First Published: Theoretical Review No. 13, November-December 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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From this short history [ A Critical History of the New Communist Movement, 1969-1979 – EROL], and drawing on articles previously printed in the Theoretical Review, we can see some fundamental errors which plagued the NCM and with which the present movement has failed to break. While there are numerous lessons to draw from the past decade of struggle to build a new party, involving such issues as trade unions, racism, the international question, etc.; at present it is crucial to draw those lessons that most pertain to our present conjuncture of party-building: the attempt to build political unity among a variety of local forces. It is in this area, in particular, that we can see major forces within the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement blindly reproducing the very same faulted structure which caused our dogmatist predecessors to split into the various impotent sects which exist today.
We are not merely referring to organizational motions and struggles. Rather, organizational form can only express the level of political unity achieved among the various forces; that is, an organizational form is only as advanced as the political/theoretical foundation upon which it rests. Thus, we see that while the present anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement has seen fit to distinguish itself from certain political conclusions held by the dogmatist sects (e.g., the international question), it has as yet failed to recognize the nature of the rotted roots of the political unity which formed an intimate part of these opportunist political conclusions. In essence, the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement is being built on a continuum appropriated from the NCM instead of building a qualitatively new and advanced foundation.
What follows are some general areas we feel significantly distinguish the NCM and the majority of anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces from those involved with the primacy of theory line.
Marxist-Leninists unite and divide over political lines. However, it must be remembered that a political line is based upon a prior theoretical analysis (whether explicit or only implicit). Thus, one’s theoretical premises and the approach one takes to the development of theory are crucial to the development of an advanced political line which can unite Marxist-Leninists and guide our practice. As a corollary, faulty theoretical premises and an uncritical (spontaneous) approach to the process by which theory is developed, seriously undermines the apparent unity of Marxist-Leninists.
In the early NCM, theoretical tasks posed little problem: Marxist-Leninists were to be brought together around the vaguest of principles (often appropriated from foreign Communist parties) and the party was to be built directly out of engaging in mass struggles. The groups in the NCM based themselves only on the classics, and then only on their conclusions, instead of appropriating the method as well. In addition, while correctly rejecting Trotskyism, the NCM coupled this (as had most others before them)with a knee jerk adoration of Stalin and the Stalinian approach to theory. Ultimately, they failed to delve into the theories of both Stalin and Trotsky to expose their many common premises.
The Ann Arbor Collective (ML) attempted to raise this question of the degeneration of theory in the Stalin era, analyze some of its material bases, and bring to the fore the recognition of the international crisis of Marxist-Leninist theory. As seen above, Ann Arbor viewed the developments in Marxist theory in Europe as providing one of the bases for a revitalized communist movement. However, the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement as a whole has yet to take up any of these points in any form, even by expressing opposition to them. They seem to deal with the crisis and its possible solution by simply wishing it away, as did their NCM predecessors.
This blindness to the reality of the theoretical conjuncture has now become, and will become even more important. Despite the fusionists’ original notions of party building, which directly paralleled the mass struggle approach of the NCM, all forces in the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement now recognize the primary role theoretical work must play in this period. While this recognition is an advance, and must be seen as a minimal victory for the primacy of theory forces, it is virtually meaningless if it means only the replication of the simplistic non-dialectical theory which has failed to guide our movement for decades. The failure by anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist groups to address the questions raised by the Ann Arbor Collective initially, leaves them only to spontaneous notions of the development of theory; notions which are rooted in bourgeois ideology and the Stalinian tradition.
In sum, the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement has continued the NCM tradition of basing ourselves on superficial understandings of the classics, lip service to theory, and an uncritical acceptance of our theoretical heritage.
Very much related to the importance of advanced theoretical premises in building Marxist-Leninist unity, is the recognition that strategies for party building, and communist practice in general must be all based on an analysis of the present situation or present conjuncture. That is, a correct analysis of the balance of class forces, the state of the communist movement, the state of the workers movement, etc. all determine the strategy we must follow in this period. Without this analysis lines can only be developed in an idealist fashion, based on abstract notions of “correct” Leninist practice, instead of being rooted in the material conditions of present day US capitalism.
Needless to say the NCM functioned without any scientific analysis to guide their practice. In typical dogmatist fashion however, they conjured up notions of a continual mass uprising, with workers crying out for communist leadership. (As PL put it, “... once workers seize Marxism-Leninism they will not let go.” This illusion justified their mass struggle approach to party building as the revolution was seen to be just around the corner.
In similar fashion, the fusion position, especially as it was originally stated, reflected belief in the possibility of fusing communism with the workers’ movement when the communism to be fused had not yet been elaborated, and when the workers’ movement was at an ebb and was particularly unreceptive to communism (especially its general and rhetorical form). Today the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement still functions with only the most general and empiricist notions of the state of US capitalist their “independent elaboration” remains a cover for backwardness.
