Bert Lewis

Peaceful Transition and the Communist Party, USA, 1949-1958

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 12, September-October 1979
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The years 1956-57 are recognized by everyone who examines the history of the Communist Party, USA, to be a period of extraordinary upheaval and debate. Revisionists and anti-revisionists alike have seen it as a decisive turning point in party history.

The new communist movement has often asserted that it was in this period that the Communist Party adopted the line of ”peaceful transition to socialism,” thereby becoming a revisionist Party. This assertion has often been accompanied by another, namely that the birth of the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the United States (POC), which emerged in the struggle against revisionism in this period, is nothing less than the origin of our own movement.

Most recently, the forces holding to both the Fusion and Rectification lines in the party-building movement have reiterated these familiar assertions concerning the crucial character of the 16th Convention of the CPUSA and the Provisional Organizing Committee.

In a recent pamphlet, the National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs stated:

“[I]n the struggle leading up to and con- eluding in the CPUSA’s 16th National Congress of 1956-57, the right opportunist, revisionist elements, influenced by and egged on by their revisionist leaders in Moscow, carried the day. They succeeded in altering the basic character of the party’s general line from a principally proletarian line to a principally bourgeois, revisionist line. The goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat was abandoned and replaced with the notion of a peaceful and constitutional path to socialism.” (Developing the Subjective Factor, p. 13; our emphasis)

Both Clay Newlin and the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC), of which he is the leading member, have supported this thesis in similar ways.

On April 4, 1979, in Oakland, Newlin pointed to the 16th Convention of the CPUSA as the origin of our movement, stating that a “sharp two-line struggle raged over the consolidation of revisionism” during that Convention. (Rectification vs. Fusion, by the NNMLC, p. 21)

The Steering Committee of the OCIC echoed this position in its “Draft Plan for an Ideological Center” this summer when it said that this convention “represented the end of an era for U.S. revolutionaries” because it based itself on the “illusion of parliamentary transition to socialism.” (Draft Plan, p. 1)

Significantly, the “Draft Plan” also echoed the Club Network’s assertion concerning the influence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the events of the 16th Convention (Draft Plan, p. 2), while citing the POC as the beginning of our movement.

Taken together, the assertions of the NNMLC, Newlin, and the OCIC Steering Committee reflect both implicit and explicit propositions whose basis must be questioned. These propositions need questioning because their assertion reveals a particular understanding of revisionism which has long held back our movement’s ability to demarcate itself from revisionism in solid political terms.

Stated briefly, these assertions declare:
1. The consolidation of revisionism in the CPUSA at the 16th Convention in 1957 coincided with, and resulted from, the consolidation of revisionism in the USSR at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956.
2. A primarily correct proletarian line was dominant in the CPUSA in the period preceding the 16th Convention,
3. The essence of the abandonment of revolutionary Marxism at the 16th Convention was the adoption of the line of peaceful transition to socialism,
4. Since revisionism was not consolidated in the CPUSA until 1957 and the POC arose in opposition to this consolidation, it is the first organized expression of anti-revisionist communism in the U.S. and, therefore, the origin of our movement.


It has been the common practice of anti-revisionists, both present and past, to emphasize the role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the development of revisionism, which is said to have triumphed at the 16th Convention of the CPUSA in 1957. While the CPSU did, indeed, play a role at this convention, it must be realized that the classic formulation of this role has confused our efforts to defeat revisionism or understand its origins.

This classic formulation has usually understood the CPUSA’s revisionism as being directly contingent, in the origin and content, upon the events of the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956. As will be remembered, this Congress adopted a highly revisionist understanding of peaceful coexistence, and a line of peaceful competition and peaceful transition while denouncing Stalin in such a manner as to convince the Chinese Party that this was the point where revisionism “seized” state power in the USSR.

Accepting the Chinese assessment at face value, anti-revisionists in the U.S. have treated the revisionism of the CPUSA as the American aspect of a Soviet initiated deviation. Revisionism is not seen as internal to the U.S. Party but rather as an occurrence whose origins are owed to the external influence of Soviet revisionism.

However, revisionism, as stated elsewhere in this issue, is a deviation within theory that inevitably arises within the theoretical practice of a communist organization in social formations of a capitalist or transitional nature. This is because Marxism-Leninism is not immune to the deforming effects of bourgeois ideology which is spontaneously produced in conjunction with the social relations of capitalism. This is also true for transitional societies which are a contradictory combination of both capitalist and communist relations.

Marxist-Leninist theory is not a spontaneous phenomenon, illustrative of the surface appearances which seem to speak to the character of social relationships in any given social formation. It is a science which has broken with the empirically observable and misleading notions generated by capitalism, to go beneath the surface and identify the real relationships which govern social, political, and economic life.

In the process of its development and fusion with the workers movement, Marxist theory must grapple with problems and limitations in its theoretical understanding which its intervention in the class struggle reveals. In other words, theory must be revised so as to come into correct relationship with changed conditions which outdate that theory and political practices which have shown the need for that theory’s transformation.

In trying to deal with these challenges, a revisionist practice of Marxism draws on ideas and concepts which are not organic to the Marxist-Leninist problematic and which find their origin in the spontaneously produced ideology of capitalist relations or the complex theoretical ideologies of bourgeois social science.

Revisionism, therefore, is a specific manner of revising Marxism which disrupts the logical processes and relationships that exist within its structure, blocking its consistent and logical development, and obscuring those social relationships which it should make clear.

