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

What Went Wrong?

In the early 1970s, a communist tendency to the left of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) emerged in the United States as a serious if small political movement. This communist Left disdained both Trotskyism and those communist parties supportive of the Soviet Union. It looked instead to the People’s Republic of China for inspiration in a struggle against what it regarded as the reformism dominating most of the communist parties around the world. In its sympathies for China, its antagonism towards the Soviet Union and its general interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, it succeeded the left-wing groups that broke away from the CPUSA in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With the exception of the Progressive Labor Party, those earlier grouplets never attained any influence either within popular movements or the New Left. The communist Left that began to take shape in the 1968-1970 period by contrast looked to many like the heir to the New Left of the 1960s. Quickly winning a large audience among both white and oppressed nationality activists, the Marxist-Leninists had reason for confidence in their future. Nor were their sympathizers the only ones to think so. The historian Jim O’Brien would later write,

The most striking development in American Leninism in the early ’70s was not the fate of the Communist Party or its already-existing rivals, but the rise of what became known to its partisans as the “new communist movement.” This was a homegrown Leninism that sprang from the ruins of the white New Left and from the left edges of nationalist movements among nonwhite minorities in the US.[1]

Today that communist movement is in open crisis. Most of its largest organizations have either splintered away into nothing or, severely reduced in size, descended into an extremism that bears only the remotest resemblance to Marxist politics. At origin a movement mainly of students and ex-students, its student organizations have collapsed. Having placed a high priority on propaganda and agitation, only a handful of its newspapers still appear regularly. Most of its bookstores have shuttered their windows, its few presses almost ceased publishing. Communist Left organizations call few demonstrations these days, hold few forums, and issue few leaflets. The dimensions of their difficulties are visible even in the manner that the Marxist-Leninist groups now fall apart. A few years ago, well-organized and hard-fought factional battles carved up organizations like the Black Workers Congress, the Revolutionary Workers League and the Revolutionary Communist Party. Today acrimonious ideological disputes have given way to a more pervasive and more punishing self-doubt within the depleted ranks of groups like the Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist (CPML). Their activists and even their leaders have streamed out in disillusionment. An important section of the CPML’s leadership has even proposed dissolving the group outright.

A dwindling number of Marxist-Leninist groups and individuals continue to disregard the crisis of the communist Left. The denials come from two sources. A few remaining adherents of the ultra-left orthodoxy of the 1970s have stubbornly refused to concede that the collapse of so many organizations has any broader implications. Foremost among these is the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which has recently said outright, “we don’t believe that the Marxist-Leninist movement is in disarray,” and cited itself as the proof: “we would not say that we are in disarray” (Unity, January 30, 1981). Except for those willing to follow the LRS in virtually identifying the communist Left with themselves, the short-sighted refusal to examine what has actually happened to the communist Left has little chance of convincing anyone: there are just too many casualties to hide.

Those who once styled themselves the answer to the developing crisis of the communist movement have also been ducking some unpleasant truths. The self-described “anti-dogmatists” of the communist Left attributed the ultra-left’s impasse almost entirely to its endorsement of China’s analysis of the Soviet Union and of China’s foreign policy. Like the LRS, the various anti-dogmatist groups have long been ready to acknowledge the crises of individual organizations, but not of the Marxist-Leninists as a whole. That the disarray of the communist Left does not stem mainly from its stance towards the Communist Party of China but rather belongs to a larger crisis of Marxism and of international communism is now attested to by the collapse of the anti-dogmatists themselves. The once best-organized anti-dogmatist group, the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC), revived many of the “left” economist policies current in the heyday of ultra-leftism and drove out most of its membership in the process. Meanwhile the Line of March (LOM), the most visible publicists for what it calls the “party-building movement,” have taken a pro-Soviet trajectory that has led them to write blank checks for Soviet invasions, past, present and future. Despite some initial promise, the widely advertised anti-dogmatist solution to the crisis of the communist Left has bitterly disappointed many of its one-time supporters and left the remaining Marxist-Leninists in even greater disarray.

Most Marxist-Leninists now attribute that disarray to the ultra-left orthodoxy that held sway over the communist movement during the 1970s. That acknowledgement signals a major ideological shift within the communist Left, one that has occurred only within the last couple of years. The Revolutionary Workers Headquarters was one of the first to make this reassessment, undertaken in 1978-79, shortly after its split from the Revolutionary Communist Party. The Workers Congress followed in 1979-80 but succumbed in the effort. After the winter of 1980, the Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist reached some conclusions about the “leftist” assumptions that had hamstrung the communist Left, but having reached them, lapsed into a prolonged internal crisis. With the exception of the Guardian newspaper and the Theoretical Review journal, most of the groups and individuals who once identified themselves as “anti-dogmatists” now refer to their tendency as specifically “anti-’left’ opportunist.” The PWOC-led OCIC made the switch in early 1978, and the leadership of the “rectification” groups followed in 1979.[2] With the collapse or decline of so many groups, the assumed truths of the communist movement also crumbled. Among the nationally prominent organizations who have not lost all sense of judgment, only the League of Revolutionary Struggle has yet to change its mind on this matter.

This new consensus has yet to advance the influence of the communist Left. In part this is because that understanding came too late, and in part because too many of those activists recently convinced have not wanted to make a serious evaluation of their own history. The anti-dogmatists’ key area of disagreement with the hegemonic perspectives of the communist Left was not ultra-leftism but rather the communist Left’s alignment with the foreign policy of China. They owed their emergence as a tendency to the claim that any “leftist” deviations stemmed from this underlying problem – from Chinese Communist tutelage and a corresponding (and real) subservience on the part of US Marxist-Leninists. Since the anti-dogmatists would have no truck with the Chinese analysis of world events or of the Soviet Union, many considered themselves well shielded against ultra-leftism. Subsequent events have shown otherwise.

As the anti-dogmatists moved “left,” many former “lefts” discovered the fight against dogmatism. The ex-“lefts’” idea of dogmatism differed somewhat from the anti-dogmatists, but at base it amounted to much the same thing. The anti-dogmatists identified the fountainhead of ultra-leftism as the acceptance of the idea that the Soviet Union no longer was a socialist society, agreement with the three worlds thesis, and, at least among the OCIC and LOM, theoretical and political regard for Mao Zedong’s writings. Some ex-“lefts” blamed instead the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the “gang of four,” following the Chinese Communist Party’s own reversal of its assessments of Chinese history since 1957. Doctrinairism came under fire. “I would especially underscore the problems of dogmatism and doctrinairism,” wrote Daniel Burstein, editor of the CPML’s newspaper.

It is always hard to find a Marxist with a kind word for dogmatism, though one Marxist’s dogma is often another’s guide to revolutionary action. As with many “anti-dogmatists” in the years 1975-1978, some ex-“lefts’” new-found vigilance against dogmatism amounted to a temporary fall-back position. The denunciation of dogmatism within the CPML in particular quickly led to the questioning of such tenets of the communist tradition as the necessity for a separately organized revolutionary party, the need for preparations against the possibility of ruling class violence, a recognition of the class character and dictatorial features of any state, including a socialist democracy, and others. Any of these concepts would benefit from rethinking and rearguing, and all suffer without it. But in their haste for respectability some ex-“lefts” show little prospect of contributing to that discussion.

The present collection brings together articles and letters written by the Proletarian Unity League and others as part of the debate over what happened to the communist Left during the 1970s. Dating for the most part from the period late 1978-early 1980, they belong to a particular phase of that debate. In May of 1977, the PUL had helped bring out the Grafton, Mitchell and Weiss book, Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type? Against the Ultra-Left Line (TTM). It began,

The communist forces currently find themselves in severe difficulties brought on not only by the youthfulness and inexperience of their ranks, but also by serious mistakes in judgment and policy. While the effects of these mistakes do not as yet add up to a full-blown crisis, if left unchecked they threaten to cripple the communist forces for a number of years to come. (TTM, p. v)

Over the next two years, the full-blown crisis arrived. The articles and letters collected here are mainly polemical in nature, designed to argue and in places extend the analysis found in Two, Three, Many... of the chief ideological and political causes of that crisis. They do so against the backdrop of events in China. Those events served as one of the precipitants for the collapse of much of the communist Left, both domestically and abroad.

