The Partisan Experience

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 13, November-December 1979
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

I. Partisan as a New Left Organization

Partisan arose from a New Left organization called the Vancouver Liberation Front (VLF). An excerpt from a document produced during a major internal struggle (in December, 1971, while the organization was still New Left) makes clear that the VLF had no ideological origin in Marxism-Leninism:

“The Vancouver Liberation Front was formed in the spring of 1970. The impetus came from a group of student radicals disaffected with the fruitless struggle for a ’democratic’ or a ’socialist’ university, who wanted to ’get into the community.’

“Knowing absolutely nothing about the real conditions, make-up, ideology or life style of the proletariat they looked to lead, they inevitably drifted into defining their base as freaks and street people–the only ones who understood any of their rhetoric.

“Attempting to be militant, the VLF was adventurist. Attempting to ’unite’ youth it was opportunist. It had no global analysis and therefore no strategy. There was no method of investigation that allowed practice to refine theory; ’theory’ had something to do with world imperialism but nothing to do with Vancouver.”

The crunch for the VLF came during the October 1970 crisis, when the bourgeoisie used the pretext of a political kidnapping and execution by the Front de Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) to send the army to occupy Quebec to suppress what they called an “apprehended insurrection.” In Vancouver, the VLF called a demonstration to support the FLQ. A thousand people showed up, but the VLF was exposed as having “nothing to offer in terms of real organization, or real plans, not even real ideas. The people went home, dissatisfied and cynical.” And the VLF withdrew from political practice in order to struggle through a strategy.

In April 1971, after months of internal struggle, the VLF became the Partisan Party, now with a full-blown strategy for anti-imperialist revolution based on mobilizing the dispossessed, and with lip service to the socialism of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. They in fact adopted much of their strategy from the Black Panther Party in the U.S., particularly from Eldridge Cleaver concerning the role of the dispossessed and from Huey Newton concerning intercommunalism. (Intercommunalism, a world-view which is supposedly an extension of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, differs from Marxism-Leninism in stating that no nation can exist which is not also politically independent, and that the withering away of the state predicted by Marx and Engels is already occurring under capitalism. The first issue of their newspaper, The Partisan, after mentioning with approval the burning down of a school in a suburb of Vancouver, laid out the lumpenproletariat-based strategy of the newly-formed Partisan Party:

“We all have the same enemy. We share a common oppression as a class of dispossessed people. We are poor and we want our freedom. So far the pigs have kept us divided and ignorant of each other so they can take us on one by one.

“What is needed is organization, leadership and strategy. WE HAVE TO DEVELOP TACTICS OF RESISTANCE THAT LET US CHOOSE OUR OWN LOCATIONS AND METHODS OF FIGHTING. We shouldn’t become a set-up for the pigs.”

In fact, the VLF had turned from adventurism to reformism, implementing a strategy of attaining community-control of everything as a means of securing bases for launching a people’s war, a la the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions. Their statement of principles, “What We Want...What We Believe,” published in every issue of The Partisan, called for direct community control of the means of production, of housing and land, of health centers, of the educational system, and of “people’s courts” to judge crimes against the community. While these New Left revolutionaries had adopted a strategy which was objectively reformist, they at least had managed to disabuse themselves of adventurism, as their reply to the terrorist Red Morning Collective in Toronto demonstrates:

“The most important factor in any people’s war is not the mere military strength of the army, but the political strength of the people. The key factor at any stage of the struggle is the relationship between the vanguard and the people. The struggle is one between the people and the system. To have an armed force substitute itself for one which arises from the struggle in the community is to actively discourage the formation and growth of a true people’s army. ”

The first issue of The Partisan was only a one-page wall sheet whose main purpose was to announce the formation of the Partisan Party, but the next ten issues, through November 12, 1971, were substantial, typically running 24 pages and coming out every three weeks. By November the newspaper was being sold at some 60 bookstores, grocery stores, and other community businesses, mostly in Vancouver but also in Victoria, Toronto, Montreal, and even Seattle.

But the Partisans were still New Left revolutionaries, and in the almost complete absence of Marxist-Leninist theory they were just playing at revolution. An example of their naivete is provided by the following gems from their “People’s Vocabulary:”

“EXPLOITATION–is taking from the poor and giving to the rich.
CAPITALISM–is the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.
IMPERIALISM–the capitalists get richer and the world gets poorer.
SOCIALISM–is everybody sharing. A system based on human need, not human exploitation.”