Notions such as “democracy” and “man,” in the abstract, are examples of concepts alien to the Marxist theoretical structure, a structure in which the centrality of class struggle is key.

Can “democracy” be considered in the abstract without clearly defining its relation to class categories which, in practice, define and illustrate its operative features?

Can “man” be considered in the abstract, without understanding that a single individual exists in relation to a structure which is determined by class struggle and the existence of classes, and which sets the co-ordinates within which she/he develops?

The answers should be clear. Of course, such concepts cannot function within Marxist theory because they have, in and of themselves, meaning only in a structure determined by bourgeois ideology.

Revisionism, therefore, is a consequence of contradictions internal to any given communist organization or social formation, depending on the level of analysis one chooses.

Mao’s famous lesson in dialectics is instructive in this case.

“The fundamental cause of the development of thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing.

“But, does materialist dialectics exclude external causes? Not at all. It holds that external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change....”[1]

We now can correctly pose the question of the relationship between the CPSU and the CPUSA. There was, indeed, a definite relationship between the Soviet Party and other Parties in the world movement, but it was not an external cause/internal effect relationship as is popularly assumed.

Bettelheim, in speaking of the 1930’s, gives us a more correct definition of this relationship by saying,

“If a particular Communist Party was influenced by some of the mistaken theses held up by the Bolshevik Party and the Comintern, the reason for this must be sought in the social practice of this Party, in its relations with the various classes of society, in its internal structure, and its greater or lesser capacity to generate criticism and self-criticism, drawing up the balance sheet of its own experience and learning lessons there from.”[2]

Given this understanding, what was the affect of the relationship between the CPUSA and the CPSU beginning in the late twenties?

Basically, the long-standing relation of dependency between the CPUSA and the CPSU disarmed the U.S. Party both politically and theoretically. In its reliance on the Soviet Party for the final word in nearly everything, the CPUSA’s theoretical tools became so underdeveloped as to be incapable of withstanding the effects of bourgeois ideology in this social formation, or developing the kinds of political lines necessary for confronting that ideology.

This ineptitude in both political and theoretical practice is seen in the long-standing revisionism for which the Party in the U.S. is famous. It ranges from the CP’s Third Period ultra-leftism, the “Americanism” of the 30’s and Browder’s theories on the post-war world, to the official adoption of the Party policy of peaceful transition in 1949. (See Theoretical Review, #11)

Many groups recognize certain negative features in the theory and practice of the Communist Party, USA, at different stages in its history. Basic differences exist, however, concerning the point at which these negative features became dominant, that is, when the party “went revisionist.”


The question as to when the Communist Party’s general line was no longer “principally proletarian” is hardly an academic exercise. Nor can it be handled through the shuffling of dates or positions taken out of context.

This is because the basic question deciding the revolutionary character of a communist party’s line is its strategy for proletarian revolution. Therefore, the issue of when the CPUSA took up the line of peaceful transition is decisive in determining when a consolidated revisionist general line became dominant.

A study of CPUSA documents will show that well before 1957 the official publications of the Party were filled with references concerning the possibility of the peaceful transition to socialism and that by 1949 this was the perspective on which the Party based its work.

In the March 27, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker, Eugene Dennis, the Party’s General Secretary, said that,

“[We] Communists will ... prove that we have advocated that labor and the people endeavor to make possible the peaceful establishment of Socialism... Socialism should be established not by force and violence but by the free choice of the majority of the American people... Marx and Lenin did not advocate force and violence...”

Three years later, in his “History of the CPUSA,” William Z. Foster, the acknowledged leader of the Party left, stated that an aspect of the Communist Party’s orientation for a peaceful transition to socialism is based upon... “[the fact that] the workers and their allies... now have the potential power to curb, restrain, and make ineffective whatever violence the capitalists may undertake.”[3]

Even the Program adopted by the Party’s National Election Committee in 1954 stated an explicit adherence to “peaceful transition” when it said:

“[T]he Communist Party advocates a peaceful path to socialism in the U.S. It brands as a lie the charge that it advocates the use of force and violence in the pursuit of any of its immediate or long-range goals.” (Political Affairs, October 1954, p. 18)

These are only a few examples out of many. The Party went to great lengths to prove that these were not isolated formulations but a consolidated line. The acme of this consolidation was an entire book which the Party actively promoted. In “Communist Trials and the American Tradition,” John Sommerville dedicated 250 pages to proving that peaceful transition was the basic line of the Communist Party since at least the 1930’s.

Can we, therefore, consider these documents to be qualitatively different than nearly identical statements which were made concerning peaceful transition in the period of 1956-57? Can we assume that these pre-1957 statements were the result of a temporary and necessary ideological concession to the state of popular consciousness during a repressive period, and that they only became a real tenet of Party practice in 1957?

We think not, primarily because there is clear evidence of a long tradition in the Party’s history to appropriate bourgeois ideology in a manner which altered the character of its Marxist-Leninist practice.

During the People’s Front period in the late 1930’s, for example, the Party attempted to utilize the bourgeois revolutionary traditions of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln as a way of linking up with the popular ideology of the masses. Unfortunately, it did so in such a way as to assume that some kind of “democratic” essence above classes and class struggle existed which Communists merely amplified in a more consistent form.[4]

Seen in this light, it would seem that, for the Party leaders, the only difference between the founding fathers of the U.S. Revolution and Marxists was merely a question of time, a hundred and fifty years or so, and not the kind of qualitative break with bourgeois practice and ideology which the Marxist science initiated.

