Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers Vanguard

Avakian Flees, Klonsky Deposed: End of the Line for American Maoism

First Published: Workers Vanguard, No. 281, May 22, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Deeply discredited by China’s counterrevolutionary alliance with U.S. imperialism, demoralized facing the prospects of hard struggle in the Reagan years, American Maoism has come to the end of the line. A spectacular symptom: in the space of a couple of months this spring the two top dogs of New Left Maoism–Mike Klonsky and Bob Avakian–suddenly departed from the scene. And speaking for those of us who have known these macho ego-tripping phonies since their days as anti-working-class SDS honchos, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving pair of jerks.

A protracted upheaval in the slavishly Peking-loyal Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML) has deposed the Klonsky Family regime while its central committee dissolved itself. Reportedly CPML members have been leaving in droves as an ongoing internal debate questions the very reason for existence of the group. Meanwhile Avakian, the lider maximo of the pro-“Gang of Four” Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), now facing a lengthy jail sentence on charges stemming from the RCP’s frenzied 1979 Chinese embassy attack, has fled to France where he is requesting political asylum.

A signed editorial statement in the April issue of the CPML’s Call, entitled “The Crisis in Marxism and M-L Unity,” begins starkly: “Any reader of the last few issues of The Call can plainly see the CPML is in the midst of a serious ideological, political and organizational crisis.” Its one-sentence summing up indicates the rightist thrust of all sides in the dispute: “The basic reason for this crisis is the ultra-left orientation, line and method that held back the CPML’s development from a small sect into a political force in the United States.” “Ultra-left”?! On every key international issue the Peking Stalinists stand to the right of the liberal bourgeoisie.

From Angola to Afghanistan, they saw their task as stiffening the resolve of Western imperialism to fight the “main enemy,” Russian “hegemonism.” And as this role as anti-Soviet Cold Warriors increasingly turned U.S. Maoists into despised sects, the crisis set in. Beginning last year, the CPML began publishing fundamental self-criticisms rejecting its whole previous “party-building” line and denouncing its orientation in the unions as “sectarian.” The Call lost its Spanish-language section, El Clarin, went from weekly to monthly, changed its masthead from “Organ of the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist” to “Voice of Socialism in the United States.”

In March came the laconic announcement that “the chairman resigned his position.” Citing “organizational disintegration,” the CPML reported that an emergency delegates conference had been held where an Interim Political Committee was formed and the question of party liquidation was openly debated: “For example, many CPML members feel our mistakes of sectarianism flowed from our conception of ourselves as the vanguard party. But there is disagreement over whether the whole concept of vanguard party is invalid or whether it was misapplied” (“CPML Holds Special Meeting to Rebuild Organization,” Call, March 1981). Indeed, outright dissolution of the CPML is not out of the question, as a number of leading members have since quit heading in the direction of mainstream social democracy.

CPML: To Be or Not To Be

What is going on in the “official” U.S. Maoist organization? In the welter of documents and letters, the frankest piece was “A Message to the Movement” (Call, February 1981) by former staff writer Jim Hamilton. After years of double-talk Mao-think jargon, Hamilton’s piece is a straight out call for American nativist populism. In the face of the rightward shift in U.S. politics signaled by the Reagan election, Hamilton speaks for demoralized New Lefters who see the CPML’s prospects drying up and want to throw in the towel as a “vanguard” tendency. Instead they hanker after the old “movement” they used to know. Hamilton’s indictment:

Nearly ten years of difficult and dedicated mass work by our hundreds of cadres has yielded little result in terms of building a truly mass revolutionary movement. Neither our press nor our political approach has really ’caught on’ among any significant section of the population, and they show no signs of doing so unless fundamental changes are made in our work. Our membership has declined by several hundred over the past two years...

Basically, Hamilton says they were wrong to form a party at all:

... it is evident that our conception of a single, vanguard communist party playing the only leading and revolutionary role in society was more than a little to blame for our hegemony-seeking and for the poor state of our united front work. Furthermore, the notion that the CPML was that vanguard party only added to the problem. [emphasis in original]

Hamilton rips the CPML’s “disdain for electoral work” and the “apocalyptic vision of the U.S. revolution” rooted in “the anti-Marxist notion that armed struggle is the only strategic component of the revolutionary seizure of power.” The “Chilean experience,” he writes, must be reinterpreted in the light of a “possible parliamentary transition.” Shades of Khrushchev! But in reality, Hamilton’s main line is in the direction of American national-reformism: “Isn’t there something wrong when many in our movement know the names of Chinese officials but not the names of their own Congressmen?”