In the second half of 1971, the Partisan Party carried out a number of concrete projects within the community. It opened a Community Survival Center as “a place where we can teach and learn from each other through films, classes and rapping, a place out of which we can organize together around the problems in our local areas.” Unfortunately, the Center was located in a neighborhood of ethnic Chinese, with whom the Partisans had absolutely no contact, so it never did turn into a community drop-in center. However, out of the Survival Center the Partisans did run a “People’s Patrol” to keep the police in line: “Armed with our knowledge of legal rights, with medical equipment, cameras, and a copy of the Criminal Code, we have been cruising the city, stopping at any sign of harassment to advise people of their rights and to aid them in enforcing those rights.”

The Partisan Party did end the year with a concrete service to the community: a two-day Christmas party which gave some 1800 people turkey dinners provided mainly by money demanded from unions, small businesses, department stores, and supermarket chains, and which entertained many children both afternoons. But by then the Partisan Party was just in the process of recovering from a major split, the usual fate of New Left revolutionary organizations shackled with a non-Marxist-Leninist political line. With the defections, the old leadership of the Partisan Party was able to recreate the organization essentially unchallenged, first continuing the old pre-people’s war/community organizing strategy, but eventually steering the Partisan to Marxism-Leninism.

II. The Transformation of Partisan into a Marxist-Leninist Organization

At the beginning of 1972 the Partisan Party was recreated; those who had left the previous November were replaced by a number of new members recruited during the Christmas Party campaign, and the organization was ready to start work anew. The top leadership was strong and effectively unchallenged, not because they were putting forward correct political lines to move the organization forward, but because the theoretical level of the whole organization was abysmally low. In this situation, with its previous opposition no longer around, leadership could have transformed the organization’s line into practically anything. What happened, in fact, was that leadership came to grasp Marxism-Leninism and brought about the transformation of the Partisan Party to a Marxist-Leninist organization. And it is this transformation of Partisan which makes the story worth telling. The transformation was carried out from the top, which was the only way possible in this situation, but the theoretical level of most of the membership remained very low, a contradiction which two months later was to cause the self-destruction of the new Marxist-Leninist organization, at a time when leadership was playing a politically reactionary and manipulative role.

Two leaders of Partisan played key roles in the transformation and destruction of the organization in 1972: Richard Rathwell and David Paterson. Since the fall of 1971 Paterson was based in Toronto, working to build up a branch of Partisan in the East. In Vancouver, Partisan was completely dominated by Rathwell; even when the Central Committee in Vancouver was expanded from two to six members in June, it remained compliant to its head, Rathwell. It was Paterson in Toronto, supported by Rathwell and the rest of the Central Committee, who gave the political leadership which brought about the transformation of Partisan during the summer. And it was Rathwell, powerfully aided by the rest of the Central Committee in Vancouver but behind Paterson’s back, who two months later manipulated the Partisan Organization into joining en masse the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), a revisionist organization of agent-provocateurs.

Starting afresh in 1972, the Partisan Party was still saddled with its strategy of gaining control of the communities for use as base areas in a protracted people’s war to overthrow capitalism.

Through discussion with comrades in Quebec, however, Paterson was able to see the error of this pre-people’s war strategy, and to convince the rest of the Central Committee of the strategic importance of workplace organizing and that the Revolution would take the form of an insurrection in the cities rather than a protracted people’s war. At this time the leadership also realized that the approximately twenty members of Partisan did not yet constitute a vanguard party, and “Partisan Party” became “Partisan Organization.”

The new political line of Partisan filtered down through the organization only slowly, and the March issue of The Partisan had to be scrapped after printing because it was still promoting the old line. (The Partisan was in fact never printed again, mainly because the organization’s line was changing so rapidly.)

Externally, Partisan political work pretty well disintegrated in conjunction with the internal turmoil. The People’s Patrol never survived the split of the previous November. The Community Survival Center was scheduled to be reopened at a more suitable location, but it fell victim to the change in political line. (Along with it fell a planned Free Breakfast Program, modeled after the Black Panthers’.) On the other hand, the new emphasis on point-of-production organizing resulted in the sponsorship of a series of “Maynights” just after May Day, for the purposes of education, building fraternalism, and recruitment. The three evenings featured films and speakers on working-class struggle, anti-imperialist struggles, and resistance to the state, and led to the recruitment of several workers.