While this position might be seen by some as indicating a realistic correction of the disastrous ultra-left line of the early’ thirties, what did it mean for the role and practice of Communists in the class struggle?

It meant that the Party did not lead the masses into an awareness of the centrality of class struggle in all aspects of their lives. It meant that the Party did not pursue a course of intervention which could lay bare the processes through which the working class is exploited and kept in ignorance because it was lending support and credence to notions which obscure these very relationships which Communists must unearth.

The use of terms like “democracy,” “peace,” and “freedom,” in the abstract, terms thrown around far too loosely by the CP for years, cannot be used by Communists in an uncritical fashion because they are the spontaneous ideological expression of capitalist social relations. When Communists use these ideas without making clear that their very vagueness has a class function, we are using expressions which the bourgeoisie is far more adept at handling than we are. They can even be used against us, especially when we begin to believe them, as have the leaders of the Euro-Communist parties who have given up on the proletarian dictatorship because it is “un-democratic.”

Given this twenty-year tradition, a considerable portion of the Party’s gains and recruitment in this period was a result of this appropriation and use of bourgeois ideology. By the McCarthy period and the repression it unleashed, the Party was required to continue practicing this revisionism in the explicit form of the peaceful transition line, if only to retain what limited influence it could. Therefore, regardless of how ”realistic” this peaceful transition line seemed to a handful of party leaders, it accurately reflected the theory and practice of the Communist Party overall.


If a principally proletarian strategy for revolution was at the heart of the Party’s general line before the 16th Convention, it would be logical to assume that its abandonment and the adoption of the line of peaceful transition would have been one of the centerpieces of the famous debates preceding the Convention.

Once again, however, we find that this notion is just as spurious as the assumption concerning the Party’s revolutionary character in the pre-convention period.

To clearly understand the nature of the polemics before the 16th Convention, we must go back in some detail and outline the evolution of the major factions which were to take part in this struggle.

The inner-Party struggle in the CPUSA was sparked by the 20th Congress of the CPSU, particularly Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin which was published in full in the Daily Worker.

The inner-Party debate was initiated by Eugene Dennis’s speech to the National Committee, entitled “The Communists Take a New Look.” This National Committee meeting had been called to inaugurate the pre-convention discussion period leading up to the 16th Convention scheduled for February 1957.

In this speech, Dennis specifically criticized what he saw as the Party’s left errors in the late forties and early fifties, and called on the Party to take up with renewed emphasis the line of “peaceful and democratic transition to socialism.”

The essence of Dennis’s argument was that, while this line had been put forward in the forties as a defensive measure, it should now be put forward offensively, to win the Party a broader audience. As a result of the 20th Congress and Dennis’s speech, the Party membership soon divided into three general tendencies.

The first, headed by Daily Worker editor John Gates, was sharply critical of Stalin and the events in Hungary, while welcoming the Dennis address. Gates seized on Dennis’s criticisms of past errors and his endorsement of peaceful transition to push for an even sharper turn to the right, up to and even including the dissolution of the Party into an amorphous “mass party of Socialism.” (“Time for a Change,” Political Affairs, November, 1956)

The second tendency was headed by William Z. Foster, the National Chairman of the Party. Under attack as the architect of many of the now criticized left policies of the early fifties, he rejected most of these criticisms as revisionist and claimed that he was defending Marxism-Leninism and the vanguard role of the Party.

The third tendency, led by Eugene Dennis, attempted to steer a course between the two, while in the early months of the debate it tended to side with the Gates group.

There was a good deal of struggle over certain questions in this pre-convention period, but there was none over the abandonment of proletarian revolution or the consequent violence necessary to the construction of a proletarian dictatorship.

There were differences over organizational form, the kind of support to be given to the Soviet Union, tactical questions, and the nature of the Party’s errors from 1948 on. But all of the leaders of the major factions in the Party, William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis, and John Gates, agreed on the question of the peaceful transition to socialism and on a practice which would consolidate the Party into a left-wing pressure group on the fringe of the Democratic Party.

This can best be seen in articles appearing in Political Affairs, the Party’s theoretical journal, and in certain pamphlets published by the CP in this period.

John Gates, for example, spoke of the necessity of the line of peaceful transition for the new kind of Communist organization he envisioned:

“We have entered into a protracted period of peaceful competition during which the struggle in our country will be of an evolutionary character and lead to an eventual revolutionary transformation. The path towards the triumph of Socialism here is one of peaceful and constitutional struggle. We need a Party geared to that kind of situation and struggle.” (“Time for a Change,” Political Affairs, November, 1956, p. 49)

Gates called for the formation of a Communist “political action association” with a program of struggle for “peace, prosperity and democracy,” in an anti-monopoly coalition. (Political Affairs, November, 1956, p. 46 and p. 55)

Eugene Dennis, in a like manner, affirmed “the established position of our Party which projects, advocates and strives for a peaceful and constitutional road to socialism.” He also supported a kind of practice which amounted to pressure group politics, although he held theoretical doubts as to the utility and nature of a “political action association.”

