Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective

The Primacy of Theory and Political Line

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 7, September-October 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This statement is an effort by the TMLC to draw the clear and necessary connections between theory and political practice in the present period of party building. At the same time we feel that it is also a rectification of certain errors we made relating to our failure to link theory with political practice.

A Communist Party: A Unique Organization

Marxism-Leninism holds that the communist Party is a unique political organization under capitalism: unique in two ways. First, because, unlike other political organizations arising within capitalism, its thinking and practice is guided not by one or another bourgeois ideology, but by a scientific theory, Marxism-Leninism, which constitutes a break with all bourgeois ideologies.

Secondly, the communist Party is unique because, unlike other political organizations under capitalism which represent groups or classes struggling for a greater share of political power within the system of capitalism, it strives to organize politically all the oppressed and exploited to fight for the overthrow of the system. As Lenin said, the decisive question of every revolution is the question of state (political) power.

The communist Party unites Marxist-Leninist theory with revolutionary political practice. Theory without the political practice is only an academic exercise; political practice without the theory is blind. Their unity constitutes the communist movement; the organizational form it takes at its highest level is the Communist Party. The conjunction of these two words, “Communist” and “Party” should not deceive us into thinking that the union of communist theory and revolutionary political practice is somehow automatic or “natural.” On the contrary, it is constituted and maintained only through difficult and continuous struggles.

This unity is not abstract. On the contrary, it is concrete: communist theory serves to inform, direct and criticize revolutionary political practice; revolutionary political practice, in turn, uncovers and poses political and other practical questions which must be adequately addressed theoretically before they can be answered in political work, and points up the inadequacies of existing theory.

As we have said, both aspects, Marxist-Leninist theory and revolutionary political practice, are necessary for a Communist Party. But this does not mean that they are of equal weight; at any one time, one or the other is primary. Those aspects are linked dialectically, which means that their relative importance is determined by the process of party building as a whole. Party building must be studied concretely, in each of its stages, to determine the relative importance of each aspect throughout its development.

As Mao says:

In a certain process or at a certain stage of development of a contradiction, the principal aspect is A and the non-principal is B; at another stage of development or in another process of development, the roles are reversed. (On Contradiction)

Mao amplifies this point with several examples:

When as Lenin put it, “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,” the creation and advocacy of the revolutionary theory plays the principal and decisive role. When a certain job (this applies to any job) is to be done, but there is as yet no directive, method, plan or policy defining how to do it, the directive, method, plan or policy is the principal and decisive factor. (On Contradiction)

Mao has given us here two examples, one regarding theory, the other regarding political practice, both related to building the Communist Party. These examples are important in that they deny any mechanistic notion that a particular aspect of party building is always primary. They are also important, however, in that they indicate how to determine primary and secondary aspects of a process: by grasping the process as a whole in the specific moment or conjuncture in which it is situated.

Previous issues of the Theoretical Review[1] have discussed this conception of the present moment or conjuncture. Also discussed has been our assessment of the specific features of the conjuncture in which our party building movement finds itself today.

We understand the present conjuncture as one of the relative stability of US capitalism internally, the relative absence of mass working-class struggles, and the absence of either a genuine communist party or the theory and political practice capable of uniting and building the US communist movement. In terms of the relationship, or fusion, between communists and the working class, it is a conjuncture characterized by the general isolation of communists from the working class, and the limited receptivity of workers to communist ideas.

What does this conjuncture mean for the two aspects of party building: Marxist-Leninist theory and revolutionary political practice? The process of party building is being blocked by the fragmented and isolated character of our movement and its preoccupation with local struggles. Our movement is at present incapable of unifying itself nationally because of a lack of a national perspective, a lack of a national political line.

Understanding Political Line

Central to any communist activity is a political line. A political line is a program of organization, strategy and tactics, to organize and develop communists, to direct their intervention in society, and to organize working-class and revolutionary struggles. Such a political line presupposes an understanding of what it means to organize and develop communists in a given period and what is the character and contradictions of the society and working class in which we must intervene.

But this understanding can only come from a theoretical analysis; and, the absence of both the theoretical tools and their rigorous application by our movement has rendered the various local organizations incapable of transcending their local experiences and localist mentality. Wanting to overcome localism is not enough; having the party “spirit” is not enough. A national party requires a political line which is national in scope. Such a political line can be derived only from an understanding of the character, and state, of the class and social forces on a national scale.

Of course such a political line will have to be modified and corrected as a result of its implementation in political practice and in the light of later theoretical struggle, but initially it must be developed from a theoretical analysis of the direction of development of US capitalism taken as a whole. The inability of our movement to make this analysis constitutes the principal obstacle to party building in this period.