The Partisan political line was in the process of changing, but it was still quite a mess. On May 29 Paterson, now working closely in Toronto with several dropouts from the terrorist organization Red Morning, wrote a demolishing critique of the Blank Panther Party’s theory of intercommunalism. In early June, Rathwell brought out a 37-page draft of a strategy paper, “Building a Revolutionary Party of a New Type,” and, recognizing the importance of expanding participation in the application of theory to the organization’s political line, he tripled the size of the Central Committee in Vancouver, to six. (The only other member was Paterson, in Toronto.) The “Party of a New Type” paper attempted to base itself on Marxism-Leninism and constituted a major break with the old political line, but it was seriously flawed. It remained for Paterson to demonstrate its errors, initially with a criticism of its military strategy which was responded to in a vicious, sectarian way by one member of the Central Committee, and finally with a 38-page letter (July 9) giving an overall criticism of the paper and of the Central Committee’s method of struggle.

Paterson’s criticisms were analyzed in great detail, both by the Central Committee and by the membership as a whole. The Central Committee responded by scrapping the “Party of a New Type” paper and drafting a set of Marxist-Leninist principles, the “Statement of Direction,” to transform the organization into a Marxist-Leninist one and to guide its future work. There were strong objections to the Central Committee’s giving theoretical leadership in this struggle, because of its previous sectarian response to Paterson’s criticisms. (Members of one section temporarily prevented their head (himself a member of the Central Committee) from arguing the positions coming out of the Central Committee.) But the Central Committee did succeed in leading struggle throughout the organization over political line. During Paterson’s visit to Vancouver in the middle of August, two plenary sessions of the Partisan Organization were held. The “Statement of Direction” was adopted in final form on August 20, and a new course was set for organization, under the same leadership. The direction of practical work was entrusted to a Secretariat reporting to the Central Committee, so that the latter body would be able to devote full time to working out the strategic direction of the organization. Partisan now numbered approximately 25, and it at last seemed destined to provide effective leadership to the new Marxist-Leninist movement in Canada.

But the transformation of the Partisans to Marxist-Leninists was more in form than in content. There was now a set of Marxist-Leninist principles guiding Partisan work, but no real understanding of these principles throughout the organization. During the summer, the struggle over the Partisan political line was carried out in a fully collective manner, first in sections each under the leadership of a Central Committee member, and then, after summation of the struggle by the Central Committee, in a plenary session. The Central Committee was in fact putting forward good politics at this time, but cadre, having generally very weak theoretical background, were simply not in a position to evaluate the new political positions coming down–they accepted these positions because they sounded reasonable and were invoked on the authority of the Russian and Chinese revolutions.

Nor was the Central Committee in Vancouver a font of Marxist-Leninist knowledge. As indicated by its initial enthusiastic acceptance of Rathwell’s “Party of a New Type” paper, the Central Committee itself hardly knew what it was doing. It did, however, have ready access to classical Marxist-Leninist works, and from these it was able to work up quite a respectable “Statement of Direction.” In retrospect one can find many omissions and inaccuracies in the “Statement of Direction”; for example, the relationship between the Communist Party (or the pre-Party formation) and the proletariat was hardly touched upon, and there were several references to “testing strategy in practice” (still, the old empiricist attitude that correct strategy derives from direct experience, rather than through the application of political theory to the concrete conditions encountered). But the Central Committee in Vancouver was, after all, just picking out goodies from its newly-discovered candy store, Marxism-Leninism; it had no solid knowledge of Marxist-Leninist organization, but this transformation was yet to be effected in a real sense.

III. The Liquidation of Partisan

At the beginning of September 1972 the Partisan Organization was finally on the right course, but both its leadership and the rest of its membership were at a very low theoretical level. Paterson, in a letter of July 3, had already pointed out the problem:

“A high priority must be placed on the development of revolutionary theory. This means we should be reading and studying both historical works and classics of Marxism-Leninism. I would suggest, perhaps, weekly study sessions on different books required of cadre and open to outsiders. The books should be read by everyone and the education prepared by a different person each week. We are far too weak in our knowledge of Marxist-Leninist theory and this must be rectified.”