In 1956, Dennis stated,

“In joining with the majority of the popular forces to ride herd on the elephant, we Communists and others on the left do not intend to tail after the donkey.” (“New Look,” p. 17)

However, he then went on to say that,

“there are 30 to 50 key congressional and senatorial contests where relatively favorable possibilities exist for defeating various rabid McCarthyites, Dixiecrats and anti-Geneva candidates and of electing certain key congressmen who will be for labor, for civil rights and for peace....” (“New Look,” p. 17)

If this is not the tailism of pressure-group politics, then this is a practice nearly impossible to define.

William Z. Foster’s role in these discussions was not much better. In the tradition of the New Communist Movement, he has always been heralded as an anti-revisionist hero. Yet, in the crucial pre-convention debates of 1956-57, Foster’s endorsement of the peaceful transition line was open and unequivocal. In the October, 1956, issue of Political Affairs, he noted that,

“[T]he Party must especially tie its policies with American democratic traditions and realities, including a firm advocacy of the possibility of arriving at Socialism in the United States along legal and peaceful channels.”

In the same article, he went even further, while criticizing the Party’s “leftist” (p. 32) strategy during the Smith Act trials, by stating that the Party was wrong when it failed, “to put forward definitely the possibility for a parliamentary advance to socialism in the United States which had been proposed....” (p. 31)

Throughout this article, Foster makes criticisms of those he saw as “exaggerating” the errors the Party was alleged to have made under what, it turns out, was the period of his greatest influence, between 1948 and 1956. (p. 17) He is also critical of those wanting to turn the CP into “a mass party of socialism” or “some vague ’Marxist’ party without a real theoretical basis.” (p. 18) But, in the same paragraph, he restates the thesis that,

“our Party firmly subscribes to the possibility of achieving Socialism in the United States peacefully and along parliamentary lines.” (p. 21)

While Foster disagreed with the form of Gates’ proposals, in the crucial test of his practice, he starkly confirmed Gates’ position as his own. This is seen in his direct references to Gates’ position in an article he wrote for Political Affairs in February of 1957.

In it, he chides Gates for “misunderstanding” the parliamentary road to socialism in a “smooth, no-class struggle sense.” (p. 46) He backs up his assertion by appealing to the theory of peaceful coexistence, as stated at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, as embodying those practices through which “the workers of the United States [can] travel a parliamentary road to socialism.” (p. 47)

He could hardly have chosen a poorer example to support his position. As is well-known, the doctrine of peaceful co-existence is based on the very idea which Gates referred to, that of peaceful competition. According to this notion, peaceful coexistence between differing states with differing social systems is possible because the superiority of the socialist system and the combined strength of the socialist countries will win the world’s masses to communism through peaceful competition, and ending the possibility of war. In this framework, the reality of tension exists – which was Foster’s point – but not in the form of war or violent struggle – which was also his point, sadly enough.

By using the notion of peaceful coexistence he compounded his errors by adding a Soviet revisionist theory of world relations to his own revisionist theory of U.S. class relations. He also mechanically applied that which was intended as a general statement about the relations between states to the relations between classes, a comparison which simply cannot be made in any rigorous sense.

Foster also attempted to distinguish himself from Gates on the question of refashioning the CP into a “political action association” which, as we would expect, was to act as a kind of pressure group on progressives and left-liberals. (“Marxism-Leninism and American Prosperity,” Political Affairs, February 1957, p. 44-46)

While Foster made good points about the dangers of abandoning democratic centralism and the vanguard role of the Party (p. 44), he hailed the British CP’s solution to working with the “two-party” system in Great Britain.

“The British Party,” he said, “follows a correct election policy of supporting Labor candidates generally , and putting up candidates of its own where those of the Labor Party are unsatisfactory or non-existent. Our party should follow a comparable policy in this country.” (Our emphasis, p. 45)

But what would this mean in practice?

It would mean that, given the two-party system in the U.S. and the dominance of the Democratic Party as the more “progressive” of the two, the CP would support Democrats when they were “satisfactory” or “existent.” In other words, the CP would do just as it does today, act as a lobby on the left-wing of the Democratic Party, which was exactly the wish of John Gates.

From this we can see that the desired practice of Gates and Foster was nearly identical, while disagreement remained on its theoretical justification. They differed over form of organization, not the content which that form was to embody. As we have already seen, they both agreed on the possibility and desirability of the peaceful transition to socialism.

As for disputes over other notions, each major leader had different opinions.

On the CPUSA’s relation to the CPSU and the Soviet Union, which Gates thought should end and which Foster thought should not, Dennis wavered. Over the articulation of the conception of the vanguard role there were also differences, as was the case with the assessment of the Party’s work in the previous period.

But, as we have seen, aside from differences over certain tactical and organizational questions, on the practice of the Party and the peaceful transition of socialism there was unity. The kind of debates which one would expect if the Party’s character was to be radically transformed simply did not materialize.

During these “debates,” a significant shift in the inner-Party struggle emerged on the eve of the 16th Convention. The Main Political Resolution prepared for the Convention and the draft of the new Party Constitution, largely followed the position of the Dennis tendency.

The Gates tendency, which had perhaps represented the majority of the active Party members in 1956, was steadily decimated throughout the year as supporters and adherents deserted the Party in light of its failure to move further to the right.

The Foster group, seeing the decline of the right, pressed its position, with Foster actually voting against the draft of the Main Resolution in the National. Committee. (“On the Party Situation,” Political Affairs, October, 1956)

The Dennis tendency, seeing its allies on the right slipping away, offered to abandon the previously existing right-center alliance in favor of a left-center alliance of the Foster and Dennis groups.