The pieces collected here help clarify why this should be so. Written in response to the perspectives of four organizations – the CPML, the I Wor Kuen (IWK) and the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL) (both since merged into the LRS), and the Workers Congress – they cite a number of examples of US communist groups relying on others to do their thinking for them. For the truth is that throughout the 1970s, many Marxist-Leninist organizations sounded very brave and self-reliant in the privacy of their own meeting halls, but in practice could hardly bring themselves to reach an independent conclusion about anything on which another party – the Chinese – may have had views.

For instance, in these pages the IWK leadership upbraids the PUL because the PUL

...tried to characterize the “gang of four” as ultra-leftists to suit your own purpose for the struggle in the US. But the Communist Party of China has very clearly time and time again put forth that the “gang” were ultra-Rightists which posed as “leftists” to gain credibility. But they were not ultra-leftists.

The successor organization to the IWK, the LRS, stood by this same characterization. At the time, the PUL had simply attempted to look at the sum total of Chinese descriptions and analyses of what the “gang of four” had done, and then exercise some judgment about them. Based on the information presented, they concluded that the deviation described had historical affinities with an ultra-left deviation. Subsequently, the CPC published articles that took issue with the characterization of the “gang” as ultra-Rightists.[3] Without uttering so much as a word in defense of their past “independent judgment,” the LRS made the same change. They did not retract criticisms like those made here, they did not explain their new position or examine the sources of their past view and its implications for this country (where they had proceeded to “apply” Chinese experience by dubbing US organizations “ultra-Rightist” as well). Instead the LRS quietly cut their “leading line” according to the latest Chinese fashion and dutifully began referring to the “gang” as ultra-leftists.

The later Chinese analysis of course could not and did not vindicate those US Marxists who had earlier suggested that Jiang Qing et. al.’s line had leftist affinities. When the CPC described the line of the “gang of four” as ultra-Rightist, US observers had few sources of information about the “gang” independent of the Chinese Party and state and still have few today. A certain amount of evidence has accumulated that the “gang of four” did advocate ultra-leftist policies and did undermine socialist democracy. But the most anyone can say today remains, that based on the information presented, the deviation described resembles an ultra-left deviation. The change-about of the LRS does prove something, however: that those who forego their own thinking for the ideas of others are forever at the mercy of events.

To take another example from these letters. Some Marxists, including the PUL, have always held that various forms of united action with reform organizations and leaderships and with the old-line Communist Parties (those belonging to what Marxist-Leninists call the “modern revisionist trend”) are not only permissible but tactically absolutely necessary. In publications and elsewhere, the PUL has drawn attention to the possibilities for united action opened up by the so-called “Eurocommunist”[4] trend in particular. The Eurocommunists reject the Soviet model for KGB socialism and also, to varying degrees, the Swedish model of a “concerned” capitalism. They seek a socialism that preserves and extends the democratic conquests of working people. While so far largely failing to mobilize their mass political and trade union followings against Soviet aggression, they have nonetheless taken influential positions in opposition to specific acts of Soviet hegemonism in countries like Czechoslovakia, Eritrea and Afghanistan.[5] All these features provide compelling reasons for revolutionary Marxists to seek out avenues of cooperation and united action with the Eurocommunists. Even in countries like the United States where the Eurocommunist trend has no organizational presence, its ideas affect a broad spectrum of socialist opinion, creating a common ground with the communist Left. Despite far greater differences, Marxist-Leninists also should undertake united action where possible with even such pro-Soviet organizations as the CPUSA.

A number of Marxist-Leninist organizations took great offense at the very idea of united action with the old-line Communist parties, Eurocommunist or not. As one of the articles included here indicates, some groups once declared “no unity of action with revisionists” no less than a “principle” of Marxism. Far from welcoming the opportunities presented by Eurocommunism for strengthening the unity of the popular forces and the fight against superpower hegemonism, Marxist-Leninists here and abroad denounced the Eurocommunists throughout the 1970s as an especially pernicious brand of treachery to be shunned by all true Marxists. The reasoning of Call editor Daniel Burstein was typical:

The Eurocommunists are... “more revisionist than the revisionists” in the sense that they have openly attacked Marxism-Leninism and discarded its principles to an even greater extent than the Soviet revisionists... there is unity between the two trends [“Eurorevisionism and Moscow revisionism”). This is because both represent fundamentally revisionist political lines, trampling Marxism-Leninism underfoot. Thus Eurorevisionism objectively serves the aims of Soviet social-imperialism. (“Eurorevisionism: The New Face of Treachery in the Second World,” Class Struggle, Winter, 1978, pp. 49, 51)

Those among the communist Left who challenged this bookish “leftism” came under attack. Note the Revolutionary Communist League’s grandiose call for the PUL to “break with centrism,” quoted in the PUL reply included here. Not surprisingly, Marxist-Leninist organizations with these views were less forthright in sharing their perspective with the Communist Party of China when in the last two years the Chinese re-established Party-to-Party relations with the Italian Communist Party, the Communist Party of Spain and the Communist Party of Greece-Interior. The organization into which the RCL merged, the LRS, commented approvingly on these developments as soon as they occurred.

Sometimes the results of this subservience are comic, sometimes painfully embarrassing. But they inevitably sap the morale of Marxist activists and corrode whatever respect they have managed to gain among the people. Whatever its immediate effect, the long-term consequences of dependence upon foreign inspiration are profoundly destructive. The examples of the dependence upon China found in this collection are just a handful among many, a representative sample of the style that dominated the US communist Left during the 1970s and finally helped run it into the ground. Perhaps no example better illustrates the damaging results of this attitude than the Workers Congress’ remarks about capitalist restoration.

The Workers Congress scolded the PUL for stating that it had a position on the nature of the Soviet Union but no historical materialist analysis.[6]

You adopt a temporizing approach to the question of revisionism which mystifies the difficulties involved. More than enough material has been published in Peking Review. You yourselves are capable of studying the 1965 Economic Reforms and other matters such as the state and the party of the whole people, etc. Sufficient events have unfolded. A number of organizations in our movement, including our own, have written effectively on the subject. (See the November 2, 1976 letter from the Workers Congress included in this volume.)

More than enough material has been published in Peking Review.” “The Communist Party of China has very clearly time and time again put forth that the ’gang’ were ultra-Rightists...” Those are replies that stamped a decade in the history of the communist Left in this country and elsewhere.

From almost the very moment that the CPC first declared that capitalism had been restored in the Soviet Union, and then, a few short years later, that the Soviet Union now constituted a “social-imperialist” power, many Marxist-Leninists believed that “more than enough material has been published in Peking Review.” They relied on the descriptive analyses and sometimes almost anecdotal accounts put forward by the CPC and the Party of Labor of Albania to clinch their own arguments. They were sure that “sufficient events have unfolded.” The “effective” writings referred to by the Workers Congress consisted almost entirely of rehashes of Chinese and Albanian publications. The two main US publications on the subject – Martin Nicolaus’ Restoration of Capitalism in the USSR (Chicago, 1975) and the Revolutionary Union’s How Capitalism Has Been Restored in the Soviet Union and What This Means for the World Struggle (Chicago, 1974) – attempted to substantiate further the restored capitalism conclusion, but they started from the Albanian and public Chinese premise that very little had occurred in the Soviet Union in the thirty years before Stalin’s death of consequence to the whole problem. When the October League/Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist later repudiated their former member Nicolaus’ book, they damned the few critical remarks he had made about Stalin and the history of the Soviet Union under his leadership. Having disowned Nicolaus’ admittedly faulty argument about capitalist restoration on even more threadbare grounds, they did not bother to produce a fresh analysis. As iron-clad evidence that Nicolaus “is a revisionist of the Browder type, of the Krushchev type... who tried to sneak into the ranks of the Marxist-Leninists in order to subvert our movement and bring us to our knees before the capitalists,” Daniel Burstein indignantly exclaimed, “He actually describes what Chairman Mao called a ’fascist dictatorship of the Hitler type’ in the USSR as still a basically socialist society in the 1960s.”[7] Characteristically, even the phrasing had a Chinese flavor. Sufficient events, you see, had unfolded.

Then a few more events unfolded. The CPC arrested the “gang of four,” a big shakeup took place in the Chinese Party and state leadership, and all basic policies came under review, including how the Chinese analyzed the nature of socialist society, the place of class struggle within it, the character of socialist enterprises and many other issues on which more than enough material had appeared in Beijing Review. Sufficient events unfolded – sufficient to throw US Marxist-Leninists and many others in doubt about how the CPC now understood the possibility of capitalist restoration in China or whether it regarded that as a possibility at all. And if the possibility of capitalist restoration in China was in doubt, what about the Soviet Union? US Marxist-Leninists did not know and still do not.