This realization is the key to understanding the relationship between Marxist-Leninist theory and revolutionary political practice in this period. The backward and divided state of our movement is a political fact, a demonstration of the political necessity of producing advanced communist theory suitable for guiding and directing genuine communist political practice.

At the turn of the century, Lenin noted in What Is To Be Done? three characteristics of the Russian party building movement as decisive for determining the primary aspect in their party building process: a) our party is only in the process or formation and it needs theory to unite itself and demarcate itself from non-Marxist trends; b) our movement must independently and critically assess the lessons of foreign communists and needs theory to do so; c) the role of a vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party which is guided by the most advanced theory.

Lenin’s analysis led him to conclude that theory was primary for party building in Russia in 1902. While Lenin’s work is instructive, an independent examination of our own movement leads to similar conclusions, namely, that theory is primary in the present period of party building in the US.

Genuine communist forces in the US are still in the formative stages; they have neither demarcated themselves fully from the dogmatist sects on the left nor have they proven themselves immune to revisionist ideas from the right. Coming out of a long tradition of flunkeyism, first to the Soviet Union, and more recently to China, our movement needs the tools with which to grasp and correctly incorporate the valuable lessons of our world movement, while avoiding its negative features. Equally, coming out of another tradition, that of American pragmatism and empiricism, we cannot underestimate the place of indifference to and contempt for theory in the communist movement, and the need for advanced theory, particularly in the Communist Party located in the most advanced capitalist country.

For all of these reasons, we have concluded that in the party building process of today, theory is the primary aspect, and political practice is secondary. To leave the problem here, however, is to fail to provide a really concrete answer to the problems our movement faces. For everyone in the party building movement agrees that we need theory, political practice and a political line. Some would even agree that theory is primary at this time, at least when it comes to uniting the national movement. But the key questions remains: what kind of theory, what kind of political practice, what kind of political line.

By posing these questions we can more clearly see that theory (or theoretical practice) and political practice are not static, but are in fact processes. They, too, must be analyzed dialectically: “The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence of dialectics.” (Lenin, On the Question of Dialectics)

Taking them one at a time, what are the contradictory parts of theory and political practice?

Two Aspects of Theoretical Practice

Briefly speaking, there are two main aspects of theory, or theoretical practice: 1) the creation and refinement of the tools of theoretical analysis, the conceptual system and methodology; and 2) the creative application of these tools for the production of theoretical analyses. Theoretical production is like any other kind of production; without the right tools, the work cannot be accomplished successfully.

Some forces in the party building movement hold that we already have the necessary tools, that these are embodied in a series of “Marxist-Leninist principles” present in the classics and ready for use. This view fails to take into account a number of points: 1) Marx and Lenin only laid the foundation of communist theory, they did not leave us with a finished system; 2) after their deaths, not only did the theory not develop consistently, but in some areas it did not develop at all and in others there was even some regression (the rise of economism, etc.); 3) the long period of stagnation of Marxist-Leninist theory since the 1930’s saw the absorption by it of many non-Marxist concepts and methods; and 4) the lack of any real knowledge of or training in Marxist-Leninist theory in the US communist movement, past and present.

All these factors together are compelling arguments for the thesis that the former aspect, the creation and refinement of the tools of Marxist-Leninist theory, its methodology and conceptual system, its existence as a living science, must be primary in the theoretical practice of the US party building movement in the present period.

Two Aspects of Political Practice

The tradition in the new communist movement presents us with a ready-made “practical” definition of political practice. In this tradition political practice is the production of a series of positions on various questions, the trade union question, the national question, the international situation, etc., and the organization of masses of people around these lines and in support of them.

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with a series of political positions on these questions. Traditionally, however, they are only that: a random series of positions with no overall, unifying theoretical-conjunctural analysis to link them together. This definition of political practice is both one-sided and ahistorical. It is one-sided in that it only sees the external aspect of political practice – our positions and practice with the masses and not the internal aspect – the relationship of communists to each other within one organization and between organizations. This is usually reduced to organizational questions, rather than being viewed as an integral part of political practice.

The definition is ahistorical because it is not connected to the present period of party building. It sets no priorities for analysis in a concrete sense: that is, those dictated by our needs in this period, but either bows to spontaneity, developing positions on whatever is a “popular” issue at the time, such as struggles in the Horn of Africa; or to tradition, thus requiring us to have a position on the national question in the Black belt south.

Political practice, on the contrary can only be grasped dialectically, when seen in its two major aspects: internal political practice and external political practice. Although they are linked together by a common general political line, they are nonetheless distinct aspects of our political work.

The internal aspect of communist political practice means first and foremost party building and the construction of communist organizations working toward the party. It includes how communists develop theoretical analyses and political lines on the long term and short term issues of communist practice and the class struggle, how they organize themselves and develop cadre, how they struggle to build the party.

