Leninist orientation and collectives dominated by a true centrist line on important questions. Because the “anti-dogmatist” position was in the process of formation, Marxist-Leninists had an even greater obligation to take part. Now clearly the PWOC position dominated the forces mobilizing under the anti-dogmatist banner. But communists do not run from situations in which the conditions for struggle are less than ideal, nor do they simply cast stones from afar. Rather, communists have the responsibility to enter those arenas from which we can reach broader sections of the people and to which opportunists seek to deny us access. We must go into what Lenin called “forbidden premises,” and once there fight for a hearing from all those willing to listen, while maintaining firmness on matters of principle.

Davidson says we should “make Marxist-Leninist unity the main point and win over honest forces among the ’anti-lefts’.” He criticizes us for “blocking” with “pro-Soviet revisionists against other Marxist-Leninists.” Because we sought to win over honest forces among the “anti-’lefts’,” we sought to gain access to those comrades influenced by the PWOC position. Because we made “Marxist-Leninist unity the main point,” we consistently set out our views on the main issues under discussion.

Of course we recognized that some who marched behind the banner of “anti-dogmatism” also opposed Marxism-Leninism, and we said so in TTM and in other publications. We also stood firm on our international views. For these reasons, we were barred from any participation in the OCIC, except on the occasion of the Regional Conferences, where we were permitted to attend as observers with no right of our own to speak. So, we reached no agreement with the leadership of the OCIC; we at no time tied our hands in the ideological struggle; we took no united action with the OCIC leadership except to publish together an exchange of views; and we did not belong to their grouping. We also wrote at least seven different polemics against their line. Please then tell us how Davidson can say that we participated in a bloc with the PWOC, on the order of the National Continuations Committee, the National Liaison Committee, and the “Revolutionary Wing” groupings that Davidson cites in this connection.

We have readily admitted that we have not been spectacularly successful in winning honest Marxist-Leninists away from the centrist international line, though we do think we have had some demonstrable success. But here the limitations of a small organization have to be borne in mind. Successful ideological struggle at the national level requires an organization able to work patiently with people in many different parts of the country. Merely setting out positions, writing letters or even publishing pamphlets will not do. We were not in a position in 1976 to spend the time necessary with many people to win a hearing, nor are we today. But several organizations were in a position in the 1976-1979 period to reach out nationally to comrades influenced by the centrist position. Yet they failed to slow the momentum of the OCIC consolidation around a centrist point of unity on the international situation. Why?

Davidson admits that “the CPML has been sectarian to the extent that it has downplayed the importance” of reaching people influenced by centrism. As he might say, while this is true, this is not the main point. Yes, the CPML and the OL before it and other Marxist-Leninist organizations pursued a damaging sectarian policy towards those many, many comrades who did not believe and still do not that the Soviet Union had developed into an imperialist superpower posing a grave threat to the world’s peoples. But this sectarianism stemmed from a “left” line which dominated those organizations. The problem has not been simply a sectarian style of work, but rather a definite ideological and political deviation.

Consider how matters might have gone if the line of the CPML and other groups had been different. If even the present changes in the CPML line had come two or three years earlier, you could have reached many of the comrades taken in by the centrist international line. Groups like the IWK, the ATM and later the LRS, with roots in some of the national revolutionary movements, could have had a big influence on honest center forces had the IWK, the ATM or the LRS had a clearer understanding of ultra-leftism. Had the RWH emerged even a year earlier, it might have proved an effective counterweight to the OCIC leadership.

As it was, the “Left-Wing” communism of some of our comrades reinforced the spurious identification between ultra-leftism and the two superpowers position for many collectives and individuals attracted to “anti-dogmatism.” As we have argued elsewhere, the three worlds thesis is a powerful blow against ultra-leftism, as well as against right opportunism and modern revisionism. But the ultra-left policies pursued by our “Left-Wing” comrades obscured this point from view for many, and the OCIC leadership was able to capitalize on the errors dominating the Marxist-Leninist forces and rally a substantial grouping around a centrist international line. Davidson is correct in saying that a “group like PWOC can draw all the ’lines of demarcation’ with ’leftism’ that it wants, but it will never be able to defeat the actual ’left’ opportunists, for it has abandoned the weapon of Marxism needed to do so.” But neither can a “left” opportunist deviation defeat centrism. In compromising Marxism with semi-anarchism, the “left” line undermined the ability of several Marxist-Leninist organizations to wage an effective struggle against the rising centrist position.