Meanwhile, shortly after the death of Mao Zedong, a major ideological offensive began within the US Left against the concept of capitalist restoration. That campaign happened to accompany the Soviet Union’s own political and military offensive against the world’s peoples and against the entrenched positions of the US. As the Soviet Union’s offensive has stepped up, so too has this ideological offensive against the idea that the Soviet Union is a special type of capitalist and imperialist country. No less than four different books have now appeared in the US arguing an avowedly Marxist-Leninist case against the thesis of capitalist restoration.[8] Suddenly, more than enough material did not exist in Beijing Review. The books arguing in favor of the Soviet Union’s socialist character attacked some of the old Beijing Review arguments, and Beijing Review was not around to respond or indicate how US communists should respond. So those US Marxist-Leninists who still relied on the Chinese fell silent. They had not developed their own theoretical analysis of the nature of the transition to communism; they had not done their own historical work on class struggles in the USSR; and for the most part they had not conducted their own empirical investigations. They are paying for those failures in the increasing isolation of some of their views. Were it not for the Soviet Union’s propensity for plotting, financing and carrying out invasions of other countries, the thesis of social-imperialism would have very little audience indeed.

Despite the ruinous consequences of looking Eastward for a guide to the US struggle, that habit has not ended. Of the handful of organizations that still believe the three worlds thesis an important conceptualization of world politics, several raced to arrive at up-to-the-minute judgments that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a complete disaster for China, former eulogies to the Cultural Revolution no withstanding (nor worth more than a brief mention, naturally). Trips to China, talks and reading have enabled groups like the LRS to reach in great haste the same conclusions that trips to China, talks and reading had enabled them to reach before, namely agreement with the current Chinese analysis.

When a Chinese Communist leader recently used a metaphor about “red” and “grey” to explain to some US Marxist-Leninists Chinese united front policies, that metaphor entered the lexicon of the US communist Left, “anti-doctrinaire” or no. Nor has this habit entirely ceased to exercise a more direct and damaging effect on the struggles in this country.

Throughout the 1970s, Marxist-Leninists – most especially, those that looked to China for inspiration – have been virtually the only part of the left whose organizations barred on principle gay men and lesbians from membership. Some members of the most prominent communist organizations still regularly repeat in informal gatherings the most vulgar and male supremacist prejudices about homosexuals. This policy alienated those communist groups from the organized women’s movement, and struck many other sections of the progressive movements as outrageous.

A few of the smaller organizations who dissented from the ultra-left orthodoxy also opposed all forms of social and economic discrimination directed against gay men and lesbians. Marxist-Leninist organizations did not miss an opportunity to tell these others that this or that illustrious Communist Party in another land historically barred homosexuals from membership or does to this day. If that is true, it is not the first difference in the history of the Marxist movement and it won’t be the last.

US Marxist-Leninists have their experience and their theoretical understandings and other Marxist organizations and Parties have theirs. The historical experience of the international communist movement and of great Communist Parties abroad is infinitely richer than our own. Doubtless they draw on that experience in reaching decisions on various policy questions. We can benefit from that experience where they sum it up and make it available. But we can only do so where we can simultaneously obtain hard information and stick by our own theoretical perspective to reach our own conclusions.

We have infinitely less experience than the great Communist Parties abroad or than is represented by the history of the international communist movement. It is, however, our experience, and we cannot forsake it or substitute someone else’s simply because it is their experience and they are a great Party. We can study the Bolsheviks’ experience and we can study China’s but that does not by itself change our own. Study can help place our experience in proper perspective; it may even be able to show us that our practice and observations belong to the exceptions to some general situation and should therefore not decide the issue. But until we reach that conclusion about any policy, we can only rely on what the struggle and Marxism has taught us so far. US Marxists are not “anti-” anybody because they happen to have their own experience and theoretical understandings, and should not be stampeded into any policy by demagogues who charge that they are. They have already seen too many such folk come and go for that.

So when some of the same people who have lectured others about how the Communist Party of China has “very clearly time and time again” identified the “gang of four” as “ultra-Rightists,” or about how a 1965 CPC pamphlet dealing with a very particular situation nonetheless “clearly” rules out any form of united action with old-line Communist Parties or about the “effectiveness” of published material on capitalist restoration – when some of these same people declare that this or that Communist Party abroad historically barred gay men and lesbians from membership or does so today, or that they advocate any other policy on any other issue, no one should get too excited. Other US Marxists have reached some independent judgments that conform with the views of some other Parties or organizations, or apparently do, and some decisions that apparently do not. Life will go on. Communism will still exist. Marxists here can hardly expect everyone in the world to agree with what they think and do, and we can’t imagine that any organizations of any importance would expect anything different from everybody else. Policy cannot be set, theory advanced or influence won by taking polls of Marxist groups or Parties abroad. Like it or not, people are going to have to take responsibility for their own decisions and for their own revolution.


The upheavals in the Chinese party and state, the reversals in many Chinese policies and analyses, and the way those changes highlighted the problem of ultra-leftism helped precipitate the current difficulties of the communist Left both in the United States and abroad. Those difficulties have assumed equally if not more dramatic proportions in a number of European countries.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), a group that had existed for ten years, once counted over a thousand members, and had shown an ability to mobilize many thousands more in mass demonstrations, voted to dissolve by a two-thirds majority in early 1980. The largest of the communist Left organizations in that country, the Communist League of West Germany (KBW), underwent a major split in 1980. In the 1976 federal elections, the KPD had garnered 22,714 votes and the KBW 20,018; in the October 5, 1980 elections, the KBW obtained only 8,285 votes. In Austria, a large section of the Communist League of Austria (KBO) (some accounts say the majority), the major Marxist-Leninist organisation there, voted to dissolve as well. A considerably reduced grouping continues under that name.

The Brittany leadership of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of France (PCMLF) advocated dissolving that party in late 1979, and though the proposal did not go through, the upheaval that ensued resulted in a serious membership loss of an already small organization. The PCMLF dropped its effort to run a Presidential candidate in the May 1981 elections and the daily newspaper it jointly published with the Revolutionary Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) (PCR-ML) folded. Both now produce their own weeklies and have apparently shelved merger plans.

Other Marxist-Leninist organizations in Europe are also in turmoil. The Revolutionary Communist League of Britain, the major Marxist-Leninist group in that country though never a large one, underwent a leadership split. In 1980, the once sizeable Revolutionary Communist Movement of Greece (EKKE) also experienced an important split. Both organizations are reportedly in some disarray. The Spanish Workers Party (PTE), product of a merger between two influential and relatively tested Marxist-Leninist organizations (the Revolutionary Workers Organization and the Spanish Labor Party) fell into disarray during the same period.

Elsewhere among the advanced capitalist countries the communist Left has fared better. In Norway, the Workers Communist Party (AKP) represents a more important electoral and trade union force than the pro-Moscow Communist Party. In Belgium, the Party of Labor of Belgium (PTB/PvdAB) has achieved a significant implantation in the trade unions, particularly in Flanders, and has made impressive electoral showings in legislative and the European parliamentary elections. Its electoral totals ran at better than 20% of those of the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Belgium in the legislative elections and around 30% in the European elections in 1979. (The party more regularly featured in Beijing Review during the 1970s, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Belgium, by contrast does not represent a significant grouping.) At last report, the Movimento dei Lavoratori per il Socialismo (MLS) in Italy had survived the general collapse of the Italian revolutionary Left and still amounted to an important revolutionary force. The relatively new Japan Labor Party also made a respectable showing in its first elections.

Despite the historic relationship between Canada and the United States, the US Left traditionally pays little attention to developments to our north, thereby mirroring its own ruling class’ attitude. As in Norway, the old-line Communist Party in Canada (CPC) is very small and as aligned with Moscow as the CPUSA. Bourgeois commentators now place the size of the Workers Communist Party (WCP) there as almost equal to the CPC, and in the Quebec nation it has clearly supplanted the CPC as the major organization of the Marxist left. The WCP has noticeable trade union influence within Quebec.