The primacy of theory line, on the hand, grew from an analysis contrary to all others in the NCM which recognized both the generally quiescent state of the workers’ movement in the mid-’70’s and the lack of communist analysis and political line to even bring to the workers’ movement. This of course is not to say that the primacy of theory forces have developed the type of conjunctural analysis we politically require; on the contrary, the strategy of the primacy of theory forces has to this point been to lay out this preliminary analysis and win others within the movement to taking up the task in a thorough manner. With its understanding of what constitutes advanced theory and the need for primary emphasis on its development, the primacy of theory line has, so far at least, laid the basis for the scientific conjunctural analysis from which we can develop advanced political lines.
Almost as a logical extension of the failure to recognize the theoretical crisis, the possibilities for overcoming it through modern contributions, and the importance of conjunctural analysis, is the continuing failure over the past decade to consciously develop politically/theoretically trained cadre. Actually, for the NCM, cadre development posed little problem at all. With their stagnant, sterile conception of theory, cadre development merely implied the learning of the “line” through party documents, the rhetoric, and the general principles of Marxism-Leninism in order to have the sufficient number of missionary foot-soldiers to spread the party gospel. Like the CP before it, developing an active rank and file incapable of challenging the leadership politically or theoretically maintained the appearance of “unity” while propping up the existing party bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, despite the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement’s unanimous recognition of the need for theory, there has been only minimal discussion of the importance and process of the development of cadre capable of Theoretical production. It is blithely assumed that the need for theory will resolve itself with the same superficial study which Marxist-Leninists have engaged in for years. Yet even the most cursory investigation of the level of development of the cadre in our movement shows an essential ignorance of the history of the US and international communist movements, only a rhetorical grasp of the science of historical materialism, and ultimately even an inability to critique theoretical works developed by the leadership of the movement. (This latter deficiency is even more pointed when we see that the quality of theory developed by leadership itself is quite low.)
The history of the NNMLC when it was the Guardian Clubs bears this out. Although founded in September, 1977, the clubs lacked a systematic study plan for the entire first year. Ironically, the plan finally arrived just about the time the dissolution of relations between the Clubs and the Guardian began, and the study was never systematically implemented. Now the NNMLC’s emphasis on “leading individuals” producing the theory and line which all must be won to, leaves many questions about their commitment and ability to build a theoretically advanced rank and file. Perhaps the Club sponsorship of the Marxist-Leninist Education Project (MLEP) shows at least some commitment to developing comrades’ knowledge of the classics.
Primacy of theory forces have often been criticized on this issue for expecting everyone to be an advanced theoretician. We expect nothing of the sort. What we do expect however is the movement to consciously develop all cadre to their greatest potential. If we are to produce the necessary theory and policies to unite our movement and to fuse with the workers movement, we need cadre capable of the task. For those who are not able to develop their own theoretical production, they should at least be working toward a grasp of Marxism-Leninism which gives them the ability to critique and contribute to the theoretical work of the more advanced cadre. It is only in this way that we can keep theoretical production a collective process; where the distinction between leadership and the rank and file is bridged not by blind faith and subservience, but by political/theoretical understanding and criticism, which alone can establish the solid political unity we require.
The concept of democratic centralism has had great significance in the history of our movement. The NCM considered it an inviolable principle. Recently a number of anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces have questioned its appropriateness for the present pre-party period. However, this seeming split with the past is actually no split at all, but a mere tactical shift within the same incorrect framework for viewing democratic centralism.
Democratic centralism is usually defined as the subordination of the minority to the majority, lower bodies to higher bodies and the individual to the collective. In the NCM the adherence to democratic centralism often centered around a conception of a rigid adherence to a set of political lines. Both of these characterizations emphasize organizational form over content, centralism (in fact, bureaucracy) over democracy. Admittedly, both characterizations are based on democratic centralism as it has been practiced since the late 1920’s. In this way, the NCM has failed to break with dogmatism by accepting democratic centralism in its most degenerated and bureaucratic forms.
Presently, the role of democratic centralism is viewed by some in the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement as inappropriate for a pre-party period, on the assumption that it will hinder principled struggle. However, this rejection is a rejection of democratic centralism as it has been bureaucratically practiced. Moreover, this rejection of bureaucratic centralism appears to be only temporary, since the assumption rejects the bureaucratic practice of democratic centralism only for the pre-party period; and without a thorough critique of this practice, the implication is that it is correct once unity has been reached and the party established.
Instead of accepting or rejecting democratic centralism based on this bureaucratic conception, the task remains for Marxist-Leninists to simultaneously restore and elaborate a Leninist content to the concept and practice of democratic centralism. This task takes on particular importance in light of the social democratic attack on Leninist principles of organization, as well as the maintenance of this caricature of democratic centralism in many communist parties and organizations in the world today.
Historically, efficiency, bureaucracy, and “iron discipline” have been promoted at the expense of democracy. Yet, it must be recognized that the “broad and democratic” debate so urgently needed does not spontaneously erupt; rather a basis must be laid for such debate and the development of that basis must be fought for against all tendencies toward over-centralization. Democracy must be consciously fostered in order to provide a legitimate foundation for the correct centralization of our theory and practice.