Would another policy towards the “anti-dogmatist” position have proved more effective than ours? We cannot say with any certainty. But we can compare it to one other approach.

When the “anti-dogmatists” first emerged at the national level, only two organizations to our knowledge believed that the main danger came from the “left” and also supported the united front against both superpowers: ourselves and the Bay Area Communist Union (BACU). The BACU and ourselves had different understandings of ultra-leftism and of some other questions (and not long after, the BACU declared ambiguously that revisionism was the main danger). In our analysis of the anti-dogmatist development, we probably shared the following unity: the “anti-dogmatist” banner is attracting some Marxist-Leninists; it also groups some true centrists; the dominant grouping contains some true centrists and is likely to win out. From this common perspective, we developed two different tactical lines.

At the outset the BACU had far more influence within what we have called the anti-“left” reaction than we did. The comrades chose to focus their attention on the centrist nature of the OCIC’s point 18 (U.S. imperialism is the single main enemy of the world’s peoples). They denounced the OCIC forces as centrists “upholding the most backward views in the communist movement.” BACU did say that “they can and must be won to Marxism” and recognized that in order to accomplish this task “the more politically advanced forces [must] discard their sectarianism” (all quotes from Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, “Resolutions of the Fourth General Meeting,” pp. 9-11). But for whatever reasons, BACU did not elaborate the flexible tactics needed to influence those center forces deciding between the centrist view and a Marxist-Leninist one.

We tried on the other hand to contest for leadership of the anti-“left” reaction and win away as many genuine Marxist-Leninists as we could from the centrist direction. We also tried to bring the full implications of the centrist position out into the open through an ideological struggle. To do this, we sometimes made what we still believe to have been reasonable compromises in rhetoric; we did not go in for name-calling.

We cannot assess fully the results the BACU approach achieved for the objectives the comrades set themselves. But we can say that it proved a less effective way of reaching revolutionary people than the line we pursued. BACU did not build on the initial prestige it enjoyed among the anti-dogmatists, and over time it lost the influence it had among them. We started with much less influence than the BACU had but eventually won some.

The “Statement on the Merger of the BACU into the RWH” summarizes the OCIC struggle in this way: “Furthermore, several groups previously associated with the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) and its so-called ’anti-leftist, anti-dogmatic trend’ have recognized the revisionist content of that trend, broken from it and are seeking new ways to the furtherance of Marxist-Leninist unity.” Davidson’s first article on the OCIC split says that “struggle over this theory [the three worlds thesis] has broken out among the centrists and their followers and allies.” (The Call, July 2, 1979) We suppose this is one way to describe events. But as comrades know, struggle does not simply “break out” like a form of spontaneous combustion, nor do groups suddenly “recognize” the political content of a trend. Struggle develops, and people come to better analyses of trends, usually because that struggle has been organized and carried out by definite material forces. In the case of the OCIC struggle, our tactical line proved capable of engaging the PWOC position in struggle and of influencing some Marxist-Leninists within the OCIC.

Let us reiterate: we stand for all sections of the Marxist-Leninist movement using their strengths to overcome their weaknesses and making their necessary contribution to a unified, multinational communist party. We have a sincere desire to unite. We have a sincere desire to work and struggle to unite with any communist organization willing to work and struggle to unite with us. We can’t help it if one organization wants to tell stories about us because we are talking or struggling with this or that section of the communist movement. Because of our struggle with the PWOC-line, some comrades used to like to claim that we were trying to unite with centrists. If given our views, we had been invited to participate in the work of the Organizing Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party, or if a Committee to Unite Marxist-Leninists had formed and we had participated in it, doubtless some people would have tried to say we had sold out the struggle against ultra-leftism. Some centrist or centrist-leaning people even claim we have given up our opposition to ultra-leftism because we went with other Marxist-Leninist organizations to China! What can we do with such people except continue to explain our long-standing positions?