In the Third World, the situation is mixed. In countries like Peru and especially the Philippines, the new Marxist-Leninist parties formed in the last dozen or so years have demonstrated national popular support. Indeed, the Communist Party of the Philippines represents the most powerful force in the anti-Marcos opposition. But in much of Latin America, the Marxist-Leninists have either never attained significant influence or else lost much of what they had.

The successes of the communist Left in some advanced capitalist countries and in some countries of the Third World do not negate the defeat of international anti-revisionism overall, though they do lighten an otherwise bleaker picture. That defeat has appeared to confirm the “anti-doctrinaire” analyses of both the “anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist trend” and some former partisans of the ultra-left orthodoxy of the 1970s. To different degrees with different emphases, they have argued that the defeats of the Chinese-sympathizing communist Left resulted from its adherence to a version of Marxism emanating from China. For the former group, the advocacy of the idea that the Soviet Union is an imperialist superpower and the support for the three worlds thesis were decisive in undoing the communist Left; lately, some anti-dogmatists have added a generalized indictment of “Maoism.” For the latter group, sympathy for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and its principles was chiefly responsible for the later defeats of the Marxist-Leninists.

Dogmatism and a fawning attitude towards Chinese Communism plagued the communist Left. They also contributed significantly to the communist Left’s inability to emerge as a national political force in many countries, and undoubtedly helped precipitate the particular form taken by the decline of the Marxist-Leninists internationally. But the “anti-doctrinaire” explanation for that decline depends on very selective evidence. Articles in the anti-dogmatist press on the collapse of the “Maoists” betray the same sectarian manipulation of facts that the US communist Left brought to so many political questions throughout the 1970s.[9] The argument that agreement with the three worlds thesis or on the capitalist nature of the Soviet Union inevitably led the Marxist-Leninists to an impasse requires more than pointing to the undeniable facts that many Marxist-Leninists believed these things and that they are now in an impasse. That argument must also show that the crisis of the Marxist-Leninists is somehow particular to them, since they are the only ones who believed these things. But the “anti-doctrinaire” explanation cannot show that. It cannot because the problems of the communist Left belong to a larger crisis, one of Marxism and of Marxists world-wide. That crisis affects the entire spectrum of the international revolutionary Left which emerged in the aftermath of the 1968-70 upsurges, and also those old-line Communist Parties who attempted to respond to the dynamism of that period.

If such champions of the “anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist trend” as the Line of March have gloated over the collapse of many “Maoist” parties, they have been understandably less eager to publicize the defeats of groups with “anti-dogmatist” credentials. Yet if we consider those groupings certified as part of its “trend” by the Line of March journal, we find a decline and disarray that parallels that described above.

By the communists we mean all those Marxist-Leninists who objectively fall within the anti-revisionist, anti-“left” opportunist trend. Here we include the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC) and the rectification forces grouped around the editorial board of Line of March and other organized forces in our trend. In addition, we include organizations and parties – we have in mind such groups as the Communist Labor Party and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party – who do not presently take responsibility for the life of this trend but whose general political orientation places them within its demarcations. (LOM Editorial Board, “A Communist Proposal for a United Front Against War and Racism,” LOM, March-April, 1981, pp. 34-35).

The Communist Labor Party has undergone a split and steadily faded. The Puerto Rican Socialist Party has seen its influence drop markedly both on the island and on the mainland.


Two months after Clay Newlin had informed supporters of the OCIC of “the sobering fact” that “the immediate future for Marxism-Leninism in the United States depends largely on the success or failure of the OCIC” (The Organizer, October 1980), he announced “the second crisis of US anti-revisionism” (the first he dated from the 1975 civil war in Angola; The Organizer, December 1980). Mass expulsions and resignations had struck the OCIC and most of its work had ground to a halt. In preceding months, the OCIC embarked upon an internal campaign against white chauvinism divorced from the OCIC’s overall analysis of the Black liberation struggle and conducted in idealist and repressive fashion. In a manner typical of the “left” economist orthodoxy of the 1970s, the OCIC attacked feminism within the women’s movement as “inherently racist” (The Organizer, July 1980), which is to say, it attacked the conscious identity of the majority of participants in the organized women’s movement. And the OCIC fell into revolutionary posturing in the trade unions, in the expectation of quickly developing a substantial communist presence there. At the same time, the long-noted sectarianism of the OCIC leadership increased several-fold.

The rest of the anti-dogmatists have treated the OCIC disintegration as a limited setback rather than as the symptom of a larger problem.[10] Like the League of Revolutionary Struggle, the LOM may want to deny that their “anti-revisionist, anti-’left’ opportunist trend” is in disarray because they are not in disarray. But then the LOM is only a journal and a collection of study groups “rectifying their line,” which is many people’s idea of organizational disarray in the first place. A journal, moreover, that says things like,

Having broken with the opportunist international trends headquartered in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China, this trend represents the only political force in the US basing itself firmly on the principles of proletarian internationalism and looking to the science of Marxism-Leninism as its guiding ideology. This is the basis for the trend to accept, with optimism, the profound responsibilities placed on it by history. (Max Elbaum and Melinda Paras, “The Theory and Practice of the Rectification Movement,” Line of March, October-November 1980, p. 73)

After all that has happened, people who still talk about themselves as the “only force looking to the science of Marxism-Leninism” are certifiably in disarray. The politics of the LOM provide further proof. The so-called “rectification” groups followed their support for the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea with support for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and then with opposition to the Polish workers’ struggle against the Polish government. While most of the Left at home and abroad has demanded no Soviet interference in Poland, the Line of March group considers the USSR “probably the principal factor standing in the way of capitalist restoration in Poland” (Line of March editorial statement, “Poland – Where We Stand,” Jan.-Feb. 1981, p. 47). It has also announced that, “An old fashioned purge would probably do Polish socialism some good,” while broad-mindedly granting that “the term ’purge’ understandably has negative connotations” (ibid, p. 16). (In truth, “purge” is less the problem here than “old-fashioned purge,” a phrase with unmistakable connotations for Poles and non-Poles alike; the Soviet state under Stalin’s leadership executed almost the entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party in the late 1930s.) Like East Germany party boss Erich Honecker, the Line of March is busy preparing the groundwork for a Warsaw Pact invasion of Poland. In confirming the worst predictions of critics of the anti-dogmatist position, Line of March has run into opposition among other anti-dogmatists, but their views have an undeniable logic to them once such premises as the socialist character of the Soviet Union are accepted.

That the PWOC-led OCIC should refurbish the “left” economism of the 1970s or that the “rectification” grouping should take up a position on the “left” sectarian end of the pro-Soviet spectrum has surprised and alienated many who associated both with a critique of ultra-leftism. But the past positions of some of those who currently tout themselves as “the party-building movement” or the “anti-’left’ opportunist, anti-revisionist trend” help explain their subsequent history and the particular forms of their disarray. The leaders of “the party-building movement” began as anti-dogmatists who explicitly distinguished themselves from the view that the main danger should be described as ““left” opportunism.”[11] The anti-dogmatism of the OCIC and “rectification” leaderships was not a theoretically and practically grounded analysis of ultra-leftism, but rather an unwillingness to face the new realities of the world situation. That unwillingness resulted in a blindness to Soviet designs.

For many years, anti-imperialism meant above all opposition to US imperialism. Heirs to the New Left’s opposition to the Vietnam war, many anti-imperialist activists are stuck in those years. They act like US imperialism will remain the single main enemy of humankind so long as it exists; correspondingly, the Soviet Union will remain the sometime ally in that struggle that it was during the Vietnam war.

The world changes nonetheless. Unless the theoretical analysis of and practical struggles against imperialism change with it, then activists will find themselves aiding rather than combatting imperialist aggression (witness Afghanistan or Poland). Diverse sections of the left have begun to rethink their stance towards the Soviet Union,[12] but the Marxist-Leninists have had precious little influence on that process, in part because the international situation became such a focus of political and organizational struggle within the communist Left.

Throughout the formative struggles of the OCIC and other anti-dogmatist groups, no anti-dogmatists succeeded in developing an analysis of just what was “left” about the unfavorable re-evaluation of the Soviet Union’s role in the world or about the three worlds thesis. Yet the anti-dogmatist cause centered on its opposition to the three worlds thesis, rather than on an opposition to ultra-leftism. Many anti-dogmatists condemned the three worlds thesis from a theoretical position to the left of that thesis; thus the editors of the Theoretical Review could call Enver Hoxha’s extremely “left” critique “an accurate assessment of the ’theory of the three worlds’” (Theoretical Review, May-June 1979). The focus on opposition to the three worlds thesis left the OCIC unprepared to deal with the inevitable ultra-left tendencies that emerged within their own organization. This focus also helps explain why anti-dogmatist theoreticians like the Ann Arbor Collective could call for a scientific definition of “dogmatism” but never produce one, despite its centrality for their politics.