Foster’s acceptance of this offer gave rise to a split in his tendency, out of which emerged a left-opposition, the Marxist-Leninist Caucus, later to become the Provisional Organizing Committee.


We have finally arrived at the point where we can begin assessing the 16th Convention itself and the assertion concerning the ”sharp struggle” which is said to have characterized its proceedings.

As already noted, the CPUSA held to the notion of peaceful transition at least eight years previous to the Convention. Also, the debates preceding it were marked by unity on this crucial notion with differences arising mainly over the organizational forms and tactical propositions appropriate to its realization.

It is not surprising, then, that the basic struggles which took place at the convention, even though significant, were not centered around peaceful transition.

Something did, indeed, happen at the 16th Convention and there was struggle, but not over the issues we have been led to believe were key. It was more of a factional struggle over whose policies would direct the Party’s practice of the “peaceful road” to socialism, and not a political struggle over the acceptance of the peaceful road as the Party’s general line.

The Convention replicated the debates which preceded it. Discussion was centered around organizational questions such as the Party’s name and form, the vanguard role and democratic centralism. The debate on the Party’s Main Resolution and the Party Constitution focused on the definition of Marxism-Leninism and the question of program and tactics. But there was no real debate or discussion over the centrality of the peaceful transition line.

This is not to say that the issue was not raised. Members of the Marxist-Leninist Caucus rose to criticize peaceful transition and the failure to make the dictatorship of the proletariat central to the Party’s strategy. But their presence and remarks were consistently ignored in the rush of the Foster and Dennis groups to cement their unity and defeat the forces of John Gates.

Both Al Lannon and a delegate from Ohio, representing the Marxist-Leninist Caucus, spoke out against the Convention’s ratification of the line that the Party had been advocating for years.

Lannon said that efforts were being made to “slur over and obscure differences” between Communists and social democrats. He also stated that the development of the peaceful road to socialism was doing “nothing but creating illusions.”[5]

The Ohio delegate also supported this position, noting that his years in labor struggles had convinced him that one “can’t even have a peaceful strike in this country let alone a peaceful transition to socialism.” He went on to say,

“I’m sure that this is just a voice hollering in the wilderness. But I’ll just say this and finish. Anybody in this country that talks about peaceful roads to socialism without first dealing with the whole problem and specific measures of American capitalism and its relation to the exploitation of the working class here, and its whole rotten robbery of the world today... is degrading and degenerating the whole question of Marxism-Leninism.”[6]

And “hollering in the wilderness” they were.

Aside from a few forces centered in Philadelphia, Ohio, and New York, the Marxist-Leninist Caucus was small and had relatively few members. Their isolation from the vast majority of the Party, and the conceptions it held, was dramatically underlined when Si Gerson of the New York Party followed up on the Ohio delegate’s remarks, saying,

“The concept of the American road to socialism (i.e., peaceful transition) has been maturing in our movement for the last twenty years, ever since the 7th World Congress. It is no new or legal gimmick, designed to meet any specific situation. It is a principled development arising out of a whole new world situation and the situation in our country... Comrade Foster has been quoted here, but I urge the Comrades who have quoted Comrade Foster to reread some of his writings on the American road to Socialism. I specifically refer to “Twilight of World Capitalism,” published in 1949, his “History of the CPUSA,” published in 1952, and his answers to the Herald-Tribune, the 23 questions.”[7]

In the end, the Convention adopted a resolution which, while endorsing the peaceful road to socialism, also supported Si Gerson’s contention that this line did, indeed, have a tradition in the Party going back to the thirties.

The resolution stated,

“Ever since the rise of the struggle against fascism and the fascist danger in the ’30’s, our Party has been elaborating such a program for a peaceful and constitutional transition into socialism. In 1938, the 10th Party Convention adopted the first written constitution of the Communist Party. It expressly stated that any advocate of force and violence would be excluded from the Party...

This concept of our advocacy of, and endeavor to, chart a peaceful, democratic and constitutional road to socialism expresses what we Communists strive for. It is a further development of our established position.” (Our emphasis)[8]

William Z. Foster, who had voted against the Draft Resolution in the National Committee, led his supporters in voting for it at the Convention. Although Foster may not have understood the significance of this vote and the convention itself, this was not true of John Gates, who stated,

“... I think that this has been an historic convention because, for the first time, since we began to develop a program along these lines, a convention of the Communist Party has officially adopted a program for an American road to socialism, along the lines of a peaceful, constitutional struggle for socialism in our country.”[9]

After the Convention concluded, the desertion of Gates’ supporters continued. At the same time, Foster found his left opposition a source of embarrassment after his capitulation to the center forces.

A campaign of expulsions was begun against left leaders. Those who were not expelled resigned, and in August of 1958 the Marxist-Leninist Caucus was transformed into the POC.


Since the objective conditions for a real two-line struggle on the question of peaceful transition did not exist at the time of the 16th Convention, how can we understand the role of the Provisional Organizing Committee which has been touted as the first representative of present-day anti-revisionism?

One way is to go back to the period of 1945 to 1950, when the reconstituted Party began to show signs of drifting toward, and then finally espousing in a formal manner, the idea of peaceful transition. From this vantage point, we can see that the POC was really not the first expression of modern anti-revisionism and that it only repeated and rediscovered the anti-revisionist critiques that were prevalent at this earlier time.

