First Published: Theoretical Review No. 14, January-February 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The publication of these documents in Red Papers 1 in the Spring of ’69, one year after RU’s formation, established RU as a leading force within the newly emerging national trend and RU’s call for local ML organizations spurred the development of other independent collectives, especially in the latter part of 1969 as SDS disintegrated. Ironically, SDS leader Mike Klonsky followed our lead and started a collective in Los Angeles which emerged as the October League. (The Communist League, later Communist Labor Party, had started about the same time as the RU in L.A. when another group of our friends from national SDS teamed up with some veteran CP old-timers already loosely associated in L.A. and led by Nelson Peery. Initial contacts between RU and CL were cordial. I was the RU observer at the founding conference of CL and Klonsky was the OL observer.)
Throughout ’69, RU primarily put its energy into giving some form and perspective to the amateurish and politically inconsistent mass work that RU cadre were attempting in workplaces and communities. (RU was also influential enough by this point that it began trying to rebuild SDS in the Bay Area but it was a little late. It did maintain an influence in the non-PL student formations, in the area, however, including the Radical Student Union in Berkeley.) In the workplace and community work there was a growing realization that we were carrying much ultra-left “baggage” inherited from the student movement. There was general agreement that this was the principal problem in our work but a very uneven understanding of how to go about making the transformation and probably a reluctance to criticize anything that seemed to work.
For example, some of the Richmond comrades were exhibiting some of the most outlandish ultra-leftism in their plant work, wearing Mao badges, quoting from the Red Book, but were bold enough to carry it off and gain quite a base of support at the same time for their confrontations with the union leadership and plant management. Once the Union leadership and plant management teamed up to keep them out of the plant until they took off their Mao badges and most of the plant workers supported them in pushing their way in. What do you say?
What you say is that their work is still ultra-leftist, a fundamentally wrong approach to tactics, but boldness in presenting the political truth can still have a positive impact, even with a wrong approach. This lesson was not lost on some of the RU leaders who one-sidedly made use of some such experiences to justify a drift toward volunteerism that re-emerged in a later period.
Theoretically, the RU produced Red Papers (RP) 2 and 3 during this period, 1969. RP2 was an attempt to develop the concept of “United Front Against Imperialism” which formulated a general approach toward reform work and toward the integration of tasks confronting various “spearheads” of struggle: defense of living standards, Black and other minority liberation struggles, women’s struggle, anti-imperialist issues and “defense of democratic rights” or anti-fascism. The central core of the United Front was considered the unity of the workers movement and the Black and other minority movements. The RU was inclined still in this period to underscoring the importance of each of these quite different areas of work, an approach that it was to later abandon in its drift toward a more consolidated version of ultra-leftism beginning in 1972.
RP3 was not a very good attempt to recognize the importance of, and have an effect on, the growing women’s movement. It defined women’s issues in an overly economist manner, careful to diplomatically downplay the “consciousness raising” which was the initial dynamic of a deeply felt rebellion against the many and varied forms of women’s oppression.
The RU’s touchiness on this issue is interesting. It foreshadowed the sort of “left economism” that did later become a key aspect of RU’s impatience with all but pure ”class” issues. It is ironic what communists sometimes do with the notion of “class” issues. As important as the struggle is to build a base among workers, it is purely “class” issues that (as Lenin pointed out) can remain at the most isolated, politically insignificant level while some issues that have a political or cultural impact on all classes provide the best opportunities to expose the capitalist mentality and logic of the capitalist system precisely because any significant amelioration of these contradictions is more impossible than it is to raise the workers’standard of living somewhat.
Yet it is more possible for the ultra-left mentality to fantasize about some level of workers’ organization leading straight to revolution than it is for ultra-leftists to comprehend how to effectively relate to powerful but obviously limited (from a class standpoint) reform issues.
I also find it interesting now that I have become involved in mental health work that the Left in general does not feel comfortable addressing ”psychological” oppression, except in the most simplistic, ineffective manner; in fact, not addressing it. It seems to me to represent an extension into politics of the typically male attitude that feelings and internal effects of outward circumstances are somehow not as real as the things one is expected to do outside, such as maintaining a job, building a house, etc. The effect is that women continue to carry the emotional burden of family and relationships and the particular experience and skills of women are invalidated as necessary but of second-rate importance. I suspect that men pay just as high a price for maintaining this sort of dichotomy in terms of superficiality of relationships and self-understanding but objectively this unwillingness to consider “internal oppression” is sexist and has not only characterized the RU’s thinking but continues to permeate the Left. My bias is that such thinking also contributes indirectly to the tendency towards simplistic, rigid abstractness that we will sum up in the RU’s later development and characterize as “left subjectivity” or “left idealism.”