Its international perspectives and its leadership’s superficial under standing of ultra-leftism both contributed to the collapse of the main anti-dogmatist grouping, the OCIC. Two additional factors help explain why its troubles broke out around the OCIC’s campaign against white chauvinism and why that campaign took the “left” idealist form it did.

The struggle against white supremacist national oppression constitutes the key strategic problem of the US revolution. That struggle necessarily has its effects within Marxist organizations. It shows up principally in the form of a white chauvinist belittlement of the revolutionary character of the oppressed nationality movements independent of the labor movement or a disregard of the material existence of white favoritism. The PWOC-led OCIC adopted a fundamentally mistaken orientation towards both these issues.

The OCIC founding principles of unity state that “unity in the struggle against racism cannot be built on the basis of moral appeals to the white workers to ’repudiate their white skin privileges’...” (Organizing Committee Bulletin, #2, p. 38). Call it what you will – the system of relative advantages for whites, preferences for whites, white-skin privileges – white favoritism has a material reality, and its ideological influences on the working class constitute the chief mainstay of capitalist rule in this country. White chauvinism consequently reflects the material result of the ruling class policies of preferences for whites. Having denied the material basis of white chauvinism, the OCIC finished by treating racism as bad ideas. The struggle against white chauvinism became a struggle against individuals’ bad ideas, the product of their bourgeois social conditioning, to be handled through a campaign of social deconditioning. Just as the OCIC never had an elaborated analysis of ultra-leftism, and consequently could not deal with ultra-left tendencies that surfaced in its own organization, so it had no coherent analysis of white supremacist national oppression, and as a result found itself overwhelmed by the task of struggle against white chauvinism. Contending with effects it could not control, the OCIC leadership resorted to commandist practices in the campaign. Those who have undergone the OCIC’s bare-your-soul campaign can best appreciate the irony in its charge that the recognition of white-skin privileges leads to “moral appeals to the white workers.”

The OCIC imported with unseemly haste the PWOC rejection of self-determination as the strategic slogan for the Black liberation movement. The adoption of the PWOC’s view on this matter placed the overwhelmingly white OCIC squarely in opposition to the unifying demand of most of the revolutionary tendencies within the Afro-American national movement. Contradicting the national character of the Afro-American struggle, the OCIC’s (and other anti-dogmatists’) rejection of self-determination evidences white chauvinism both in its ignorance of Black history and in its dogged adherence to existing Stalinian theory on the national question. That rejection of the right of Black people to determine their own destiny under white-supremacist bourgeois domination or under socialism in turn encourages white chauvinism on the part of white Marxists who adhere to it.

Finally, the international perspective of the OCIC and some others of the anti-dogmatist “party-building movement” invites what Marxists call great-nation chauvinism towards small nations and peoples. The support extended by the OCIC, and, in somewhat anguished form, by the Theoretical Review, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and by the “rectification” grouping to the invasions of other small nations like Kampuchea or Poland encourages a general trampling upon the national right of self-determination. Conversely, the failure to accord a full revolutionary importance to that right produces wavering in the face of so-called “socialist invasions,” and to different degrees the main anti-dogmatist groups wobble on the issue. This international position has its domestic counterpart in opposition to self-determination for the Afro-American people, and support for Russian chauvinism abroad its complement in white chauvinism at home.[13] Because they have made international line the rallying cry for their tendency, and because their international line leads inexorably towards the embrace of Soviet hegemony (Line of March being both the most extreme and the most consistent among them), the anti-dogmatists are constantly pressured either to deny all national rights or to head towards an increasingly eclectic, self-contradictory international policy. (For instance, the OCIC opposed the invasion of Kampuchea but approved that of Afghanistan; the Guardian opposed the invasion of Afghanistan but also opposed any support to those resisting it; the Theoretical Review wrung its hands over the same invasion, gave it grudging support nonetheless, and tries to draw a line at Poland, a European country, unlike Kampuchea or Afghanistan.)

Unwilling to look at their own political line as a source for their internal problems, the OCIC leadership resorted to more and more desperate measures. At the same time, the other anti-dogmatist groupings were unable to mount an effective political critique of the OCIC’s white chauvinism campaign because they shared the basic tenets of its political line on all three points. Their criticisms centered instead on the methods of struggle employed rather than the OCIC’s political positions.

The rapid demise of the OCIC is not the only setback suffered by anti-dogmatist groupings either in the United States or abroad. For a variety of reasons, the collapse of the “orthodox” Marxist-Leninist parties internationally is more visible than that of these other groups. Groups sympathetic to China outnumbered the anti-dogmatists, have been around longer and in many cases achieved more. Further, US “anti-dogmatists” have not named very many organizations abroad as sharing their assumptions. Over the last couple of years, however, the Guardian newspaper has mentioned two groups in France and the Federal Republic of Germany as “anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist” organizations: the Communist Organization of Workers (Organisation Communiste des Travailleurs, OCT) and the Communist League (Kommunistischer Bund, KB). Both have experienced severe internal disruption in the last two years. The OCT formed out of a merger in 1976; the principal organization involved was Revolution!, a 1971 split-off from the Revolutionary Communist League (Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, or LCR, the French section of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International) with sympathies for the Cultural Revolution in China. Since 1977 it has been in serious internal disarray, resulting in a large loss of membership and later a split in which slightly less than half those remaining decided to reapply to the LCR. The KB grew out of former German SDS activists centered in Hamburg. It experienced rapid growth in 1975-1978, and while never reaching the size of the KBW, probably surpassed the weakened KPD. The KB then also underwent the by now familiar upheaval, with accompanying drastic loss of membership including the dissolution of entire local organizations. The leadership expelled about a third of its entire membership over a dispute on work within the “Greens,” the ecology party in Germany (those expelled worked closely with that party).

The fate of these organizations and of the “Maoist” parties parallels the serious difficulties encountered by the entire revolutionary Left that emerged in the advanced capitalist world since 1968. Those difficulties have shaken every tendency within the revolutionary Left, from the most admiring adherents of China’s foreign policies through the various major Trotskyist tendencies, to organizations that 1c not fit any neat category. The present decline in the revolutionary apparent in the countries where it had the most success in the mid-1970s, Italy and Portugal. Prior to the 1976 Italian elections, the three major revolutionary Left organizations there – Avanguardia Operaio (AO), PDUP-Il Manifesto, and Lotta Continua – each had between 5,000 and 10,000 militants, a daily newspaper, and among them, several local radio stations and half a dozen members of parliament. When the Communists failed to use their advances in those elections to press for a Left government, paralysis almost immediately gripped the revolutionary Left. AO and PDUP-Il Manifesto both split, with the majority of each combining with the minority of the other, but the resultant organizations lacked the ideological solidity, mobilizing capacities and political resolve of the earlier ones. Lotta Continua voted to dissolve itself outright and [continue only as a newspaper for a wider movement. (Of course, a severely weakened revolutionary Left in Italy still operates on a scale that dwarfs anything in the Anglo-Saxon European countries or in North America: the current Party of Proletarian Unity for Communism (PDUP) had six representatives in the lower house in 1980, and the Proletarian Democracy slate one representative in the European parliament.) In Portugal, the revolutionary movement to the left of the Communist Party garnered 17 per cent of the vote in the Presidential election of 1976 behind the candidacy of Otelo de Carvalho. But the revolutionary Left lacked a unified direction and lost its initiative, the army and government blocked Otelo’s active participation in politics, and the fortunes of the revolutionary Left plummeted.

... the sour fact is inescapable: no revolutionary party exists... But are the reasons for the failure of even one small revolutionary party to emerge rooted in the recalcitrance of objective political conditions...?[14]

The writer is not a member of the communist Left, but Tariq Ali, a leader of the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International and an influential Trotskyist theoretician. But he might as well be a spokesperson for any number of tendencies, and he speaks of not only Britain but of Western Europe, Japan and North America.