The message of “A Message to the Movement” is nativist populism:

The New Right, for instance, is a real phenomenon, reflecting not only the latest shift in ruling class policy but also the fact that racists and reactionaries have often spoken to the people’s genuine fears and frustrations better than we have.

Hamilton wants to beat the right-wing populists at their own game. For him and many others in the CPML, the “left” should lead the racist “tax revolts” instead of the likes of California state senator Howard Jarvis. Following the logic of his positions, Hamilton has since quit the CPML, along with former Call editor Daniel Burstein. Others who support this line are talking about a fusion with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), a pressure group for Kennedy liberalism, and the slightly less openly pro-Democratic Party New American Movement (NAM).

While Hamilton’s “Message” was openly liquidationist, the response of the Interim Political Committee was hardly less so. The differences were over how the CPML should be liquidated. While the dissidents want to merge outright with the social democrats, the leaders of the rump organization long for the amorphous New Left that was their breeding ground in the late ’60s. This perspective is spelled out by the editorial in the April Call signed by PC spokesman John Martin:

The CPML’s self-conception of being the vanguard party undoubtedly caused difficulties in uniting with other organizations…. Further, the organization that will be formed through any merger will approximate a pre-party organization and not the party itself. [emphasis in original]

The main targets of this pitch for good old “M-L unity” are Mickey Jarvis’ Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (a split from Avakian’s RCP) and the West Coast-based League of Revolutionary Struggle (Unity) group.

The China Connection

Among their numerous mea culpas for “ultra-leftism,” both CPML leaders and dissidents single out their ineffective policies in the labor movement going back to the days of Klonsky’s October League (OL). An article last year, “Summing Up the Party’s Trade Union Work,” states:

The most vivid example of the practical results of incorrectly aiming the main blow (with a particular emphasis on attacking the most social democratic union officials) was our boycott of the Sadlowski election in the Steelworkers union.–Call, 9 June 1980

Back in 1977, the Klonskyites accurately called liberal bureaucrat “Oilcan Eddy” an “Opportunist Out of Office.” But as we pointed out then (see “Maoist OL Somersaults Over Sadlowski,” WV No. 144, 11 February 1977), this refusal to support a liberal bureaucrat-on-the-make was only a momentary aberration for these Mao-Stalinists. More representative of the practice of the OL/CPML was their craven support to the bureaucratic Brotherhood Caucus in the Fremont (California) United Auto Workers. Here their only deviation from mainstream labor reformism was to initiate an anti-union court suit for “super-seniority” for women and minorities (in reality a call for “preferential layoffs” of white, male fellow workers).

But the real source of the near-terminal crisis of American Maoism is not that it didn’t sell out enough in the domestic class struggle. At that level, they were certainly on a par with the reformist Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party. The specific origins of the Peking Stalinists’ decline are to be found in their links to the ruling bureaucracy of the Chinese deformed workers state and its deepening alliance with U.S. imperialism. For years, Peking-loyal Maoists tried to disguise China’s support for NATO with Mao-talk about Russia as the “main enemy.” And now that their isolation has reached catastrophic proportions, one would never know from the documents of the current explosion in the CPML that Klonsky & Co. ever had anything to do with “People’s China.”

But the Chinese connection is there. Both sides try to distance themselves from some of Peking’s most rabid anti-Soviet theses. Hamilton writes, “Isn’t there also something wrong when we insist on describing the Soviet Union as ’capitalism restored’ even though no one in our movement can offer a coherent proof of that contention?” Martin, for the Interim Political Committee, talks of a need to “reassess” the “change of tactics of the USSR internationally”: “This new left posture of the Soviet social imperialists, along with the Chinese experience of the Gang of Four and their internal influence, show that revisionism today comes from the left as well as the right.”

The idea of Brezhnev as an ultra-left is absurd, but it does indicate some awareness by the CPML leaders of their own position in far right field. Obviously, they are worried that their hundreds of ex-members (and many who have stuck it out this far) may be attracted to the so-called “anti-revisionist, anti-dogmatist Trend” which has lately been picking up disoriented former New Left Maoists (see “Where is the ’Trend’ Going?” WV No. 273, 30 January). As we pointed out, the main line of the Trend is slouching towards Moscow as these perennial fellow travelers oscillate from one Stalinist bureaucracy to another in the eternal search for the popular front. But even “critical Brezhnevism” may look a lot more appetizing than supporting the CIA-backed 1975 South African invasion of Angola and China’s 1979 attempt, in collusion with U.S. imperialism, to teach Vietnam a “bloody lesson.”