From 1945-1950, as we showed in Theoretical Review #11, there was a widely based and active anti-revisionist movement which targeted most of the concerns the POC was to address a few years later.

This movement included well-known Party leaders such as Sam Darcy, Harrison George, and William F. Dunne, a number of whom were founding members of the Party. Numerous publications supporting their views were printed and widely distributed.

The positions taken by the different groups in the movement were varied, but all explained how the CP’s practice had led it to a fundamentally revisionist impasse. Some looked to the character of the international Communist movement for an understanding of revisionism’s roots, while others questioned the theoretical and ideological bases of the Party’s prevailing conceptions. All agreed that Browderism had not been defeated, that the Party practiced class collaboration, and that it capitulated to both the Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy.

In a very real way, we can say that the POC and its forces in the Marxist-Leninist Caucus at the 16th Convention were unable to engage in a “sharp two-line struggle” because that struggle had been fought a number of years before. In the 1940’s, the anti-revisionist movement was taken seriously and written about widely in the Party because it was a serious challenge. Its defeat, and the Party’s course for the next few years, made sure that the few remaining cadre supporting an expressly Leninist course would have no choice but to leave amid little fanfare.

In “Two Roads for American Communists,” the POC’s major theoretical document by Milton Palmer (Ted Allen), a number of positions are expressed which, while important, were also clear to anti-revisionists in the ’40’s and often better stated.

Palmer supported the dictatorship of the proletariat, the vanguard role of the Party, democratic centralism, and proletarian internationalism. However, these practices were also of concern to anti-revisionists in the late ’40’s who faced a U.S. political conjuncture in which communism was a recognized force, and not the feeble, rapidly dwindling presence as it had become by the late 1950s.

The anti-revisionist movement of the 1940’s, as demonstrated in the article and documents in Theoretical Review #11, grasped the interrelatedness of the essentially revisionist line of the CPUSA, the lack of theoretical training of cadre, the absence of democratic centralism, and the tradition of opportunist practice by Communists in the labor movement. Some elements (Burt Sutta) even grasped the international dimensions of revisionism in that period. All of this ten years before the POC was founded.

Yet, it cannot be denied that the anti-revisionist movement of the late 1940’s was (except for the Turning Point group) virtually dead by 1950 with the result that no real anti-revisionist challenge confronted the Communist Party leadership until the POC. In terms of its composition (predominantly minority and working class) and its firm anti-revisionist orientation, the POC constituted a genuine anti-revisionist tendency in the U.S. Communist Movement. Let us now examine the line of this tendency, as it existed at the founding of the POC.

In “Two Roads,” Palmer defined the POC’s central task as the struggle to “settle accounts with revisionism and conciliationism, thus to place our Party in the struggle against imperialism on the basis of the science of Marxism-Leninism. ” (Palmer’s emphasis, p. 51)

Palmer went on to explain that this meant that theory was primary in the struggle for revolutionary communism in that period. He denounced the near-sighted pragmatism and empiricism of the Party leadership and their effort to reduce theory to a “mere footnote to practice.” (p. 54) He called for “not more practical work” (in the words of the CP National Committee) but for practical Communist work guided by scientific Marxism-Leninism, (p. 53)

In its conception of Communist work, the POC, like the anti-revisionists in the late 1940’s, continued to uphold the necessity of proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat as well as the vanguard role of a Communist Party guided by revolutionary Marxism. The POC criticized the bureaucratic cult of leadership that had hitherto dominated the Party and spoke out on behalf of democratic centralism.

At the same time, the POC clung to a number of formulations which were clearly obsolete, as a reaction to what they saw as the consolidation of revisionism at the 16th Convention. The most important of these was their adherence to the Black Nation line, a product of the Comintern’s ultra-leftism in the late twenties. This theory, which never accurately reflected the actual conditions or class dynamics of the South, was an obstacle to the development of a scientific understanding and program for Black liberation for decades. The POC clung to this myth along with other dogmas simply because the revisionists wished to abandon them.

A good example of this is the POC’s attitude to the world Communist movement and the Soviet Union. Since the Gates forces were highly critical of the Soviet Union, the defense of the USSR became a point of principle to the POC. By doing so, the POC leaders, at least in this period, seemed oblivious to the revisionist turn in Soviet policy inaugurated at the 20th Congress. In fact, a lengthy excerpt from a Khrushchev letter to President Eisenhower was contained in one of the main speeches at the founding conference of the POC.[10]

Theoretically, the reaction against revisionism on the part of the POC led them to reject the many positive anti-dogmatist critiques which were produced by the inner-Party struggle of 1956-57. The POC viewed any expressions of anti-dogmatism as a mere cover for the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism itself. (“Two Roads,” p. 48) While this was obviously true in some cases, the POC was unable to see the terrible deformation of Marxist theory and practice which this dogmatism had caused, how it had isolated the Party from the masses, and how it blunted the Party’s scientific analyses. The POC did not understand that a number of forces in the Party were trying to respond to a legitimately perceived dogmatism while handling this problem in a revisionist manner. The POC, on the other hand, responded to legitimately perceived revisionist errors with dogmatism

But perhaps the most glaring deficiency in the POC’s analyses was its inability to understand the basic causes of revisionism in the CPUSA itself. The POC argued that the fundamental cause of revisionism in the Party could be traced to the non-proletarian class origins of a large portion of the Party’s membership.[11]

The POC started from the correct premise that revisionism existed in the Party’s erroneous theory and political line. But their next step was to locate the source of these errors, not in the specific theoretical and political practices of the Party itself, but in the class origins of individual members.