Before we move on, let me also touch on a related and even more controversial subject, the attitude toward homosexuality. There are many gays who have heard of the RU and for one thing only – the fact that it has been a vocal, avowedly anti-homosexual organization. Unfortunately, this attitude is not unique to the RU/RCP. Anti-homosexuality has long been the dominant attitude on this question within the communist movement. (Although this was not always the case, prior to World War II, communist parties often maintained ties with both the strong women’s and gay rights movements in Europe.)
The anti-homosexual bias on the part of some RU leaders was bolstered up by this general anti-homosexual tradition in the communist movement so that there was little challenge within the ranks to the dominant anti-gay attitude. Later, and not coincidentally as the organization pushed ahead more arrogantly in a left-sectarian direction after 1972, a weak attempt was made to develop a theoretical justification (here, ironically, they had to resort to a little out-dated Freudianism) and an anti-gay policy within a year or two. (To understand ultra-leftism one has to understand the essential conservatism within the communist movement when confronted with unfamiliar issues.)
Why was the homophobia so strong within the RU, and most of the rest of the Left for that matter? To adequately answer that would be interesting and I think productive, but would take us outside the scope of this article. Here are a couple of reasons that occur to me. One reason is that communists are always having to defend unpopular, un-American notions such as anti-racism and communism. It is nice to be like any other worker on something. By and large that is more possible on cultural issues in general and on something like that that, after all, has not much to do directly with workers vs. boss oppression. (Left economism, again). Also, I think it has to do with why anyone is homophobic, i.e., 1) fear of loss of sex role definition (as communists we want people to be tough, be fighters, so RU particularly tended toward glorifying the “macho” image for men); 2) puritanical reaction to sexual openness, greater flexibility in sexual expression that is suggested by homosexuality. (Communists have to demand self-sacrifice, some subordination of personal fulfillment to political tasks, and if they resent doing it they may be particularly bothered by the “hedonism” they perceive in the people around them.) I am well aware that many would consider such explanations somehow “non-political,” which is why an issue of this importance never is addressed in any depth. Back to RU history.
By early 1970, there occurred an increasing polarization between the more clearly adventurist perspective represented by the Franklins and others in the RU leadership, and the more “economist” perspective (as characterized by the opposition) of Avakian, myself, and the majority of leadership. The issues crystallized when the former group submitted a position paper on armed struggle that described a scenario of “urban guerrilla warfare” or a protracted “armed propaganda” struggle and the clandestine formation of a “people’s army.” Avakian countered in a paper that argued that such a perspective is impossible in an advanced capitalist country, that there must be a long period of essentially peaceful political struggle culminating in a rather sudden mass insurrection when a significant mass base exists that is supportive of revolution. (The principal documents in this struggle were reprinted in Red Papers 4.)
The adventurist line, which was possibly the dominant tendency in this period nationally, was an inconsistent hodge-podge of Marxism and anarchism. It could be better understood as a mood, a mood of petty bourgeois impatience and romanticism that found its expression ideologically in a tendency to grossly exaggerate the readiness of objective conditions for revolution and consequently a tendency to project a totally unrealistic form and level of political struggle.
Absurd as this position may sound, it was not easy at the time to counter because the alternative view had to be posed in explaining why more slow patient struggle was necessary and at a much less “revolutionary” level, which did not sound very exciting by comparison. The reason for this can be found in the lack of understanding of Marxist theory, and the class background and limited (limited to outside the working class, largely) political experience of those who were impressed by this sort of ultra-leftism.
I think the important point is that the subsequent history of ultra-leftism in our movement, while taking more subtle forms, does spring essentially from the same petty bourgeois impulse (given poorly understood theory and limited experience) of impatience and a desire for and tendency to be impressed with quick and overly simplified solutions. Such solutions come about, of course, in the realm of ideas, not much connected to the realm of actual experience which might make some elements (workers, for example) suspect of such solutions, but not radicalized intellectuals who can get quite carried away in the realm of ideas. A kind of subjectivity is the result that often leads to a partial or complete inability to recognize and respond appropriately to the real requirements of building a political movement.