Some features of the CPML’s party-building line

In our letter to The Call, we drew attention to the recent evolution in the CPML line. Of the changes we cited, Davidson chose to address only the question of whether or not the CPML already constitutes the vanguard of the working class. Davidson responds that the CPML’s self-description as the vanguard of the working class merely represents a restatement of a point of principle: ”a Marxist-Leninist party or organization must play a vanguard role in the sense that it is based on Marxism-Leninism and is different from the other basic organizations of the working class.” According to this view, we could apparently describe the PUL as the vanguard of the working class. We don’t see things that way, but perhaps this is a semantic difference. Davidson then asks us whether we are “suggesting that Marxist-Leninists wait until the workers term them the vanguard before they declare the principle of the vanguard party in their party documents?” This question bears on a fundamental issue, though not in the form in which Davidson poses it. We were not questioning what party documents should say in the abstract; we were questioning the self-conception the CPML has had and its own party-building line. In the period of re-evaluation that Burstein and others have called for, this issue must inevitably be faced. Not coincidentally, at the center of the CPML’s party-building line has stood an assessment of the main danger.

Let us briefly review the self-conception the CPML has propagated over the last few years to see whether Davidson’s explanation fits the facts.

At the time of the Founding Congress, the CPML recognized no other Marxist-Leninist organizations aside from itself.

Based on our strengthened unity and on the firm basis of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, we must be able to unite even greater numbers of communists who still remain in some local circles and in organizations under opportunist leadership. (Political Report; our emphasis)

The “Road to Communist Unity” editorial of December 26, 1977 describes this Political Report as “a guide to our work in building relations with other communists.” The editorial also says that the Political Report represents a “break from the narrowness and self-serving sectarianism of the opportunists, such as the so-called RCP and the former super-Bolsheviks of the ’Revolutionary Wing’ like the WVO.These groups and others claim that ’party-building is already a settled question’ now that they have declared themselves to be the ’vanguard of the working class.’” (Ibid.)

For a while at least, didn’t the CPML also regard party-building as a settled question? The founding documents of the party saw no Marxist-Leninist organizations to unite. There remained only communists in “some local circles” and in “organizations under opportunist leadership.” In a center-page article, The Call declared, “The principal task of party-building today consists of rallying even more communists and advanced workers to the CPML’s line and program, putting the new organization firmly on its feet and deepening its ties with the masses...” (September 9, 1977) Davidson’s May Day speech of 1978 held that “the CPML has been formed and.. .this was a correct step forward. Our view is that the unity committee will not establish a new party, as did the OC. Instead, its task is to further unite the Marxist-Leninists into a single party,” namely the CPML. Davidson also saw “a considerable degree of fusion between the advanced workers and the communist movement, signified by the founding of the CPML and other revolutionary organizations.” (The Call, May 15, 1978) The March 20, 1978 issue of The Call contains a summary of the OCMLP efforts which concludes, “The CPML has made great gains since its founding. It is being placed firmly on its feet, widening its ties with the working and oppressed people.” When the Communist League of Hawaii rallied to the CPML, The Call published a statement reading, “With the founding of the Communist Party (M-L), the people of Hawaii and the United States now once more have a genuine revolutionary vanguard that has solid ties with the proletariat, working people and oppressed nationalities.” (September 26, 1977) From reviewing these statements, one would certainly think that party-building in the U.S. was a rather settled question, and that the phrase “vanguard of the working class” had a deeper meaning for some members of the CPML than simply an invocation of principle. Any party which has united all communists, aside from those in ”some local circles” and in “organizations under opportunist leadership,” has achieved “a considerable degree of fusion between the advanced workers and the communist movement,” has “solid ties with the proletariat, working people and oppressed nationalities,” calls itself “the vanguard of the working class” and sees party-building as simply “rallying even more communists and advanced workers to the CPML’s line and program–any party that has done all that, comrades, has gone a long way towards “settling” the question of party-building.

Now we happen to think the CPML has broken with “the narrowness and self-serving sectarianism of the opportunists such as the so-called RCP and the former super-Bolsheviks of the ’Revolutionary Wing.’” As the international struggle over the three worlds thesis sharpened, the CPML faced a decision between strengthening unity around Marxism-Leninism on the one hand and clinging to its claim to represent the only Marxist-Leninist organization in the country on the other. Strengthening unity around Marxism-Leninism and in defense of the three worlds thesis necessarily meant breaking with the extreme ultra-leftism of those tailing after the PLA’s attacks on the three worlds thesis. The CPML made a choice which has encouraged a broad section of the communist movement, including ourselves. For the first time in the twenty-year history of the anti-revisionist movement, and after by our count at least ten different allegedly anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist parties had formed, a Marxist-Leninist organization which called itself a party spurned the self-delusion which usually accompanies that claim and initiated efforts towards unity with other organizations. But the CPML’s early party-building line certainly hampered these efforts and may explain in part (though only in part) why two years after the first talks began on a Committee to Unite Marxist-Leninists (CUML), the CUML has yet to get off the ground.