Nor have the old-line Communist Parties in the advanced capitalist countries escaped the downward trend of the past four years. In 1976-1977, Eurocommunism appeared on the brink of forming Left coalition governments in France and in Italy, while in Spain a Socialist-Communist alliance could have also opened a governmental perspective for the party there. The succeeding years frustrated these hopes. In Italy, the PCI’s “party of government” orientation cost it support to the left and the right, and the Communists lost most of the gains of 1976 in the 1979 elections. In Spain, the PCE emerged into legality with disappointing vote totals and failed to secure an alliance with the Socialists. The PCE’s critical stance towards Soviet policies has angered influential sections of the party, and its accommodating version of democratic centralism has permitted the open rebellion of the strong Catalonian organization. But France saw the worst defeat of the Communists in Latin Europe. The French party reversed much of its Eurocommunist direction in late 1977, the Socialist-Communist alliance fell apart, and the Left saw its widely predicted victory slip away in the 1978 legislative elections. PCF general secretary George Marchais startled the French in early 1980 when he appeared on a live television broadcast from Moscow to praise the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Marchais then led his party to its most humiliating defeat since World War II in the 1981 elections. With its parliamentary delegation reduced in half, the PCF bargained away much of its Soviet-aligned international views and parts of its domestic program for four ministerial posts in the Socialist government. Four years of the PCF’s policy had brought it back to an alliance, but this time completely on the Socialists’ terms.

The falling off of the Marxist Left in the advanced capitalist countries since 1976-1977 has multiple causes which vary from country to country. But a downturn in the level of mass struggle is common to all of them. The retreat of the mass movements and the decrease in militancy have weighed especially heavily on the revolutionary Left. Born in a period of mass offensive, the organizations of the revolutionary Left have not adjusted well to a period of retreat. For many activists, particularly those from university backgrounds, the sacrifices, discipline and drudgery necessary to militant activity lost much of their rationale once the scale of struggle had shrunk.

The mid-seventies also saw a resurgence of socialist reformism that neither the revolutionary Left nor the Communist Parties had expected. With the fall of the dictatorships in southern Europe, the socialist parties emerged as the main beneficiaries of the democratization processes. Supported financially by German social-democracy, the Portuguese socialist party transformed itself from an emigre circle with no organized presence in the anti-fascist struggle to the privileged if temporary representative of the Portuguese ruling classes. The Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and not the Communists became the first party of the Left in post-Franco Spain. In Greece, Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK quickly established itself as the main party of the opposition. Elsewhere, Francois Mitterand’s “Eurosocialism” founded a new party in 1971 out of the old SFIO. Through a skillful handling of the alliance with the Communists, an ability to appeal to the generation of May ’68, and a rejuvenated trade union policy, the Socialists went from 6% in 1969 (the SFIO total) to a parliamentary majority in 1981. In Italy, the search for a “centrist” alternative to the Communists and the Christian Democrats has given both the Socialists and the Radical Party a new prominence and stronger showings at the polls. Even in the United States, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee grew from a few hundred in 1972 to a claimed 5,000 in this period. At an international level, the Socialist International has been unusually aggressive in pressuring for a negotiated settlement in El Salvador. Neither the old-line Communist Parties nor the revolutionary Left has offered much of an analysis for the resiliency and appeal of the Socialist International. Nor has either in any of the countries mentioned developed the forms of cooperation and of struggle with the Socialists that would permit the strengthening of the Left in the struggle against capitalism.

The years since 1975 have also seen an aggravation of the crisis of socialism as it exists and is perceived in the world. The increased persecution of Soviet dissidents following the Helsinki accords; the specter of the “boat people” fleeing and forced out of Vietnam; massive Soviet and Cuban military intervention in Angola, Ethiopia and the Eritrean war for national independence; Vietnamese takeovers in Laos and Kampuchea; the Chinese military action in Vietnam; the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; the ever present Soviet threat to Poland; the upheavals in China – those events have disoriented working people everywhere, the Marxist Left among them. The disorientation of the Left in some countries owes a great deal to the alignment of some Communist Parties with the Soviet Union. (This contributed particularly to the reverses suffered by the Portuguese revolution in 1975 and after, and to the historic decline of the French Communist Party so evident in the 1981 elections.) A fawning attitude towards China bears some responsibility for the problems of a part of the revolutionary Left. But the disorientation of the Marxist Left towards the Soviet bloc and towards China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or Yugoslavia extends beyond the international alignments of some Left parties. The Marxist Left has no adequate analysis either of the Soviet Union’s internal regime or of its increasingly interventionist role in world affairs and the implications of that role for world peace. That Marxists lack an historical materialist explanation for the evolution of the Soviet Union and the tendencies at work in the Soviet bloc today is both cause and consequence of the crisis of Marxism itself. The absence of that analysis means that the Marxist Left can no longer confidently explain what it fights for.


The crises of socialism and of Marxism, the disarray of the revolutionary Left in the advanced capitalist countries, the defeats of the US communist Left in the 1970s – these themes may strike some as unduly pessimistic. We too believe that a revolutionary labor movement will emerge here in the heartland of private monopoly capital, that revolutionary movements will revive worldwide, revolutions triumph and the era of communism finally usher in. Marxists know that in the great bye and bye we shall win. But between here and the final conflict, there is a lot of ground to cover. We should prefer traveling it with our eyes open.

For some, the crisis of Marxism and the disarray of the communist Left means the sky has fallen. In the old children’s story, Chicken Little concludes the sky is falling after getting hit on the head and races to alert the rest of the barnyard. The failures of the past decade have led to an outbreak of chicken-littleism.

A little world has collapsed, but the sky has not fallen. The demoralization today so prevalent among US Marxists and particularly within the communist Left does not spring from the facts of the situation, but rather from the limited vision brought to it. For years many believed that their particular little party or self-described “trend” held the future of US socialism in its hands. A few people still talk this way – the journal Line of March for one[15] – but during the 1970s you could hardly qualify as a self-respecting Marxist-Leninist group unless you touted yourself as proletarian headquarters for the US, if not the world, revolution. When events at home and abroad began showing those little parties and “trends” in their true light, a number of people despaired at the prospects for socialism in this country. If their little sect no longer held the future of the revolution in its hands, then socialism had no future.

The day of reckoning is at hand. If you believed, for example, that the CPML represented the one and only Marxist organization in the country, the living incarnation of Leninist science, then once you discover that the CPML has grievous failings, you can easily reject the idea of Marxist organization altogether. If you joined a vanguard on the promise that you’d get to lead the workers up the steps of the Capitol to seize state power, once you notice that the masses are not exactly streaming into party headquarters you want out. The smug sectarianism of yesterday often prepares the myopic dejection of today.

Demoralization could not be more short-sighted. If you wanted to fight along with the US people for equality, peace and socialism, there has never been a better time to try your hand at it. Those who believe they were born to a higher calling, or complain that they have “wasted the best years of our lives” or “beat our heads against the wall” should remember that elsewhere on this planet the ruling classes take the lives and beat the heads in for people. Though an extreme right-wing force is gathering steam in the US that would like to bring that particular war home, that is not our situation. Radicalism still comes relatively cheap here. Endurance does not. Those who have been dreaming of the Winter Palace and strutting about as the class conscious leadership of US working people now have the chance to earn their way. More: they have the obligation.

The reactionary mass movement grouped around the New Right forms but one part of a larger political realignment taking place in the country today. That realignment is most visible among the fractions of monopoly and non-monopoly capital. The decay of the Keynes-ian liberal coalition has most immediately benefitted the Right and its neo-liberal economic policies, newly baptized “supply-side economics.” But as the capital accumulation process of US imperialism undergoes a profound restructuring, as the realization sinks in among people that no combination of economic policies can bring back the standard of living that Americans enjoyed in the twenty-five years after the Bretton-Woods international monetary agreement of 1944, then the political realignment already underway among labor, the oppressed nationalities, sections of the middle strata and others will gain momentum. The understanding will spread that in a capitalist crisis of these dimensions and of this intractability, working people have less to lose by fighting back, and nothing to gain without it.

Fear breeds anger. A lot of people are afraid and a lot of them will get angry. Broad sections of the people are looking for new and if necessary radical alternatives. True, many are now looking Right, but many will also look Left. Some will go Left, some become their own Left. How many do either depends on what they see. The country has never needed a Left, including its small communist contingent, more.