Not only had the left adventurist tendency struck root among the ex-students of the sixties but there was a strong pull toward adventurism within the Black movement as well. Despite much broader roots among the Black masses than white communists had among any working class constituency, the revolutionary wing of the Black movement had come under intense repression from the state and had allowed itself to be edged into an increasingly adventurist stance. The reason for this also had to do with the class outlook of its leadership, many of whom were intellectuals who relied largely on a semi-lumpen base of support who tend to be as individualistic and adventurist as the radicalized students.
The politics of the Black Panthers had always contained an unsteady blend of Marxism, anarchism and Utopian idealism. Under Eldridge Cleaver’s leadership in 1970, the Panthers developed an openly anti-working class and anarchist perspective that culminated in a sort of revolutionary nihilism (Cleaver’s “revolutionary suicide”).
This development on the part of the Panthers prompted a response from RU who had until that time been strongly supportive of the Panthers and kept quiet about criticisms. The RU had avoided recruiting Black members but instead encouraged them to join the Panthers. The majority of the RU leadership was now convinced that this policy should not be continued, that it was extremely irresponsible to encourage anyone to join the Panthers under conditions that then existed. I wrote up an internal paper outlining the criticism of the Panthers and calling for the RU to become a “multinational” organization.
This development added fuel to the flames of the already growing cleavage between the RU’s two factions. Criticism of a major Third World communist group was unthinkable to the Franklin faction.
The RU found it necessary to nearly abandon all other work and concentrate for a period of several months on this internal struggle. The Franklin group left toward the end of 1970, taking about a third of the Bay Area organization with them and contacts in the Northwest and some other areas. The hard-fought internal struggle served a purpose, however, in that the remaining RU cadre were much more consolidated around the majority position and learned a great deal politically from the struggle.
The Franklin group probably typified more than the majority of the sentiments that were dominant in the broader movement. In order to win this struggle, it became clear to the majority that there would have to be a crash course in Marxism-Leninism on certain key questions.
This took the form of lengthy position papers (Avakian was in his element) and endless organized internal debates. I remember angering members of the opposition faction by, in response to the weariness of such debates, quoting the words of an old fundamentalist hymn to the effect that “What more can be said, than to you has been said?”
The cadre and leadership did come out of this struggle with more of an appreciation that there are many basic questions that would be resolved incorrectly if only approached on the basis of our own experience and in ignorance of the lessons of communist history over many years and in varied situations. Specifically, this applied to the question of what elements in society – the working class, the lumpen, students – must be relied on ultimately as the most revolutionary force, a question that was at the heart of the differences.
Also, as a result of this struggle, the membership gained more of an appreciation for the basic principles of democratic centralism. As often happens, the minority became increasingly willing to disregard the established procedures and directives of the majority in leadership for carrying out the debate. The Franklin group tended to make a principle of flouting discipline when there were important issues at stake, and this prompted a reaction from the remaining membership to generally tighten up discipline, leave leadership with more responsibility to decide when to report disagreements to the membership when not to, to define the parameters and the form for carrying out struggles.
In retrospect, I think a great mistake was made at this point in fostering in the RU some of the long-standing practices of the communist movement in regard to constricting the rights of membership and minority elements within leadership. This involved the decision that the membership did not have a right to be informed of differences within leadership beyond what the majority leadership wanted to pass on, that minority elements did not have the right to explain and argue for their position outside of the highest leadership body that they were on, that leadership could restrict debate (to ensure orderliness, “security”) by, for example, not allowing members to discuss criticisms of leadership outside of their own collectives.
Ironically, I was the one who wrote up these guidelines (Report on Democratic Centralism in Red Papers 4), but I now think they provided the structural groundwork in the RU for the development of the “bureaucratic centralism” that has generally come under criticism now among Marxists-Leninists. Unfortunately, I think the awareness of these problems is very uneven within the Independent Trend and I suspect there will be tendencies to re-establish the old rules lock, stock and barrel if these questions are not critically examined. The reason that these practices tend to continue is that they have their value to leadership, the value of protecting leadership from the annoyance of dissent.
Overall, I think the outcome of this struggle left the RU with more of a conscious strategy of basing itself on the working class, more understanding of the need for patient, protracted involvement in reform issues (at least among workers in trade unions), more aware of the great extent to which we had come out of a movement that was pervaded by ultra-left attitudes, more aware of the need for theoretical clarity. The leadership gained more admiration from the membership (having led the way through this struggle in which members were often confused and lost their bearings) and so much so that I would say that after that time there was far more of a problem of membership relying uncritically on leadership than of the opposite problem of ultra-democracy.