Assuming that workers, by their class position, carry an immunity to revisionism, the POC eventually liquidated the struggle to create a new communist party founded on a qualitatively different theoretical and political foundation in an effort to create a “class pure” organization. This view ignores the Marxist-Leninist understanding of how individuals from different classes can and do come to take up correct proletarian class positions. Louis Althusser writes:

“A proletarian class position is more than a mere proletarian ’class instinct.’ It is the consciousness and practice which conform with the objective reality of the proletarian class struggle.... To arrive at proletarian class positions, the class instinct of proletarians only needs to be educated; the class instinct of the petty bourgeoisie, and hence of the intellectuals, has, on the contrary, to be revolutionized. This education and this revolution are, in the last analysis, determined by the proletarian class struggle conducted on the basis of the principles of Marxist-Leninist theory.”[12]

Thus, if the Party will be inevitably “infected” by people of non-proletarian class origins, how does one explain the fact that bourgeois intellectuals such as Marx and Lenin were able to provide the cornerstones of a science explicitly based upon a break with bourgeois ideology? Does this mean that the necessary theoretical functions required for a truly scientific intervention are to only be the reserve of those with working class roots or occupations? How does this relate to the fact that in class societies most individuals who have developed the tools necessary to this function are of non-proletarian background?

The views of the POC leave us with no real solutions. They tell us that the Party will degenerate if non-proletarian elements have much of a role, but at the same time Leninism has continually stressed the objectively crucial contributions which non-proletarian elements can make. At the same time, it has also stressed that while the theoretical function of the Party will always remain central to its scientific intervention, the class origins of its practitioners will change as the working class becomes conscious of itself and offers up militants of its own to undertake these functions. Unfortunately, the POC’s statements offer no real proof that they ever really understood the dynamics of this process or the requisites for its successful practice.

By reducing revisionism to a matter of class origins, rather than a particular political practice, the POC undercut its recognition of the central importance of theory for a correct political line. In the end, the POC’s concern for revolutionary theory was eclipsed by a blind worship of sterile dogma and a policy which restricted membership entirely to minority proletarians who would, by their origin, be immune to revisionism.


We are now in a position to critically assess the interrelated notions we outlined at the beginning of this article and their meaning to the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist struggle in the U.S.

As we have seen, the revisionist practices of the CPUSA cannot be reduced to the Soviet Party’s role as an invading essence or tainted influence. This notion obscures the fact that revisionist practices are indigenously developed within each and every social formation in existence, and that external influences can only play a secondary role in revisionism’s consolidation.

This misunderstanding’s effects can be catastrophic. It can lead, and has led, to a complacency among Marxist-Leninists who presume that their formal isolation from and indignation toward the USSR or China is enough to free them from the possibility of practicing Marxism in a revisionist manner.

However, this assumption is simply not true, and it had led many forces in the Communist movement to be unaware of how their own social practice, relation to the class struggle and the internal structure of their organizations produce the very tendencies they so greatly abhor.

For example, it might be assumed that the revisionist “Theory of the Three Worlds” of which the Communist Party (M-L) is a supporter, is due, in essence, to that organization’s close ties to the Communist Party of China. Yet, the CP (M-L)’s adherence to this line would not be possible unless circumstances and processes within the U.S. social formation had prepared the ground for the acceptance of this line in the first place.

Likewise, the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) has shown revisionist tendencies in its frankly economist trade-union work, its position on the existence of a “socialist essence” in regards to the Soviet Union, and in vague calls for the “nationalization” of the oil industry that can hardly be distinguished from the positions of the CPUSA.

Yet, can these practices be concretely tied to the PWOC’s adherence to the Chinese or Soviet Communist Parties? Certainly not. It is the PWOC’s particular insertion in the structure of political, economic, ideological and theoretical relations within the U.S. social formation which is at the root of its revisionist tendencies.

Therefore, to demarcate decisively with revisionism we must be clear on the true origins of its development, and not assign those origins to the influence of an individual, the class composition of an organization’s cadre, or the external influence of some foreign menace. To do so is to block our realization of the very processes whose occurrence we must understand.

We have also seen that the notion of the CPUSA’s revolutionary vitality before 1957 is largely a myth, and that the debates at the 16th Party Convention which supposedly altered this vitality were of an organizational and tactical character with little of the political struggle one would expect in such allegedly profound circumstances.

A tradition of appropriating bourgeois ideological conceptions also had at least a twenty-year tradition in the Party before 1957 with the consequent result that the core of the Party recruited in this period, aside from the Marxist-Leninist Caucus, had few reservations in explicitly endorsing at that Convention the line of the Party since at least 1949; the line of the peaceful transition to socialism.

The political effects of overlooking or dismissing these realities have disoriented anti-revisionists in this country for over twenty years.

Some might cite the cautious and qualified manner in which the peaceful transition line was put forward in the 1949-56 period as evidence that it was merely a concession to the repressive atmosphere of McCarthyism and the requirements of the Party’s legal strategy in the Smith Act trials.

But, given at least twenty years of revisionist theory and practice before this time, it is doubtful that the Party would have been able to express a more militant position and retain its dwindling influence among the working class.