The broad Left has never needed its Marxists more. Some of those newly awakened to the real social weight of the communist Left can no longer see any distinctive role for it to play within the people’s movement, and are thankful for any opportunity to melt into the ranks of other socialist activists. In fact the communist Left has a special if modest contribution to make already to the mobilization of a broad progressive coalition in this country and to the movement for a socialism with democracy. This does not refer to Marxist-Leninist claims to revolutionary leadership through a party, which for the foreseeable future will remain an almost private matter of no particular relevance to the Left. But on three immediate issues the communist Left can bring the distinct strengths of its own orientation to bear today.

First, along with some other tendencies on the Left, the communists stress the hegemonic potential of the working class as a political alternative to bourgeois society. This is again not a matter of carrying on about the leading role of the working class but of bringing a distinctive working class solution to every social problem and every struggle. Along with some others, the communist Left emphasizes the need to put a socialist alternative on the agenda, to work for a broad radicalization within the working class rather than simply progressive coalitions with a trade union elite.

Second, among socialist-oriented tendencies, communists have historically underscored the strategic necessity for combatting white supremacy and fighting for the complete emancipation of the oppressed nationalities. Within a broad progressive coalition, the communist Left must continue to bring out the centrality of white-supremacist national oppression. Virtually all socialist tendencies agree that the absence of even one socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country constitutes a major theoretical and practical problem for Marxists. The communist Left currently meets less agreement when it argues the key place occupied by white supremacy in derailing a durable movement for socialism in this country.

Third, the communist Left has a unique and vitally necessary outlook on the Soviet Union and its international activities. Almost the entire Left in the advanced capitalist democracies rejects the USSR as a model of the socialism they fight for. Even the bulk of the activists in the Communist parties sympathetic to the Soviet Union harbor serious reservations about the Soviet system and depict their own objectives in radically different terms. But almost alone among the Left, the Marxist-Leninists have attempted a Marxist critique of the Soviet Union in conjunction with an unswerving opposition to its expansionism. Other Marxists have offered analyses of what has gone wrong with the USSR, including various left socialists, a still small number of Eurocommunists (Santiago Carillo’s represents the most advanced official position,[16] perhaps Claudin’s the unofficial), some East European Marxist dissidents and of course the Trotskyists. But most of these have either extended provisional critical support to Soviet international objectives and initiatives or expressed a still passive dissent to successive Soviet military thrusts. Repression against opposition within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has prompted wider mobilizations in Europe and the US, and even these have largely involved a restricted group of party leaders and intellectuals rather than the broad membership of trade unions and other mass organizations. The brazen Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did not cause a crisis in Soviet relations with the Eurocommunists; in fact, it marked the return of the French Communist Party leadership to the Soviet fold. Many socialists, independent Marxists and Soviet-bloc dissidents gave the invasion a qualified support, and most Trotskyists supported it, even enthusiastically.

Yet as Soviet expansionism gains momentum, a greater disquiet has arisen on the Left. Many are beginning to grope with the reality of the Soviet strategic deployment around the globe. Beside those who have embraced this development out of despair over socialist prospects and those who would like to ignore or seek a separate peace with it have emerged an increasing number of people deeply disturbed about the Soviet military build-up and its consequences for world peace. The communist Left can help clarify contemporary critiques of the Soviet Union and its global, objectives, unify the various forces opposed to the Soviet Union within the people’s movements, and draw out the practical consequences of the Soviet Union’s role for a broad progressive coalition. Unless the Left can begin to neutralize the Soviet issue, it cannot regain the initiative from the Right. Understanding however imperfectly the international parameters of the US economic crisis, its roots in US imperialist contention with the Soviet Union for world supremacy, the communist Left can advance its influence markedly in the present conjuncture.

Nothing in the circumstances of US history rules out revolutionary Marxism gaining that influence. In no country save a few of the smaller nations of the Third World has socialism been so successfully contained as it has here. Yet our peoples do not lack the courage, fortitude or dream of a new world given every other people around the globe. Nor do they lack for reasons to fight back: this is the land of the Fortune 500, of slavery and the color line, of the Texas Rangers and the Klan, of agribusiness and United Brands, of Coors Beer, GM and the Bechtel Corporation, of the US Marines and the National Guard, of the Philadelphia and Houston police departments, of forced sterilization and vast private security forces. It is also the land of the Wobblies and the Exodusters, of the movement for the eight-hour day and Malcolm X, of the Grimke sisters and the sit-down strike, of Juan Cortina and Harriet Tubman, of Sitting Bull and the civil rights movement, of the resistance to the Indochina wars and of flying squadron picketing, of gay pride and Wounded Knee. History tells us that this land and these peoples are never quiet for long.

New York
Spring 1981

* * *

The following three sections each group articles and letters dealing with the perspectives of one organization in the communist Left: the Communist Party-Marxist-Leninist (and its predecessor, the October League); the League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist), and two of its predecessors, the I Wor Kuen and the Revolutionary Communist League/Congress of Afrikan Peoples; and the Workers Congress. The pieces are repetitive in places, where an argument from what was assumed would remain an unpublished letter found its way into an article. And at a distance of several years, some of it now appears unacceptably bound up in the often obscure jargon in which intra-Marxist debates are conducted. But taken together, these papers have value not only for their continuing relevance to the debate on the communist Left, but also as a record of the crisis that gripped that tendency in the late 1970s and of some of the organizations that belonged to it. These articles and letters are perhaps best read then as notes towards a history of the US communist Left.


[1] Jim O’Brien, “American Leninism in the 1970s,” Radical America, November 1977-February 1978, p. 39.

[2] For the myriad shifts on this point of the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee and groups associated with it, see the slightly shrill account in Proletarian Unity League, On the “Progressive Role” of the Soviet Union and Other Dogmas, pp. 5-24 and 93-116 (New York, 1978) or two other PUL publications, The Ultra-Left Danger and How to Fight It: Three Articles on “Anti-Dogmatism” (New York, 1978) and Party Building and the Main Danger (New York, 1978). Irwin Silber, formerly national chairperson of the now dissolved National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs and present co-editor of Line of March, also spent several years hammering away at the theme that dogmatism posed the main danger to the communist Left (see such representative Guardian columns as “The Struggle Against Dogmatism” of December 22, 1976 or “Dogmatism Finds Breeding Grounds” of February 16, 1977). Ever alert to market trends and in need of some sectarian advantage over the OCIC, Silber and associates converted to the view that “left” opportunism presented the main obstacle to the development of communist influence. (He presented this view with great fanfare in his Guardian columns of April 4 and April 11, 1979, “Characterizing Party-Building Trend” and “Left Opportunism, Not Dogmatism”.) Now they pose as the originators of it. Line of March decries the Proletarian Unity League, who publicly argued the case against ultra-leftism since 1975, as “left” opportunist (LOM, July-August 1980, p. 25).

Silber’s political career must surely rank as one of the most checkered in the contemporary history of the Left, and this particular conversion pales beside many of the others. If anyone does not like a Silber position of the moment, they need only wait a few years for a more compatible one. Thus, if Silber’s 1980 defense of Soviet action against Poland grates on some people, they can always take comfort from his 1978 columns, when he said things like,

To uphold the principle of the independence and freedom of every socialist country may strike some as idealistic in a world of superpower politics. In terms of the defense of socialism, however, such a principle may turn out, in the long run, to be the most practical of all. (“Czechoslovak Invasion,” Guardian, August 30, 1978)

Scarcely five months later, he cheered as Vietnamese tanks rumbled into Phnom Penh.

[3] See especially, Wu Jiang “On the Nature of Lin Biao’s and ’Gang of Four’s’ Political Line,” Beijing Review, April 13, 1979.

[4] The “Eurocommunist” trend in fact includes a number of parties outside of Europe, most notably the Japanese Communist Party.

[5] Because of the Eurocommunists’ long association with the Soviet Union, their exposures of Soviet hegemonism have a credibility that the communist Left cannot hope to match anytime in the near future. For example, when the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the Soviets suggested that the JCP send a delegation to Kabul to see for itself. A reporter from the party newspaper Akahata went to Afghanistan shortly thereafter and found no evidence to support the Soviet version of events or to justify the Soviet invasion. The Japanese party’s reiteration of their earlier demand for Soviet troop withdrawal acquired added force as a result.