The RU then began to focus its attention on carrying out this more consolidated perspective in its mass level work, in workplaces and trade unions in particular. A trade union commission was established to develop a more consistent approach to T.U. work. A study was made of past efforts at organizing the unemployed (this was during the 1970-1971 recession) and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committees were launched in the Bay Area. All cadre were (for a while) required to be in a study group. The RU organized the first of its yearly May Day Rallies for May Day 1971 that reflected the newly consolidated enthusiasm for “building a real workers’ movement” under communist leadership.
The RU intervened in various strike struggles of the period including playing a key role in organizing support rallies for striking longshoremen in San Francisco with whom the RU had fairly good contacts. The RU tended more toward errors of economism and rightism during this period of nearly unbridled enthusiasm for winning a sphere of influence within the workers’ movement. The RU was certainly attacked by other organizations during this period with charges of “economism.” In my opinion, such charges need to be taken with a grain of salt considering the mood of the time which was toward more obvious forms of infantile leftism. Despite some economist mistakes, I think this period (1971-72) was the healthiest of RU’s development.
During this period, the RU formulated as its central task the “building of the United, consciousness, and organization of the working class and the leading role of the working class within the United Front.” This formulation of a central task has been attacked as rightist by virtually everyone – the ultra-leftists and those within the Independent Right. (Rightist because party building was not posed as the central task.)
I do not agree with the criticism. I think such a formulation was a clear-cut, non-rhetorical admission of the importance during this period of gaining a communist influence by way of addressing the very pressing task of rebuilding a practically non-existent “workers’ movement” (for example, through the influence of left-led caucuses in trade unions, community coalitions), i.e., fusion, and that saw the development of such a perspective for communist work as a precondition for party building rather than as “party building” itself.
The RU attitude toward party building was, although this was not explicitly stated, that the development of a correct approach to building mass struggle was at the heart of the political line that would be needed for a party. If other forces did not correctly approach such work then that was the problem to be addressed before we would even begin to talk about building a party which presumably would be formed on the basis of a line on such key questions.
Thus, in my opinion, the RU approach (at least implicitly) during this period had the advantage that it underscored the importance of “fusion” and saw the application to this task as key to the accomplishment of other tasks, including the task of struggling with other communists for unity on political line that would provide the basis for party building. One element of this analysis (that still today divides the “fusion” and “rectification” forces) was that given the makeup and background of our movement, one cannot expect a correct political line (that has any concrete substance to it) on such issues as how to build a revolutionary movement in the working class to develop apart from some experience and concentration in carrying out these tasks.
Let me say one thing further on “party building.” When we look at a group such as the RU, even during this period, we should avoid mystifying what “party building” actually meant. The RU already functioned effectively as a party. It had or was developing a line on the most basic questions. It had become a national organization (a process that I will describe shortly) that operated on the basis of democratic centralism. The only real significance of “party building” would have been its willingness to carry out struggle with other forces toward a more unified movement-wide organization. To have achieved such broader unity would have provided the only significance to changing its name to a “Party.” Later when the RU did become a “Party” what it signified by this move was that it then saw itself as the only legitimate Marxist-Leninist organization, but for all practical purposes it had functioned as a “party” for several years.
The RU developed its position on the Black Liberation struggle during this period and the position was published as Red Papers 5 in early 1972. The position maintained that while there was justification in continuing to call the Black struggle a national struggle, the Black Belt Nation theory (as formulated in the 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions) no longer was valid because Blacks were now scattered throughout the United States and most Blacks were now workers, integrated within the working class at large, rather than involved in a separate, share-cropping economy in the South. The RU put forward the concept of a “Nation of a New Type” who had still the right to choose for self-determination but who were much more an integral and leading element within the overall class struggle than ever before. At this point, the RU still maintained that the Black struggle was also an important revolutionary struggle in its own right.
While some might observe that the idea of a “dispersed Nation” is somewhat of a contradiction in terms, nevertheless I think this position was an advancement over the general tendency in the anti-revisionist movement to reaffirm the antiquated Comintern position. It was not until later in our story that the RU began to downplay the significance of the Black struggle and therefore I do not think that tendency was inevitably connected with the development of this theoretical position. Of course, the discarding of the Separate Nation theory made it possible to downplay the Black struggle but I prefer to think that this was an example of how one-sidedly and rigidly some communists respond to reality, rather than as an example that it would have been better if our theory had never confronted reality at all.