The CPML cannot have it both ways. Either the Founding Political Report and the other documents we have cited erred, in which case they cannot serve as “major guiding documents for Marxist-Leninists throughout the country” (“The Road to Communist Unity”); or else those documents correctly appraised matters, and the CPML has no reason to try to unite with anything except “some local circles” and individual Marxist-Leninists. It is a good step for the CPML to admit the existence of other Marxist-Leninist organizations now. But it would be a mistake to pretend that the CPML has done so all along.

Organizations in the communist movement are often reluctant to admit a mistake for fear that one thing will lead to another, and pretty soon they will be denounced as revisionists. But merely changing positions without explaining why, or worse, pretending that one has consistently held this view all along often results in disorientation, demoralization and cynicism. The “consistent line” becomes whatever appears on any given day, and each new turn seems to confirm anti-communist propaganda about Marxists’ willingness to rewrite history.

One of the strengths of the CPML and of the OL before it has been their ability to change their positions. It is a good thing that the CPML is not dogmatically wedded to a single policy and can change its views.

But historically, this willingness to change course has had its good and bad aspects. For one thing, the CPML and OL have changed their positions a lot. Sometimes the OL and CPML have gone from a bad policy to a good one. But other times, they have gone from a good one to a bad one. And still other times, they have bounced back and forth from good to bad and back again, or vice versa. At the present time, the changes in the CPML go mainly towards more Marxist-Leninist policies, in our view, and away from more “left”-leaning policies. But in order to build on the positive features of these changes and push the whole revolutionary process forward, we need the “careful, critical examination of the past” that Burstein calls for.

Consider some of the following changes:

In trade union line: the OL/CPML trade union line has gone through a number of major changes, particularly in its attitude towards reform candidates in such unions as the Steelworkers. At one time, the OL called for nothing less than “full support” to Ed Sadlowski’s campaign for USW District 31 leadership. Then the OL developed its “main blow” against reformist union leaders’ position, and called for a boycott of the USW presidential elections pitting the business unionists and openly racist, pro-company McBride candidacy against Sadlowski. Under the influence of this “left” abstentionist position, each defeat of the Sadlowski and Balanoff forces in District 31 came at the hands of righteous “rank and file outrage.” The Central Committee sum-up of the CPML’s second year says that, “Some comrades... take our opposition to the ideology of reformism to mean that there can be no unity with individual reformists, thus shunning tactical unity with forces not already dedicated to revolution.” (The Call, June 11, 1979) But in our view this error stemmed not from the mistakes of some comrades, but rather from a “left” trade union line. In the July 23, 1979 Call, Comrade Charles Costigan correctly points out that an earlier Call article on elections in District 31 did not differentiate between the reformist and the reactionary forces in the union and played down the racist and pro-company campaign of the McBride people. Again, this earlier position belonged to a definite ’left’ leaning line.

On electoral work: the OL’s “Call to Unite” of December 1975 made a thinly-veiled attack on “new appeals to legalism, electoral cretinism, and narrow nationalism” which supposedly posed a serious threat to the communist movement. For years afterwards, the OL and the CPML after it never made a single proposal for electoral work of any sort. Recently, however, the Central Committee remarked that, “In other cases, participation in electoral work has been synonymous with ’revisionism,’ thus depriving us of our ability to utilize electoral tactics in appropriate places.” (June 11, 1979) Significantly enough, the same issue of The Call contains a report on the CPML’s visit with the Spanish Revolutionary Workers Organization, which has placed great emphasis on electoral work.