The external aspect of communist political practice is first and foremost the struggle to win the working class and oppressed people to communism. It includes how communists implement and further develop their mass political lines, how they intervene in the workers’ struggles, how they organize the proletariat and allied groups, and win them to follow communist leadership.

Common to both aspects of political practice is the struggle against bourgeois ideology and the development and reproduction of bourgeois political practices within the communist movement as manifested in the separation of leaders from the general membership on the one hand, and from the masses on the other. Common to both is also the need to disseminate Marxist-Leninist ideology and to catalyze revolutionary class consciousness.

The majority of the US communist movement, by defining political practice only in its external aspect, renders itself incapable of making the necessary conjunctural analysis to determine in the present stage of the party building process which aspect of political practice is primary. For these groups, by definition, external political practice is always primary.

The primacy of external political practice view fails to take into account the following facts: 1) communist cadre are not produced by their wholesale and continuous immersion in mass activity but by their developing the ability to understand theoretically, and politically direct this activity, understood as part of a much larger struggle; 2) the present stable conjuncture limits the amount of external political practice which can be done in a communist as opposed to an economist or reformist nature; 3) the present small and divided state of our movement also limits the amount of communist mass work that can be done; 4) at present, most external political practice is being conducted in the absence of a theoretically grounded political line.

Finally, if we take seriously the statement that party building is our central task, we must also take seriously what follows from this statement. It is that party building requires communists who are not just mass leaders of local struggles, but revolutionaries capable of the vision and knowledge appropriate to a national communist party. This vision and knowledge is not acquired in local mass work but in the struggle of communists with each other to develop national cadre and a national organization. Such communist cadre are forged in internal political practice and then tempered in external political struggle.

For the reasons we have listed, we are convinced that internal political practice is the primary aspect of communist political practice in this period of party building.

The Theory/Practice Link

Returning to our theory-political practice relation, we can now see it in a new, more concrete way. Our theory has as its primary aspect the creation of the tools for theoretical practice. What tools? The conceptual and organizational tools necessary for the development of communist cadre and organizations that will be guided by a national rather than a local perspective and a national theoretical-conjunctural analysis and its corresponding political line.

Our political practice has as its primary aspect internal political practice. What kind of internal political practice? Internal political practice organized around the production, development and dissemination of Marxist-Leninist theory and training of cadre in its use as a prerequisite for a national theoretical and political perspective for our movement.

Our argument so far can now be summarized. Communist organizations in the US today require as their basis of unity a political line which is the result of a concrete Marxist-Leninist analysis of the current situation in which we find ourselves.

It must be a political line which does not merely insist on the need for theory and practice, internal and external political work, but which grasps these processes in their present particularity. In other words, a line which correctly embodies the primacy of internal political practice and theory, linked together in a two-way relationship: first, theory serves internal political practice by giving it scientific guidance in the area needed most - the production of communist cadre capable of serving a national party; second, internal political practice organizes itself around the production of what our movement is lacking: the theoretical tools with which to grasp the world.

Because this political line recognizes the primacy of theory in communist political practice and party building in this period, it can be called primacy of theory line.

A Rectification

The political significance of the primacy of theory line has been often misunderstood by both its detractors and its supporters. We in the TMLC have contributed to this confusion. We have made theoreticist errors, that is to say, we have divided theory from its necessary political connection. We feel that these errors have to be spelled out and rectified.

Error #l: Primacy of theory was presented as a theoretical line rather than a political line. We often argued simply that the theoretical poverty of our movement demanded advanced theory, without correctly emphasizing that the political weakness of our movement equally demanded advanced theoretical production.

Error #2: While we attempted to make a conjunctural analysis to determine the primary aspect of theoretical work in this period, we were negligent in making a conjunctural analysis of political work.

A further error resulted from these two.

Error #3: Our conception of the necessary theory for party building, lacking a political orientation, remained abstract and undirected. Our political practice, lacking a theoretical connection, remained unarticulated. We were therefore unable to give a political answer to the question: if theory is primary, what theory?, and to directly address in a theoretical way the burning political problems and tasks of our movement.

These theoreticist errors can only be corrected in light of what we have said above, by making a conjunctural analysis of the demands of political practice and articulating the results with our previous analysis of the primacy of theory. Taken together, these two analyses are the beginning of a rectification of our previous positions. They represent the effort to rectify theoreticism in theory and in political practice.

In the next issue, we will present our developing line on how to implement this rectification.


[1] “The Distinguishing Features of Leninist Political Practice,” Theoretical Review, Vol. 1, #4; “Defining the Central Task for Party Building,” Theoretical Review, Vol. 1, #5.