[6] The PUL statement reads,

“Such an analysis [of the USSR] is a long and arduous undertaking, one requiring a complex division of labor. We do not have one ourselves, and we realize that we will not have an adequate one, ’independently elaborated,’ (Lenin) without the combined efforts of many Marxist-Leninist organizations and individuals, without the benefit of prolonged, democratic and centralized debate. 2

A later footnote to this passage explains,

2. By the term ’analysis,’ we intended something very specific – an historical materialist analysis encompassing the ’sum total of facts’ relevant to the history of the class struggle in the USSR. Constructing such an analysis requires more than simply accumulating empirical facts about the Soviet Union. It also requires work on Marxist theory itself, particularly on the theory of the transition to communism, on the nature of proletarian dictatorship, and on the reproduction of capitalist relations of production and distribution under that dictatorship.

We distinguish this kind of scientific analysis from the descriptive positions held by various forces in the US communist movement today. (Proletarian Unity League, Party-Building and the Main Danger, (New York, 1978), pp. 10, 13-14.)

[7] “Build the Communist Press by Fighting Revisionism,” Class Struggle, Spring, 1977, pp. 104, 105. The same issue contains an extended critique of the Nicolaus book by Carl Davidson. In attacking Nicolaus’ mildly critical discussion of the Moscow trials, Davidson stands firmly by the official Soviet versions of the period and even more astoundingly by all the executions, including those of Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky.

“The trials were just, correct and a great victory for the proletariat. They should be viewed in the same light as the smashing of the restorationist conspiracies of Lin Piao and the “gang of four” in China recently... this gang [the Moscow defendants] were capitalist restorationists and agents of imperialism, especially the fascists...

“.. .the third “error,” the shooting of high-ranking agents. This is another thing altogether. For while Stalin was inconsistent theoretically on the question of classes and class struggle under socialism, when actually confronted with capitalist roaders, he fought firmly and well, as the record of struggle against Trotsky and Bukharin reveals. (“The Question of Which Class Rules Decides Everything,” ibid, pp. 56, 57, 61)

At this very time, a campaign had begun in Europe by Soviet dissidents, communists, socialists and others to force the CPSU to overturn the conviction of Bukharin as an “agent of the imperialists, especially the fascists.’’

[8] The books are Jonathan Aurthur, Socialism in the Soviet Union (Chicago, 1977), Al Syzmanski, Is the Red Flag Flying? The Political Economy of the Soviet Union Today (Westport, 1979), Michael Goldfield and Melvin Rothenberg, The Myth of Capitalism Reborn, (San Francisco, 1980), and Jerry Tung, The Socialist Road (New York, 1981). The first represents the position of the Communist Labor Party which endorses most features of Soviet life and of their foreign policy. The second two belong to the so-called “anti-dogmatist” current among US Marxist-Leninists. The last was written by the general secretary of the extremely “left” Communist Workers Party.

[9] See in particular, Line of March editorial board, “The Trial of the Gang of Four and the Crisis of Maoism,” LOM, May/June 1981, pp. 7-65. This is a particularly ill-informed article. For example, its account of “Maoism’s” decline in the advanced capitalist countries cites no sources whatsoever. Apparently a rewrite of an earlier and better researched Guardian article (Phil Hill, “Europe’s ’Maoist’ Parties in Disarray,” December 10, 1980), it contents itself with obviously false statements such as “...in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Sweden the forces supporting Albania’s line actually comprised a majority of those countries’ Maoists” {LOM, “The Trial...” op. cit. p. 46). Making refutation of its points difficult, LOM does not name these “forces,” much less explain what qualifies sympathizers of Enver Hoxha’s anti-Mao diatribes as “Maoists.” But since the Party of Labor of Albania and the groups aligned with it recognize only one Marxist-Leninist party or organization in each country, those “forces” can be identified: the Communist Party of Italy (Marxist-Leninist), the Communist Party of Spain (Marxist-Leninist), the Communist Party of Portugal (Reconstructed) and presumably the Communist Party of Marxist-Leninist Revolutionaries in Sweden. Of these, only the PCP (R) represented the largest “orthodox” Marxist-Leninist organization in its country. (Through the mass organization it led, the Popular Democratic Union – UDP – the PCP (R) had at one time demonstrated substantial electoral and trade union support, even in some PCP strongholds in the South. Since then, however, the PCP (R) has undergone several internal crises.) But the PCd’I (M-L) has not had that distinction since 1969, the PCE (M-L) is dwarfed by the PTE and the Movimiento Comunista (MC) in Spain, and the KPML (R) in Sweden is considerably smaller than the Swedish Communist Party (SKP), which supports the three worlds thesis. That LOM resorts to such methods speaks long on the results we can expect from its “rectification of the general line of the international communist movement.”

[10] See, among others, Line of March editorial board, The OCIC’s Phony War Against White Chauvinism and the Demise of the Fusion Line (Oakland, 1981) and An Open Letter to the Party Building Movement, signed by a large number of anti-dogmatist groups and individuals, including the Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective, publishers of Theoretical Review.

[11] On this point the Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective (TMLC) and the Theoretical Review it publishes did not differ from the OCIC and LOM. Thus the TMLC wrote in reply to the PUL:

“The important point is that dogmatism and sectarianism are the main forms of opportunism within our movement, not whether or not it is the “left” or “right” form which is dominant. The position that it is “leftism” is an extremely minor point which if it is a principle of unity would only further the sectarianism in our movement. We believe that the main form of dogmatism in our movement is not of the “left” form, that is “theoreticism” which is the complete separation of theoretical knowledge from practical experience. We believe the main form of dogmatism is of the “right” form which is characterized by pragmatism (the emphasis on “practice, practice, practice”) and empiricism (the overemphasis of practical experience). (“General Criticism of the PUL’s Response” by the TMLC, November, 1976)

And elsewhere, “dogmatism, especially ’China flunkeyism’... has become the main form of opportunism in the anti-revisionist communist movement” (TMLC, “On the International Situation,” 1976).

The definition of “left” and “right” dogmatism found here stems from the same ultra-left theoretical framework that dominated most of the US communist Left during the 1970s and indeed shares phraseology with the more extreme “left” spokespersons for that framework (the Workers Viewpoint Organization [WVO], for example). Operating from within that framework, the TMLC reached the same conclusions about the “rightist” nature of the Revolutionary Union’s (RCP) and the October League’s (CPML) perspectives for building a new communist party as the WVO and other extreme “lefts” did.

“The right-form of dogmatism on the question of party building is represented by such forces as the RCP, which advocated building the United Front Against Imperialism as the way of building the party, and the October League (OL), which belittles the importance of theory and objectively builds the mass movement as the way of building the communist movement. (Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective, On Party Building, p. 3)

The PWOC similarly regarded the RU/RCP’s analysis of white supremacist national oppression and its opposition to the ERA as “rightist,” which helps explain how its own views on the fight against white chauvinism and women’s oppression could veer so far to the “left.”

[12] For a representative sample from very divergent perspectives see Banning Garrett, “Triangular Relations and the Danger of War,” Socialist Review #52, July-August, 1980; David Horowitz, “The 1980 Guide to Both Cold Wars,” Mother Jones, May 1980; David Plotke, “Facing the 1980’s” Socialist Review #49, January-February, 1980; and Edward Thompson, “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization,” New Left Review #121, May-June 1980.

[13] See, for example, the work of Al Syzmanski. The author of Is the Red Flag Flying? The Political Economy of the Soviet Union Today, Syzmanski has emerged as one of the most articulate defenders of the Soviet system and its foreign policies. He also argues that “remnants of occupational discrimination are more or less rapidly being eliminated” for Afro-Americans. See his “Trends in Economic Discrimination Against Blacks in the US Working Class,” Review of Radical Political Economy, Fall 1975, p. 20. For a critical discussion of Syzmanski’s article, see Roxanne Mitchell and Frank Weiss, A House Divided: Labor and White Supremacy (New York, 1981), pp. 48-49.

[14] Tariq Ali’s “Revolutionary Politics: Ten Years After 1968,” Socialist Register 1978, p. 147.

[15] “...an anti-revisionist, anti-’left’ opportunist trend has emerged within the communist movement. The future of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian revolution in the US now rests on the development of this trend. (Line Of March editorial statement, reprinted with every issue. The quote might as well have come from the PWOC-led OCIC.)

[16] See the last chapter of his Eurocommunism and the State (Westport,1978); also Fernando Claudin, Eurocommunism and Socialism (London, 1978).