On communism’s mass influence: In the early stages of our struggle with the OCIC forces, we proposed an alternative point of unity which said that the U.S. communist movement is presently relatively isolated from the worker’s movement. For years the “Left-Wing” in our movement has issued steady progress reports about the deep roots and solid ties communism had sunk in the U.S. working class and among the oppressed nationalities. The CPML itself had spoken of the “considerable degree of fusion between the advanced workers and the communist movement.” But recently the CPML has changed its assessment: “For the communist movement to be a real force in U.S. society, to develop from relative isolation to a mass party that can influence the political events in a country....”

On the significance of the founding of the CPML: We have dealt with this point above. We would only add that in the ”Road to Communist Unity” editorial, the CPML recognized Marxist-Leninist “organizations operating in several cities” and “local collectives” as well as local circles and organizations under opportunist leadership. And while the CPML has told us for a couple of years that, “The OC carried us out of the period characterized mainly by the small, local communist circle...” (March 20, 1978), Comrade Klonsky would later call for “unity in one party as opposed to the continued existence of many circles.” (June 19, 1978)

No unity of action with revisionists: The Second Congress of the October League recognized the necessity to engage in some forms of united action with the CPUSA, as a means to building revolutionary influence and combatting revisionism. In April of 1975, however, the OL Vice-Chairperson and another Central Committee member would write that, “In the October League’s view, making a thorough and complete break, including an organizational break with the revisionists, is not a ’momentary tactic’ as Silber calls it, but a question of principle.” Then in the September Call of 1975, “no united action with the revisionists” is called the OL’s “tactical line.” This position continued in effect until very recently, when events such as the February 2 Greensboro demonstration showed a different and in our view more correct attitude on the part of the CPML.

We could cite other examples, but these suffice to show that the CPML has undertaken a rectification campaign directed at “Left” errors. The CPML’s deeds show that it has recognized that “Leftism” has been the error that the U.S. communist movement had “ceased to fight” during the 1970s, the danger which was “little known.” These deeds represent a break with the view that “the ultra-leftist trend has met with defeat time and time again. It is right opportunism, revisionism, that stands as our greatest internal enemy.” (The Call, June 19, 1978)

We return therefore to the question of the main danger, and what role it plays in party-building strategy. Burstein has written that, “On the whole, most of these struggles against rightism were useful and correct. In fact, I would say they were indispensable to the successful growth of our Party.” (The Call, January 7, 1980)

In one sense, we would agree. The struggles against real and alleged rightism were indispensable to the birth of the CPML and the policy it pursued for a couple of years. As Davidson has pointed out, the CPML fought the so-called “rightism” of the RCP and some “Revolutionary Wing” groups, as well as the real rightism of other forces. But it only sporadically fought the ultra-leftism of the RCP, those “Revolutionary Wing” groups and other organizations. It erroneously believed that the ultra-leftist trend had met with defeat time and time again. Such a party, built in that struggle, could only emerge with a “left”-leaning line. As we wrote in TTM:

Most of the major organizations believe right opportunism is the main danger, that political line is key, and have yet to wake up to the isolation of the movement as a whole from the masses and from the proletarian vanguard. These comrades “are building the new Communist Party but don’t know where the bourgeois line is”–in the “left,” not the as yet relatively weak Right line within the communist movement, (pp.233-34)

The October League and the Organizing Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party mis-analyzed the principal contradiction within the communist movement at that time. For social, historical and ideological reasons, they saw that contradiction as one between Marxism-Leninism and Right opportunism, rather than between Marxism-Leninism and “left” opportunism. Because the principal contradiction was not grasped, the process of communist unification ran aground. Since the OL/OC did not succeed in analyzing the contradictions dividing the established organizations of that time, they could not resolve those contradictions in favor of Marxist-Leninist unity and proletarian revolution. Consequently, the Organizing Committee effort failed to unite the October League with a single established communist organization in forming the CPML. Perhaps the OC avoided the “bloc-building” error that Davidson discusses, but only because it had fallen into a “left” sectarian one.

How should we sum up the 1970s for the communist movement?

Twenty years of anti-revisionist activity have provided U.S. Marxist-Leninists with a wealth of experience. This experience is extremely valuable and only a fool would ignore it. But despite the best efforts of thousands of revolutionary comrades, despite the leadership that Marxist-Leninists have frequently provided to important mass struggles, and despite the many individuals who have been won to the stand of Marxism-Leninism through these struggles, a concrete, sober-minded analysis of this experience has to conclude that its main feature is negative.