Moreover, the development of political lines through the practice of democratic centralism should not be seen as a war between two static positions in which one line wins and the other loses. Such struggles must be seen dialectically: We must recognize the dominant and subordinate aspects of each particular line, and synthesize the harmonious elements into an advanced line which unites the movement.
Only a high level of communist consciousness and high degree of theoretical and political unity among all cadre can begin to guarantee the correct practice of democratic centralism. This requires a strong emphasis on internal education, promoting ideological struggle within the organization, and developing the analytical abilities of each cadre, i.e., the cadre development discussed above.
We must also foster the organizational mechanisms and atmosphere which allows all criticisms to be raised without intimidation; and the basis must be laid for the practice of “going against the tide” when necessary. In this way, cadre at all levels can evaluate and contribute to the struggle for theory and political line movement-wide.
Contrary to conceptions within the anti-dogmatist/anti-revisionist movement, we hold that democratic centralism within a communist organization in the present period is not a block to principled inter-organizational struggle. Rather, a correct practice of democratic centralism can actually facilitate principled struggle and the development of a firm unity among various organizations. The crucial point is that the primary aspect of democratic centralism is not organizational form but rather the relationship it establishes among communists at all levels.
What becomes evident from this short analysis is that the present party building movement has failed to break with its dogmatist predecessors in many fundamental aspects. The attempt to build political unity with these dogmatist conceptions of theory, analysis, democratic centralism, and cadre development, can only mean that, if any unity at all is achieved, it will be an organizational unity without a firm political/theoretical foundation. In essence, this is exactly what we are seeing: the primacy of organization over politics both in the content of the struggles in our movement and in the internal practice of many of its organizations. It is no wonder then that the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement appears to be repeating the stages of party building established by the NCM.
In the NCM, various local and national groups formed in isolation from one another. In recognition of the need for communist unity they came together around vague points of unity, yet quickly fell apart when the shallowness and fragility of that unity was exposed through demagogic and sectarian struggle. Each group then either collapsed or formed its own “party”.
In the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement, we have local groups arising in isolation, trying to come together on vague points of unity. In similar fashion to the NCM, we are now witnessing an organized offensive against the minority position in the OC, and the sectarian struggles between the NNMLC and the OC fusionist majority; struggles which never even deal with the content of the various group’s party building lines. If all goes as it has previously, each grouping should form its own “party” or “pre-party formation” in the next few years and the opportunity for building sound political unity within the communist movement will have been missed once again.
This scenario is not meant to doom our movement prematurely; and not to cast doubt on the subjective desires and intentions of anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist leadership and rank and file. It is meant to raise serious questions concerning the path being followed. As much as many of the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist forces would like to succeed where the NCM failed, such cannot be the case by merely demarcating ourselves from our predecessors on this or that political line. The entire process by which political unity among Marxist-Leninists is forged must be reexamined. Our task is not so much to appropriate the lessons from the incorrect conclusions drawn by the dogmatist sects, but to recognize that conditions within the present conjuncture are allowing for the reproduction and reinforcement of the errors of the past.
For example, a low level of cadre development reinforces numerous negative features of the NCM: a) the bureaucratic relationship between the rank and file and the leadership, b) organizationalist conceptions of democratic centralism, c) the inability to overcome our present theoretical poverty.
Maintaining dogmatist conceptions of theory and theoretical production allows for the mis-estimation of both the type of conjunctural analysis we politically require, as well as, the importance of cadre development in this period. It also means that the “communism” we fuse with the worker’s movement will either remain at the level of Marxist-Leninist generalization, or else be permeated with bourgeois ideological notions. Finally, lacking a serious conjunctural analysis allows for the multitude of voluntarist and pragmatist strategies which arise in our movement.
In 1976, the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist movement stood at the crossroads of either developing new bases for a genuine communist party or else replicating the essential course of the NCM under a new cover. Four years down the road it is apparent that most forces in the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist movement have taken the latter course. Whether this path is irreversible is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that a political strategy for party building which focuses solely on the organized anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist forces is too limited. Conscious efforts must be made, and more advanced theory must be developed, in order to reach the broader forces that constitute the present, and potential, party building movement. For, in many instances, it will be these unorganized comrades who are willing to make the qualitative break with dogmatism that the organized forces have yet to accomplish.
 See especially the articles reviewing Bettelheim’s Class Struggles in the USSR, volume 2, entitled “Stalin and Historical Reality” in Theoretical Review #8, and “Stalin and the Problems of Theory” in Theoretical Review #9, both by Paul Costello, for a discussion of the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky theoretically.
 Communist Formation, “Distinguishing Features Of Leninist Political Practice”, Theoretical Review #4.
 Progressive Labor Party, Revolution Today, USA, 1970, p. 349.
 Significantly, the OCIC has begun a campaign against “federationism”, without ever discussing its relationship to democratic centralism.
 “Party Building: Our Aim Is True (Questions and Answers)” by Paul Costello, Theoretical Review #12.