RCP: Back to Weatherman

From the time Klonsky’s OL and Avakian’s Revolutionary Union (RU) were squabbling over the fallout products from the 1969 split in SDS, the two have feuded over who would be Numero Uno in the New Left Maoist milieu. By the mid-1970s the OL/CPML’s main claim to fame was its recognition by Peking. Avakian’s RU/ RCP lost out in the battle for the Chinese franchise, and following Mao’s death supported the “Helmsman’s” widow Chiang Ch’ing and her “Gang of Four” deposed by Hua and Deng. But Klonsky’s well-photographed handshake with Hua didn’t catapult him into the big time–if anything, it had the opposite effect. So not surprisingly the RCP is gloating over the current tribulations of their archrivals:

...the Chinese had made their own belly crawling peace with U.S. imperialism and penny ante parties were an embarrassment to them at best...

Thus, Klonsky’s magic carpet franchise of tailing after the Chinese revisionists, upon which he staked his own career and the prestige of his organization, was pulled out from under.–“The Rocks the CPML is Crashing On,” Revolutionary Worker, 3 April

The Avakianites are hardly in a position to crow, however. Their own adventurist antics have landed them in a heap of trouble which could spell curtains for the RCP. It’s been a while now since this crazed leader cult went off the deep end. To the accompaniment of Avakian’s clanking bullet necklace, punk Maoist RCP youth brigaders went wild in the streets: Weatherman-style high school “breakouts,” arrests for planting their miniature red flags atop the Alamo. Building for its Mayday 1980 happening, the Avakianites pulled scores of cadres out of the factories chanting, “Chairman Bob is our leader, Long live the RCP!” In LA, this craziness took on tragic dimensions as RCPer Damian Garcia was stabbed to death and two others injured in a confrontation in Pico Gardens housing project.

There was the United Nations stunt, when the Avakianites drenched U.S. and Soviet deputy delegates with red paint. But the most dramatic was a pistol-waving assault on the Chinese embassy in Washington in January 1979 protesting the U.S. visit of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p’ing). After a lower court had dismissed charges, on appeal federal prosecutors won reindictment on charges which could total 241 years imprisonment for Avakian and 16 other “Mao Tse-tung Defendants.” Sizing up the meaning of Reagan’s election, the RCP Chairman fled to France. That Avakian ran to Paris rather than to someplace like “socialist Albania” is about the only sign of sanity in this whole insane affair.

At the time that the more staid Jarvisite pro-China reformists split from the Avakianites three years ago, we wrote:

An unstable, demagogic tendency, the Avakian faction is capable of both extreme adventurism and slavish capitulation to the worst backwardness of the working class. The post-split RCP will likely be simply a personality cult, crassly opportunist, violently sectarian and programmatically extremely unstable. It could go anywhere–from trying to seize Solidarity House to blocking with the Ku Klux Klan (as it did in hailing the anti-busing mobilizations in Boston and Louisville as ’fightback’).–“RCP Splits!” WV No. 190, 27 January 1978

This has certainly been borne out as the RCP has gone every which way but loose. While the CPML harks back to early New Left social-democratic populism, the RCP is reverting to a Weatherman period.

With Avakian and Klonsky out of the picture, who’s left in the Maoist firmament? Jerry Tung’s Communist Workers Party (CWP), once the most obscure of obscure Mao sects, was thrust into national attention as a result of the brutal November 1979 Greensboro KKK/Nazi massacre of five CWP workers. As the CPML falls apart and the RCP parades around cloud-cuckoo land, the CWP appears as the only run-of-the-mill Maoist group on the scene–yet the Tungites are plenty out of kilter themselves. In the case of the NASSCO 3, unionists at a San Diego shipyard trapped in frame-up bomb charges, CWP supporters couldn’t differentiate between union militants and a well-known provocateur who goes around talking of blowing up power stations.

The CWP (“Gang of Four” supporters who split from Progressive Labor in the early ’70s), like many Maoist cult/sects, has been known for its wild gyrations between adventurism and opportunism. Following its “Death to the Klan” confrontations in the South and the tragic assassination of the Greensboro martyrs, the CWP has swung sharply to the right, trying to gain broad support through building popular fronts with the bourgeoisie. Last year they accurately labeled the National Black Independent Political Party as a bourgeois trap, while today they are beating the drums for the NBIPP. Now we learn that CWPers are not only attending church regularly but are teaching Sunday school. We also hear on the grapevine that Jerry Tung changed his line on the Russian question six months ago, though nothing has been said in public as yet.