The RU had gradually expanded into a national organization as numerous local collectives joined the RU in the period of 1970 to 1972. Initially, the RU was unprepared to provide national leadership, especially until after the split with the Franklins was consolidated in early 1971. The RU had initially imagined that local groups would develop, carry on relations with RU and at some point move toward a national party. Most of the local groups were in actuality not able to develop an independent perspective and tended to either gravitate toward some other major perspective such as Weatherman or towards RU. Some, like OL, did develop independently but maintained a critical stance toward the RU and there was mutual suspicion and a sense that their politics were quite different (whether they were really that much different or not).
Until 1971 these other RU areas served as appendages to the Bay Area organization politically. In ‘71, a national center or headquarters was established in Chicago. I think this move tended to isolate further the top leadership from their roots (so to speak) and consequently made it easier to develop perspectives in disregard of a summation of practice. (Although it gradually lost any real significance, “summation of practice” had always been talked about as central to correct development of political line. It was only later, after the flowering of the dogmatist trend in the mid-’70’s, that this good old Maoist term fell into virtual disuse by some communists.)
The national steering committee produced a report in the latter part of 1972 that heralded a change in mood in the RU leadership and began to move the organization in a sharply different direction. The paper argued that rightism, not ultra-leftism, had become the main danger and it also projected the development of independent workers’ organizations as the strategy for trade union work.
On the question of rightism, the paper pointed to examples of amateurishness in mass work, to the failure of some cadre to support the RU’s political campaigns and to the fact that some cadre entertained thoughts of giving critical support to McGovern who ran as an anti-war candidate in 1972.
There had clearly been examples of lack of political boldness and tendencies to economism in individual mass work. Much of this kind of amateurishness merely reflects inexperience and is probably preferable to the contrived rather intrusive kind of bravado which increasingly after this period became the RU’s trademark. The tasks the RU had set for itself also necessarily occasioned a certain amount of economism. Rather than beginning to recognize this danger and better equipping the cadre to avoid making economist mistakes, there was a general sense of panic and a complete reversal of the analysis that saw ultra-leftism as a pervasive danger given the conditions of the movement’s development. I would maintain that the change in emphasis was not occasioned at all by any real increase in rightist thinking in the RU but by a change in perspective on the part of the leadership of the tasks facing the organization.
The first example of this new perspective was the emphasis on building intermediate workers’organizations. Left-initiated workers’organizations can be a useful form for carrying on work on a higher political level around issues that are connected to the issues addressed within the unions, workplaces and broad community organizations.
It is vitally important, however, that work on this level not be seen as a substitute for struggling for influence within the more mass level organizations. It is far more comfortable and obviously easier for communists to do their own thing within their own front organizations. To gauge how to struggle correctly within mass organizations is a difficult task and, in my opinion, the surest test of the political maturity and flexibility needed to transform revolutionary politics from mere phrases into reality.
The fact that city-wide organizations, which by definition could not be the forum for work within particular unions, could be projected as a “strategy” for trade union work indicated that, indeed, an essentially “dual unionist” mentality was taking root, a more subtle form of ultra-leftism than the adventurism of earlier days but actually very similar to that described by Lenin in “Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder.”
Why this sudden change? The RU had been concentrating in workers’struggles at this point for several years and had little to show for its work in terms of recruitment or of any lasting impact within workplaces or trade unions. I think a kind of impatience or what might even be called disillusionment arose among some of the RU leaders but was masked in terms of “moving out of the mire of economism.” There must be, they reasoned, a faster, less circuitous path to revolution.
There was an added factor now that contributed powerfully to this tendency toward impatience. The RU was at the height of its influence within the communist movement, the largest ML organization. Some rapid successes were necessary within its mass work if it was to begin to meaningfully, claim the mantle of “vanguard of the working class.”
The RU had never made a priority of working with other movement forces. Previously, this had been justified by pointing to the more outright petty bourgeois leftism of many of these forces and suggesting that it was impossible to integrate with the workers and at the same time work in tandem with these forces. I think there had been some validity to this argument but it served as justification for a great deal of organizational arrogance. And being immersed among the workers, one does not have to listen to such criticism that one gets from other leftists. This attitude reinforced an imperviousness to dialogue and criticism within the Left. As the RU’s politics moved further to the Left, the face of its politics toward other Left groups appeared increasingly sectarian and in turn it had far more criticism to protect itself from.