We think that the qualified manner in which the peaceful transition line was put forth was more a response to international pressure from other Communist Parties than it was from any anti-revisionist sentiment among CPUSA leaders.

This pressure was noted at the 16th Convention by Max Weiss:

“... it should be known that, when our Party’s exposition of the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism in the United States was first made public, there were important Communist Parties which considered this position a departure from the principles of Marxism-Leninism. Clearly, there was a difference in interpretation between our Party and these other important parties. It is fortunate that our Party stuck to its guns on our interpretation of the principles of Marxism-Leninism on this important question. History has proven that we were correct on this matter, and that they were wrong.”[13]

But, after the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the famous revisionist theses promulgated there, the CPUSA saw the signal it needed to begin pressing for the formal inclusion of unqualified peaceful transition through constitutional mechanisms at a Party Convention.

Those in the Party who had understood the cautious and qualified expression of peaceful transition as an anti-McCarthy ploy were finally shaken into action, but far too late. Nearly the entire Party, trained in one form or another of diluted Marxism for years, was able to accept with few qualms the line the Party had officially stated since at least 1949. In fact, the largest section of the Party was dissatisfied with the 16th Convention because it did not take the right revisionist path they desired with the appropriate vigor.

1956 to 1957 was a period of flux in the Communist movement in the U.S., but it was only the final and generally quiet end to a process whose full features were evident in 1949.

By only viewing the formal, Convention assented abandonment of proletarian revolution in 1957 as key, the non-Marxist practices of the Party for the many years preceding that Convention have received short notice. In attempting to uncritically adopt the practices of the pre-1956 CPUSA, elements of our movement have fallen prey to the same processes and deviations from which its revisionism and dogmatism emerged.

Is it therefore any wonder that our attempts to build a genuine Communist Party have been such disastrous failures; that our political, ideological and theoretical practices have been so ill-fitted to the tasks we have set for ourselves; that the exodus of once committed communists from the party-building movement or their conscious isolation from our efforts continues?

The Provisional Organizing Committee is a hallmark example of the problems we still face today. The POC made many of the same criticisms as we do, yet, we are hardly any farther toward breaking decisively with the largely negative tradition of Communist practice which has been bequeathed to us.

While initially the POC recognized the key importance of Marxist-Leninist theory in the struggle against revisionism, a recognition to which there is still massive opposition in our movement, it was also unable like our movement, to successfully locate the abandonment of principally Leninist practice, or to understand the process by which revisionist deviations occur.

We are left with the sober realization that we have much further to go, far more to learn, and many more struggles to undertake before our movement will be prepared to make the kind of reassessment of our past which is necessary if we are to ever build a genuine Party in this country.

This article is but one modest effort toward providing some direction in our attempt to prepare the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement for its future struggles and concerns.

In so short an article it is not possible to provide the elaborate detail and political and theoretical insights necessary to say anything even remotely approaching the “last word” on this important issue. The constraints of time, space and our movement’s nature have limited this article to a rather polemical character; an ideological intervention with a political focus and an underlying theoretical framework.

We have been unable to provide the kind of scientific understanding necessary for making sense of the occurrence of both dogmatism and revisionism in the same organization at the same time in similar or identical areas of work. This, of course, was not the object of this piece.

At the same time, we have largely stressed the abandonment of proletarian revolution to the neglect of the CP’s other non-Marxist practices. We have hardly mentioned the economism, voluntarism and bureaucratic centralism which permeated the Party for so much of its history. This has been necessary because of the great confusion surrounding the key question of the CP’s strategy for proletarian revolution in the U.S. and the importance of dispelling this confusion.

Yet, it should be clear that the frank recognition of past errors cannot be relegated to some time in the future when, having fused communism with the working class, we can take the time to dabble in history. History is never really in the past because its cognition can only occur in the present, aside from the fact that the structures and processes of the “past” are not frozen in time, but present, by their very effects, today.

Perhaps, as the discussion around the issues in this article become of greater concern to more of us, we will be able, in the words of Louis Althusser, to “assess exactly what we have, to give both our wealth and our poverty their true names, to think and pose our problems in the open, and to undertake in rigor, a true investigation.”[14]

If the political intervention of our movement is to ever succeed, we have little choice but to follow this advice.


[1] Mao Tsetung, ”On Contradiction,” from “Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung” (Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1971), p. 88.

[2] Charles Bettelheim, “Class Struggles in the USSR: Second Period, 1923-1930” (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1978), p. 20.

[3] William Z. Foster, “The History of the Communist Party, USA” (International Publishers, New York, 1952), p. 552.

[4] Earl Browder, “The People’s Front” (International Publishers, New York, 1938), pp. 235-248.

[5] “Proceedings (Abridged) of the 16th National Convention of the Communist Party, USA” (New Century Publishers, New York, 1957), pp. 121-122.

[6] Ibid., p 124.

[7] Ibid., p 125.

[8] Ibid., pp. 304-305.

[9] Ibid. , pp. 235-236.

[10] “Marxism or Revisionism” (the Main Report to the National Conference of the Provisional Organizing Committee for a Communist Party, August 16-17, 1958), p. 1.

[11] Ibid. , pp. 3-4.

[12] Louis Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy” (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971), p. 13.

[13] “Proceedings,” p. 165.

[14] Louis Althusser, “For Marx” (New Left Books, London, 1977), p. 30.