With Whimpers and Bangs

Most likely the CPML and RCP will not long survive the departure of their respective maximum leaders. More importantly, this dramatic double-exit throws a sharp light on the death throes of American Maoism. As we noted a year ago, when the Maoists were beating the drums for Carter/Brzezinski’s Cold War frenzy over Afghanistan:

The rapprochement of China with American capitalism has demonstrated that the Maos and Dengs, under the guise of building ’socialism’ in their country are as willing to sell out revolution as the Stalins and Brezhnevs–and prepared to join a global counterrevolutionary alliance with the main imperialist power, aimed at breaking the strength of the main anti-capitalist power (the Soviet Union), besides. Increasingly confronted by the reality of these betrayals, the Maoist movement has degenerated into a collection of politically irrelevant sects like Progressive Labor, macho cults like Avakian’s RCP, or open apologists for U.S. imperialism a la Klonsky.–“Maoists United with Uncle Sam,” WV No. 250, 22 February 1980

How, then, can you fight draft registration, initiated by Jimmy Carter as part of his anti-Soviet war drive, if like China and the CPML you actively support CIA-backed feudalists in Afghanistan? It’s no accident that in the last year the Klonskyites have waffled all over the map on military conscription for the imperialist war machine. Responding to the same Cold War pressures, the Stalinists-without-a-country of Progressive Labor have recently come out for volunteering for the U.S. army (see “PL ’Picks Up the Gun’ for Uncle Sam,” Young Spartacus No. 91, May 1981).

Or what about El Salvador? At the May 3 Salvador demonstration in Washington, far and away the largest protest of this kind since the Vietnam War, the CPML was nowhere to be seen while the RCP’s presence was minimal. The only exception was the CWP, with Tung speaking at the reformist/liberal PAM rally. The reason for the Maoists’ embarrassment is obvious. How can they unequivocally oppose the bloody U.S.-backed Salvadoran junta without being seen as aiding “Soviet social-imperialism”? Thus Avakian’s Revolutionary Worker (27 March) warns: “None of this implies that the Soviet Union is giving up and just leaving Central America to the U.S.–far from it. In fact, it is preparing to make a grab for it in the future while attempting to increase its influence in the region.”

At the May 3 protest it was the right-wing Reaganite counterdemonstrators who chanted “End Soviet imperialism” and “USSR and Cuba out of El Salvador.”

Aside from the specifically Maoist aspects of their present crisis, what is going on with the CPML and RCP more generally reflects the response of ex-New Lefters to their stagnation and decline during the dog days of the late 1970s. They yearn for the late ’60s, when they had a mass audience. But where the New Left moved from social-democratic populism to the left–from cheers for Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and “part of the way with LBJ” to “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win”– now many Maoists are looking for a populist road out of their present isolation by competing with Reaganism on its own terrain of racist reaction.

Following ex-New Left honcho Tom Hayden, now a loser Democratic Party politico, CPML leader Lyn Wells declared at an anti-KKK conference this January: “Why does [California senator] Jarvis have to lead a tax movement? Why can’t we lead one?” Why not? Revolutionary socialists have no program for how the capitalist state should finance its programs; generally we abstain on tax referenda, pointing out that tax cuts are almost always followed by wage-cutting inflation. But the present tax revolt is really the “white backlash” at one or two removes–a racist middle-class mobilization to cut back social services in general and especially government aid to minorities, the unemployed and poor. Perhaps the CPML’s next slogan will be, “They say cut back! We say cut back!”

We are witnessing the final demoralization of the “classless” New Left. As the CPML Interim Political Committee noted about its own crisis: “All this was happening at a time when the right wing was on the warpath and Reagan galloped into office.” Lacking a proletarian Bolshevik program enabling them to swim against the stream, the degenerated Maoists want to go with the tide of reaction. The response of the Trotskyist Spartacist League is quite the opposite. In a recent forum, SL central committee member George Foster warned about political dives by so-called leftists in the face of Reagan reaction:

We’re going to see other stuff, too, a loss of nerve and a loss of will. Which is going to find a program: run and hide, drop out. Suddenly Michael Harrington and DSOC seem to be the wave of the future–right?–we’ll work in the Democratic Party. That stuff is going to find a program. –“Facing the Reagan Years,” WV No. 273, 30 January

The disintegrating New Left Maoists have found this program. As some of these big-talking hotshots flee for asylum, others seek refuge in the Harrington/Kennedy camp of Democratic Party liberalism and still others are heading down the road of American nativist social-populism. Unlike these impressionistic and weak-willed petty-bourgeois radicals, as Marxists we understand that the popularity of the Reagan “honeymoon” is superficial. The war drive against the Soviet Union and the drive to step up the exploitation of American workers, intensifying virtually every form of social oppression, will produce a new wave of class struggle. And the Trotskyists will be there fighting to lead the working class and its allies to power.