The justification now for the RU maintaining its isolation had to be different. The RU was now saying that rightism was the main problem. OL had at this point abandoned some of its initial ultra-left criticisms of the RU. OL cadre in private were even known to admit that the RU had been more correct on certain issues. In fact, OL adopted some RU lines wholesale that they had previously criticized, e.g., the United Front Against Imperialism. It is true I believe that the OL veered slightly further to the right during this period (1972-74) than the RU ever had.
The RU looked for and exaggerated some OL mistakes to begin laying the groundwork for the charge that the OL and its ally during that period, the Guardian, were full-fledged “Browderites.” As the RU increasingly took left-sectarian positions on key questions and the OL in that period took slightly more realistic positions, new evidence was continually compiled regarding OL’s Browderism while at once justifying RU’s ultra-left stance.
During this period, the RU tended increasingly toward one-sided, simplistic analysis of various political and social issues, especially in regard to the issues of special oppression and democratic rights. It denounced the Equal Rights Amendment as merely a ruling class trick to mislead the working class into worthless reformist channels. It vehemently denounced OL for supporting the ERA and also for involving itself in the Conference of Labor Union Women as if there was some long-established communist principle of not participating in such reformist-led coalitions. (In which case, how would we justify at all participation in trade unions? Ultra-Leftists are often not much for consistency.)
In the Bay Area, the RU declined to participate (the incidents I am describing all occurred during 1973) in the United Labor Action Coalition, a temporary alignment of active union people initiated by S.F.T.’s more progressive union bureaucrats, even after being encouraged by some of the forces within the coalition to participate, on the grounds that since we could not significantly influence it or control it would only be building the role of union bureaucrats.
The last example, of participation in ULAC, is a good illustrative example both because it did offer complexity (it is hard to play an effective Left role in a reformist-led coalition) and because the RU’s response was clearly wrong and clearly an ultra-left reaction. It ignores the seemingly obvious fact that the people themselves will be attracted to reformist philosophies and follow the established reformist leadership to a certain extent. No matter how loudly we yell, we will not change that fact and only if we are in these movements and supporting their progressive content will we be in a position to effectively criticize the negative aspects of reformist leadership and facilitate people learning politically from these experiences.
While this logic might appear hard to escape, the ultra-leftists will always find plenty of reasons why in any particular case either participation will involve some unpardonable compromise of principle (OL later came up with a great one when they decided it was always wrong to work with revisionists), as if politics were bound by moral absolutes, or more commonly they avoid the issue by suggesting it is a little revisionist to see “this kind of work” (electoral work, trade union work, mass coalitions in the women’s movement or Black movement) as important. What is “important” by contrast is, they think, some left-led activity where we continue to essentially talk to ourselves.
Of course, not everything the RU did during this period was totally negative. During 1973, they built nation-wide support for the Farah strikers that far surpassed the support organized by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. They built committees against Nixon’s Wage Freeze that, at least in the Bay Area, had some success in injecting this very timely political issue into strikes and other struggles. They put a great deal of energy into their purpose by putting tons of leaflets into the hands of unemployed workers but were abysmally ineffective in organizing workers or becoming a mass organization.
The RU had also by this time established numerous “worker” newspapers around the country that were not formally published by the RU and intended to function as the forum for a slightly broader than RU, left-oriented “workers’movement” that never materialized. In place of reflecting the liveliness of mass involvement or having any real mass appeal, they reflected only sterile, even more oversimplified versions of RU politics.
Toward the end of 1973, a new crisis erupted. The Black Workers Congress and the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization had been meeting for some time with the RU leadership in a Liaison Committee and how this alliance erupted in mutual recriminations.
These other two organizations had sensed a tendency within RU leadership to downplay the special significance of Black and other minority struggles and struggle had gone on for some time around these questions. Now the RU had decided the time was ripe to form its party (CL had already announced its intention to form a party and they suspected OL might soon) and had apparently begun putting pressure on these groups to merge into their projected party. When BWC and PRRWO refused, given their hesitation on how the RU was coming to view minority struggles, RU responded with charges of bourgeois nationalism and “Bundism” (meaning to make a principle of separate national organizations).