Let us try to prevent two possible misunderstandings. We do not mean that the experience of the U.S. Marxist-Leninist movement is worthless because it is mainly negative–on the contrary, it is perhaps even more valuable because it is mainly negative. And we certainly do not mean that Marxist-Leninists should not have boldly taken up the banner of communism and fought against the bourgeoisie, the business unionists, modern revisionism and Trotskyism, attempting to build up the revolutionary party of the proletariat. What we mean by “mainly negative” is that the communist movement has mainly accumulated examples not to follow, lessons by negative example, and has learned mainly what not to do, rather than accumulated models to emulate in building a Marxist-Leninist Party worthy of the name in this country.

Some comrades have taken strong exception to this description of the last twenty years, a description we would also make of the period since 1973. In reply, however, they have muddied the water by confusing valuable with positive experience. We have never doubted for a moment the value of what has transpired since the anti-revisionist movement first emerged in this country. But we stand by our assessment of whether that history provides mainly positive or mainly negative lessons.

When a deviation has gripped a communist party or movement for a lengthy period of time, there is always the temptation to combat the ensuing demoralization by listing only achievements. But such an approach often only increases people’s demoralization, since many comrades come to believe that the leaders in charge either don’t know what has happened, don’t care, or are simply concerned about their own reputations. People like the truth, and no matter how unpleasant the truth may sometimes be, communists ought to speak it.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Communist Party of China fell under three successive “left” lines. These lines caused great damage to the revolutionary cause, led to the loss of the base areas and of tens of thousands of fighters. When the CPC summed up this period, it looked reality in the eye and concluded that the period had been marked by mainly negative experience.

The Marxist-Leninist movement certainly has amassed some positive achievements during the 1970s. A good number of people have been won to Marxism-Leninism. Some organizations with a claim to a countrywide status have emerged. The existence of a regular communist press, including a weekly Call, definitely counts as a positive achievement. But those achievements cannot overshadow other developments of the past seven years. A good number of people were won to Marxism-Leninism and then followed their organizations into semi-Trotskyism and revolutionary adventurism. Some organizations with a claim to a countrywide status emerged only to head off into “left” revisionism, including the one-time largest anti-revisionist organization during the 1970s, the Revolutionary Union. Those groups took a regular press with them as well. Nor should we forget that Progressive Labor for a time during the 1960s had some real achievements to its credit, including more influence in the student movement at one moment than the sum total of influence among students of every anti-revisionist organization since. Yet we certainly would not summarize the 1960s as containing “overwhelmingly positive” lessons for the Marxist-Leninist movement; indeed, a good part of the 1970s were spent trying to avoid, often unsuccessfully, the fate of Progressive Labor.

How we summarize the 1970s–particularly the period since 1973–is not an abstract question, nor can it be answered with some vague sentences about overwhelmingly positive this or that or great gains here or there. Let’s get down to cases.

Burstein cites the “gaining of rich experiences in waging the class struggle, from the trade unions to the women’s movement” as part of the “great breakthroughs achieved through 10 years of struggle.” Let’s go back to the Steelworkers again as an example of the trade union line which has dominated the communist movement for most of the decade. The OL and CPML were by no means alone in advocating a boycott of Sadlowski’s campaign for the USW presidency and of other reform campaigns. Today the CPML has begun to devote more attention to the right-wing of the trade union movement, and we hope has begun to take a more helpful attitude towards the reformist sectors in the major unions. Such a general orientation is correct. Trouble is, it has been correct for years. Now after years of an ultra-left, abstentionist line towards many reformist-led insurgencies in the unions, and years of the poor results that line has achieved, comrades call for a return to a trade union policy more closely resembling policies which were briefly current in the early 1970s.

Were “rich experiences gained” during this time? Absolutely. Was this experience valuable? Yes, very valuable. But was it positive? No–it provides mainly negative examples of communist trade union policy, and while it held sway, it brought losses to the Marxist-Leninist movement, squandered valuable opportunities, frittered away valuable time, and burned more than a few people out.