What was actually necessary to do at this point was to liquidate external practice (or rather, not to reinstitute it, for because of the struggle over political line very little of it had been done for months), and to spend several months in systematic study to raise the desperately low theoretical level of everyone. Indeed, the “Statement of Direction” had called for the drawing up of a political program through analysis of the classes and struggles of Canadian society, and struggle over this program would have provided a good counterpoint to the theoretical study. But to Partisan, liquidation of practice was blasphemy. Theory had done its job in providing the “Statement of Direction,” and now that the organization was on the right track, it was necessary to make up for lost time and get the Revolution rolling again. Petit-bourgeois haste, practice fetishism, and contempt for theory prevented Partisan from taking the steps necessary to transform itself into a real Marxist-Leninist organization.

What happened instead was that Partisan, in its innocence, was swallowed up by the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), aided by Rathwell and several other not-so-innocent members of the Partisan Central Committee. CPC(M-L) had already requested with Partisan “open discussion and debates on various questions facing the people,” and on August 14 the Partisan Central Committee had decided to prepare an overview of CPC(M-L)’s political line in order to facilitate such struggle. Such a criticism was never prepared, but the Central Committee did move the organization closer and closer to CPC(M-L). On September 29, CPC(M-L) asked the Partisan Organization to run its own candidate in the federal election several weeks hence, to accompany its fifty candidates throughout the country, and the Partisan Central Committee quickly mobilized the whole organization to this purpose.

The federal election took place, as scheduled. The Partisan candidate lost, pulling in around 150 votes, but a great deal of camaraderie was built up between the Partisans and the members of the Vancouver Branch of CPC(M-L). The Partisans had distributed a large amount of their campaign literature, and they felt ecstatic finally to be doing something on a mass basis to advance the Revolution. On October 21 the Partisan Central Committee (excepting Paterson, of course, who was safely back in Toronto) held a second meeting with Hardial Bains, one of the national leaders of CPC(M-L), who proposed that the Partisan Organization and the Vancouver Branch of CPC(M-L) unite organizationally to form a “Marxist-Leninist Centre of a New Type” in Vancouver. (How a national vanguard Communist Party could place one of its own branches under the discipline of another organization was a question which apparently never occurred to the Partisan leadership.) Bains stated that this Vancouver Marxist-Leninist Center, in which the Partisans would obviously be playing the leading role, ought actually to be leading all of CPC(M-L)’s Western Zone (everything west of Ontario), and, as added incentive, that the Partisan Central Committee should sit on the CPC(M-L) Central Committee. There could no longer be any doubt about the Partisan Central Committee’s discovering the authenticity of CPC(M-L) as the true leadership of the Canadian proletariat!

The bandwagon got rolling in full force. The Partisan Central Committee figured out that the Partisan Organization was actually already a part of the vanguard Party, it was in fact just its “unorganized tendency” while CPC(M-L) was its “organized tendency.” Members of the Central Committee led the various sections of the organization in struggle over the proposed merger, and easily quashed the objections (circulated in writing) of one Partisan member. Rathwell and certain other Central Committee members made certain that Paterson was kept in the dark about what was going on. (Rathwell was in danger of losing his leadership position in any case because of the time-wasting and politically questionable federal election campaign–Paterson might well have decided he was more needed in Vancouver and returned to replace Rathwell). Even more immediate was the probability that Paterson would have taken the next plane to Vancouver to burst the bubble, had he known what was going on with CPC(M-L).) On October 29 the Partisan Central Committee summed up struggle and “unanimously decided to liquidate itself and all its outstanding work,” declaring:

“From this point on, there will be no distinction between Partisan work or the Partisan tendency apart from the consolidation of the Marxist-Leninist center of a new type. Concretely, this means that all previous notions of the Partisan’s consolidating itself as a political tendency somehow independent of the new center should be rejected and repudiated ad cultist and as remnants of circle spirit.”

The “Marxist-Leninist Centre of a New Type,” publicly announced on November 4, was just another of CPC(M-L)’s euphemisms: nothing more than a name designed to make things seem to be more than they were, to people both inside and outside the “Party.” The Partisans immediately applied for membership in CPC(M-L), and the “Marxist-Leninist Centre of a New Type” was never anything more than the Vancouver branch of CPC(M-L). Bains, however, had other plans for the Partisans: he was about to wage a struggle to regain control of CPC(M-L), and he needed energetic and capable revolutionaries with him in the East to help him, particularly to put out the Party’s voluminous publications (including a daily newspaper).