It did become clear in the course of these debates that RU was changing its approach to Black and other minority struggles. We began to picture the recognition of these struggles as broad cross-class struggles in their own right, as inherently a tendency to veer off the straight proletarian path into bourgeois reformism. From this time on, RU cadre became so afraid of catering to bourgeois nationalism that they began to invariably argue against separate minority caucuses in their workplaces, unions, etc. The RU leadership decided that bourgeois nationalism was a bigger problem than white chauvinism within the communist movement. It seemed, of course, that the most clear-cut example of bourgeois nationalism would be to refuse to join the RU.
Whether the RU’s organizational conflicts around its party building plans prompted the changed political emphasis on the Black and other minority questions, or the political changes (related to an overall tendency to downplay the significance of reform issues) prompted the organizational conflicts, was never very clear and is not really important. Two negative tendencies that had been increasingly consolidating within the RU leadership were apparent – incredible arrogance and willingness to ride roughshod over other forces and a one-sided simplistic disregard for the complexity and significance of an issue such as Black Liberation.
The RU got the opportunity very soon to show what its line meant in practice. Indeed, the RU’s response to the Boston Busing Crisis in 1974 provided a pitiful illustration of the absurd and downright reactionary lengths to which an idealist distortion of reality can be carried by a communist group. The RU was not about to fall for the ruling class’s scheme to divide white and Black workers. Working class unity was the issue, according to RU, and the Black people’s struggle for equal rights was by comparison apparently an irrelevant issue.
I left the RU, however, before witnessing this debacle. There were a number of people within the RU, at least a fair number in the Bay Area, who refused to go along with the RU’s line on the Black question during its split with BWC and PRRWO. Some of these people had been critical of some aspects of RU’s rigidness and sectarianism before this time but most of these people were shocked by this particular development and their sense of loyalty to what they considered as the revolutionary significance of the Black Liberation struggle overrode their sense of loyalty to the RU.
I had been critical of the direction RU had been taking since the time of the national steering committee report in 1972. At that time I had written a paper, being fully confident that the leadership would appreciate my suggestions and see the error of their ways but such was not the case. I had initially taken a leave of absence from leadership but after writing a critical position paper the leadership decided, to my amazement, that our differences were too great for me to be in leadership. I had not considered leaving, however, until the split developed around the Black Liberation issue. I also considered this issue too serious to stay in and in any way defend the RU’s position.
I saw this issue as but the most serious manifestation yet of a developing left sectarian trend. Most of those who left, as well as most of those in the communist movement, saw the issue more in terms of “rightism.” (OL intermittently called these errors both left and right, seemingly not wanting to be pinned down to any one analysis. It was not until the development of the Independent Trend a couple of years later that there was any significant section of the movement that began to correctly put these mistakes into perspective.)
Most of those who left RU at this time, together with BWC and PRRWO, fell prey to a kind of dogmatism in some ways more primitive than the RU’s ultra-leftism. First they were convinced by those, including CL, who argued that RU had gotten itself in such a mess on the Black question because it had departed from tradition and broken with the Black Belt South theory. There was a tendency to think that those who had all along criticized RU on other issues as well, such as party building, for not being dogmatist enough must have been correct.
For the next year or so, many of these people, particularly those under BWC’s leadership, began to ponder the scriptures, looking for the “key” to party building, as the Black Belt theory had been the “key” to the Black Liberation issue. It seems that for those trained in ultra-leftism, leftism has a tendency to beget leftism.
Led as this trend was by some Third World organizations, a quite substantial dogmatist tendency was established in the period of 1974-76. MLOC, Revolutionary Wing, Workers Congress and other groups grew out of this period. In my opinion, the reconsolidated dogmatism of this period, in the confusion after RU’s initial isolation, had a significant regressive effect on most of the anti-revisionist movement and the “back to the classics” fundamentalism of that period still has its effects on our movement, even somewhat within the Independent Trend.
For the remainder of RU’s history, I am not the one to tell the story. The reader is probably aware of some of the highlights. In 1975, the ”Party” was formed. Toward the end of 1977, RCP broke with China and consequently lost half of its organization as the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters split off on this issue. Those who left were critical of an even more pronounced ultra-left drift by this time, but, unfortunately, they saw RCP’s quite justified break with China in the same light. Now, in 1979, RCP seems to have regressed to a kind of left adventurism that is reminiscent of the Weatherman days, also reminiscent of the later years of PL as well when it found itself an isolated sect and a kind of “go for broke” mentality set in.