Consider the Afro-American People’s Liberation Movement. At one time, through the efforts of organizations like the Black Workers Congress, the Revolutionary Workers League, the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP), and genuine mass organizations like the African Liberation Support Committee and the National Black Political Assembly, Marxism-Leninism had begun to gain a real hearing within the Black movement. Through a series of events for which ultra-leftism bears the main responsibility, the BWC, the RWL and the ALSC were smashed, and CAP withdrew from mass work. “Rich experience” was gained. Valuable experience was gained. But can anyone seriously contend that the Marxist-Leninist movement accumulated mainly positive lessons and admirable models for communist activity in the Black liberation movement during the 1970s? How is it then that all that allegedly positive experience has resulted in such marginal influence–has in fact lost influence we had once gained–for Marxism-Leninism in the Black movement?

Burstein cites the experience of Marxist-Leninists in the women’s movement. The last major interventions in the women’s movement by Marxist-Leninists took place at the time of the formation of CLUW, of the short-lived Black Women’s United Front, of the major socialist-feminist conferences and the also short-lived development of Women’s Unions in a number of cities. Are we to understand that those interventions resulted in a lot of positive models for future communist work among women? Why, a large section of the communist movement even opposed the ERA! Outside the workplaces and annual celebrations of International Working Women’s Day, the organized Marxist-Leninist forces today have precious little work in the women’s movement at all, never minds its quality. There’s more “rich experience” here–rich experience with sectarianism, “left” economism and “left” abstentionism. More valuable experience, too. But positive experience? No, comrades, not positive experience.

Burstein says that, “even though elections and legislation play an important role in American political life, we have very little understanding of how to make use of these bourgeois institutions to serve revolutionary aims.” The 1970s passed and the U.S. communist movement accumulated almost no experience whatsoever with electoral work. It was valuable and rich to see the effect of never dealing with the U.S. electoral process on communist influence among the masses. But was that positive? Should we seek to continue that particular tradition during the 1980s?

New mass movements grew up in the 1970s. The anti-nuclear movement took on a mass character during the late 1970s. Did the communists respond to this development in a timely way? Have the major Marxist-Leninist organizations acquired any real influence in that movement? Or consider the movement for democratic rights for gay people. The major Marxist-Leninist organizations opposed outright this genuinely mass and frequently militant movement, even to the point of barring gay communists from membership in their organizations. “Rich experience” was certainly gained, unfortunately mainly by gay people about Marxist-Leninists. It was all very valuable, no doubt. But was that “overwhelmingly positive”? Should we take that gay exclusion position into the 1980s? Will it help build the people’s struggles? Will it help us beat back the New Right? Will it help establish our credibility as vanguard fighters for democracy and against male supremacy?

The dominant section of the communist movement during most of the 1970s believed we could not take any forms of united action with revisionists; we could not conclude tactical agreements with reformist mass leaders; we should not build left-center united action in the unions; we should oppose reforms ranging from busing plans to achieve partial desegregation to any kind of nationalization of industry while the bourgeoisie still holds state power. More rich, valuable experience. But “overwhelmingly positive”? Comrades, we can hardly afford much more “overwhelmingly positive” experience like that.

Finally, the 1970s saw the formation of six or seven allegedly anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist parties. More positive experience?

Positive experience is experience we seek to emulate. We want to emulate the spirit of sacrifice, of daring to struggle and daring to win that has marked the Marxist-Leninist movement throughout the 1970s. We want to emulate the courage, the love for the people, and the determination that our movement has shown. But we do not want to emulate the errors that have crippled the Marxist-Leninist forces, particularly in the last half of the decade. We believe that the CPML and other organizations share this sentiment. Indeed, the CPML, more than some other comrades, has shown a willingness to face facts, a readiness to take a long, hard look at the ’70s so that we can see our way clearly in the ’80s.

It took the emergence of the splittist PLA and new developments in the CPC’s analysis of the “gang of four” for many comrades to start analyzing our own situation in this country. It took some hard knocks to shake the dust from some comrades’ eyes. But the direction of the communist movement’s current rectification efforts, changes and adjustment in line is unmistakable. The days of ultra-leftism’s virtually unchallenged dominance in the communist movement are over.

The struggle against “left” opportunism has proven to be a just cause that has won considerable support and will win still more. Together we can carry the struggle against ultra-leftism through to the end and meet the challenge of the Soviet military and ideological offensive. Together we can win a big victory for Marxist-Leninist unity. Together we can march into the 1980s confident that communism will one day have a mass following in our country.

The Proletarian Unity League
February 20, 1980