Two weeks after the formation of the Vancouver Marxist-Leninist Centre, Bains had everyone from Vancouver (as well as from other cities across Canada) shipped to Toronto to a Party Conference, at which he called on all cadre to oust the “bourgeois reactionary” leadership at all levels of the Party and to reinstitute his “proletarian line.” The (former) Partisans enthusiastically accepted this challenge, and at that time went through a membership evaluation procedure. Bains ripped off most of the former primary and secondary leadership of Partisan to join him indefinitely in the East, leaving the Vancouver Branch with little strong leadership. And that was the end of the Partisans: they were physically dispersed, enmeshed in a reactionary organization whose politics they were unable to evaluate, and automatically viewed any criticism of CPC(M-L)’s politics and methods of work as manifestations of the “bourgeois reactionary line” (internally) or as slanders of the “Holy Alliance” of the New Left (externally). Ideologically, the Partisans had become extremely backward, with minds responsible only to the CPC(M-L) leadership.

Paterson flew to Vancouver right after the November CPC(M-L) conference in order to find out what was going on, and was surprised (to make an understatement) to find few of his old comrades still around. One former Partisan naively did set up a meeting between him and the members of the “New Marxist-Leninist Centre,” but the Vancouver Branch leadership quickly cancelled it. There was nothing Paterson could do, and he returned to Toronto.[1]

IV. Conclusion

How could it happen? How could Partisan, having transformed itself into an organization moving off of a basically sound, if somewhat sketchy, set of Marxist-Leninist principles, have suddenly committed hari-kari en masse?

As pointed out in Section II, during the summer of 1972 Partisan had transformed itself into a Marxist-Leninist organization in form only, not in content. With the exception of Paterson, way off in Toronto, neither the leadership nor the rest of the membership had any real understanding of Marxist-Leninist political theory; worse yet, they knew enough about Marxism-Leninism to delude themselves that they understood it well and had only to apply what they did know in order to carry out successful practice. The “Statement of Direction” of August 20 was a reasonable start for such an organization, but it contained errors and omissions and in any case was not internalized by the membership. For example, Partisan did not yet understand the relationship between the proletariat and the vanguard Party (or pre-Party formation), considering the Party to emerge from the proletariat as its “conscious, tested leadership”; this economist error (“workerism”) was ruthlessly exploited by the Central Committee in arguing in favor of joining CPC(M-L) as the revolutionary vanguard which in fact has set itself up independent of the masses and which was (apparently) applying Marxist-Leninist theory throughout its work.

Without a solid grounding in Marxist-Leninist political theory, the Partisans easily fell prey to CPC(M-L)–the organization was outwardly Marxist-Leninist, but its members had not yet reached that level. This was the contradiction, between form and content, which caused the demise of Partisan. And while the case of Partisan was extreme, it certainly was not unique. Our movement abounds with Marxist-Leninist organizations with theoretical levels not high enough to prevent their turning into their opposite–in the U.S., the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) provides one such example. Marxist-Leninist organizations must take special care to raise the theoretical level of all their members, through systematic study of and struggle over the Marxist-Leninist classics and contemporary works. Cadre must become competent to evaluate the political lines coming from leadership, and the organization must function in a way which allows effective struggle against erroneous positions taken by leadership. It is only in this way that a national Marxist-Leninist organization carrying out a correct political line can be built.


[1] After two months, I finally thought I saw what was going on and attempted to struggle head-on against CPC(M-L)’s reactionary politics and methods of work. Having been a former Partisan Central Committee member, I had zealously supported the liquidation of Partisan, but had not been consciously involved in Rathwell’s manipulations; and Bains had judged me not to be suitable to join him in the East. As a member of the Vancouver Branch of CPC(M-L), I deduced that the branch was “completely under the domination of the bourgeois reactionary line,” and I wrote and managed to distribute among my comrades a twelve page paper criticizing the branch’s work in detail and proposing a course of rectification, in order to uphold “Comrade Bain’s proletarian line.” my paper was thoroughly trashed at a Branch meeting which refused to allow me to respond to criticisms of it, and I was roundly denounced by my former comrades. (Naturally, all copies of the paper were confiscated by the Branch leadership at the end of the meeting.) Undaunted, I flew to Montreal to present my case to a higher Party body, but I finally figured out, after banging my head against the wall enough times, that I had really been attacking CPC(M-L) as a whole, and that in fact the organization was controlled by the police. Throughout the struggle I had made no preparations to leave CPC(M-L), so when I did quit I was able to pull out only two other former Partisans with me.