The Revolutionary Union was very much a product of its times, a forum mainly for those who had come to revolutionary politics in the 1960’s to give play to their enthusiasm for revolution and to put their notion of how to build a revolutionary movement into practice. Of course, they did not start entirely from scratch. They had read, like all of us, “What Is To Be Done” and even “Left-Wing Communism” and had at least a superficial understanding of the major themes that had been stressed in communist history. They had some negative models, including the revisionism and economism of the CPUSA and the extreme left sectarianism of the Trotskyite groups, and particularly of PL’s brand of ultra-leftism. As time was to tell, however, they did not significantly understand these mistakes, especially the ultra-left ones, to avoid repeating them in different forms under different circumstances.
For the most part, RU leaders were young, of petty bourgeois class origins, had little political experience and particularly little political experience within the working class. This is not to fault them. Let’s face it, given the relative dormancy of the working class during the last period, if it were not for the “idealism” of the radicalized intelligentsia there would be no “new” communist movement.
Sometimes their instincts were “right on.” Revolutionary developments were such on a world scale that you might say the builders of the new movement almost instinctively rejected the political backwardness of the CP’s approach. They had also learned enough from the revolutionary struggles worldwide and had enough experience themselves in anti-imperialist struggle to reject the form of PL’s ultra-leftism that clearly sabotaged support for national liberation struggles. (Although many of them were later taken in by China’s form of ultra-leftism which served the same purpose.)
There were some, including the early RU leaders, who got close enough to the working class to dispel the myth that the working class had no significant grievances with the system. They were able to understand, at least superficially, that it was on this potential that a revolutionary movement had to be based, not on the readiness of an isolated few to take up arms against the system.
After this point, however, the questions of how to build a revolutionary movement among the working class got tougher and the solutions they came up with (given their class orientation and background, limited theoretical training, limited experience) became more inadequate.
One can argue that if they had been better Marxists, had a better understanding of how to apply Marxism in a lively way things would have been different. That is quite true, but of course they thought they understood Marxism. In my opinion, the real problem is how an abstract understanding of Marxism gets translated into real programs and perspectives. Here it is important to recognize, if only to guard against it ourselves, how pervasive has been the tendency to understand Marxism in a certain way, a way that replicates the world view and subjective tendencies of the radicalized intelligentsia.
Characteristics of this world view include the following: impatience, the desire for quick or at least uncomplicated solutions, a bias toward relying on intellectual schemes no matter how much such thinking is apparently contradicted by reality or the results of practice, a subsequent kind of subjectivity that enables one to recognize only selected aspects of reality. Some common mistakes in method that flow from these ideological biases include an inability to approach problems in a dialectical manner, a persistent tendency to rely on abstract principles (often understood incorrectly in the first place because of the ideological bias) and to oversimplify the requirements of intervening in any given social situation, to generally not see the necessity of struggle moving from lower to higher levels and of the necessity of enabling people to learn political lessons from their own experience.
All of these tendencies are characteristic of the idealism of the petty bourgeois. We should not be discouraged that these tendencies appear, we are merely paying the price for our heritage, so to speak. These factors were always present in the RU, and every other of the anti-revisionist organizations; it is just that when up against the task of moving a mountain (the working class into political struggle) these tendencies became manifest and of more decisive consequence.
Did this subjective idealism have to take a Left form? Under the circumstances, I believe it did. We are describing essentially a left impulse, i.e., “let’s get on with it, we want to make revolution, we must overcome (read overlook) all obstacles.”
Now a young CP member may be criticized for making some of the same mistakes, but the young CP member is part of an ideological tendency that will either dampen his left impulses, or he will leave. There is no, question that ideology, while arising itself out of class experience, in turn shapes and influences our perceptions.
The only developed aspect of our ideology has been anti-revisionism, other than the basic principles of communism, and there has been no significant counterbalance to such infantile communism. Essentially the reason why I support the ”fusion” perspective is that the only significant counter to making these kinds of mistakes that I have ever seen is a serious and deep awareness of the requirements of revolutionary work that arises out of practice.
I have written about my experience in the RU but really this is a history of our movement –its strengths and weaknesses. If both its strengths and, particularly right now, its failures can be understood, our movement will move ahead with more understanding and perspective without, once again, having to start from scratch.