Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Costello

Our Differences [Reply to Tim Patterson]


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 14, September-October 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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There has been a depressing lack of principled, comradely debate within the anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist communist movement. Therefore, when Tim Patterson, on behalf of the National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs (NNMLC), first requested space in the Theoretical Review to reply to our joint statement on their party-building line, published in issue #ll of this journal, we immediately welcomed the idea. The Theoretical Review was established to provide a forum for principled polemics and discussions within our movement and we hope the present exchange of views on party building will contribute to combatting precisely that negative style of polemics and “struggle” which have become characteristic of the Clay Newlin-Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee approach to handling party-building differences.

Both the primacy of theory and the rectification party-building lines emerged and developed out of the struggle against the “fusion” approach to communist theory, practice, and party building. At the same time, however, this common struggle did not lead adherents of our two lines to identical conclusions or even necessarily identical conceptions of the best methods of struggle against fusion. Hence, our present differences.

We will attempt in this article to summarize what we feel are the most important differences separating our two lines. In this fashion, we hope to situate the debate and clarify the real (as opposed to illusory) differences. We consider the most significant points of contention to exist in four areas: characterizing communist history, the nature of Marxist-Leninist theory, forging a general political line, and the matter of leadership and democratic centralism.


A fundamental difference which is at the root of a number of other distinctions between the primacy of theory line and the rectification line is the assessment of the political and theoretical history of the communist movement, particularly that of the Communist Party, USA.

For the NNMLC, the Communist Party, USA, “was for a considerable time the genuine embodiment of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism in the USA.” While the Clubs caution that they have not made a thorough examination of the history of the Communist Party, they nonetheless publicly have put forward the preliminary conclusion that we can locate the point at which the Communist Party ceased being the revolutionary vanguard of the U.S. working class in the year 1956. Until then, the Clubs argue, the general line of the CPUSA was, for all its weaknesses and shortcomings, principally correct.

We, too, have not made an all-sided analysis of the history of the Communist Party, USA. Our investigations in this field are still proceeding, which is one of the reasons we have hesitated to put forward any definite characterizations of this or that period of party, history. But we have published, and feel we have considerably demonstrated that the primary aspect of the political line of the Communist Party, USA, at least from 1946 on, was principally revisionist.[1] We hope to have some preliminary findings on the political line and strategy of the Party in the 1930’s ready for publication in the Theoretical Review later this year.

The importance of the issue, however, necessitates that we also present our tentative conclusions, because they lead to a very different orientation to our history than the rectification analysis. We date the turning point after which the theoretical and political orientation of the world and U.S. communist movements substantially deviated from Marxism-Leninism not in 1956, but in 1928-29. That is, it was not Khruschev’s accession to power, but the defeat of the Leninist line in the Communist International, whose most prominent international representative was Nikolai Bukharin, which signals for us the abandonment of communist politics in which revolutionary theory was dominant. Thereafter, a generally correct communist line was replaced first by the classless leftism of the “third period” only to be followed by the class-collaborationist rightism of the post-7th Comintern Congress popular and democratic fronts.[2]

While this difference in dating the turning point in communist history obviously has tremendous implications for current assessments of our historical, theoretical, and political legacy, it also reflects differing conceptions of che correct approach to historical analysis.

We accept Charles Bettelheim’s method of analysis which recognizes that the Marxism-Leninism of any particular period always exists as the particular unity of three distinct elements:

a) First there exists what Bettelheim calls Marxism as it is historically constituted, what we could call the ideology and general line:

Marxism as it was historically constituted in each epoch, on the basis of the fusion between revolutionary Marxist thinking and the organized movement of the vanguard of the proletariat ... [is] a systematised set of ideas and practices which enabled the revolutionary workingclass movement ... to deal, in the concrete conditions in which it found itself, with the problems which it had to confront.[3]

b) Second, there is at the core of Marxism as it was historically constituted, what Bettelheim calls revolutionary Marxism, or what we could call scientific Marxist theory, “revolutionary principles and conceptions resulting from-scientific analysis carried out from the standpoint of the proletariat’s class positions and based on lessons drawn from the proletariat’s own struggles.”[4]

c) Finally, since Marxism is never “pure,” it always contains elements of various ideological currents alien to Marxism.

The distinction between a) Marxist ideology and b) Marxist science is an important one. Marxist science is, at any particular stage in its history, the general principles, concepts, and methodology necessary to produce knowledge of the world, as well as the accumulated knowledge it had previously produced. Like any other science, Marxism-Leninism grows by developing new elements and correcting, rectifying, and/or rejecting old ones. Unlike the other sciences, however, its development is directly linked to the development of proletarian class struggle.

Marxist ideology, on the other hand, is not a body of scientific knowledge, but a product of that knowledge. It is knowledge transformed, improvised, and articulated at the level of politics and ideology. In short, it is a guide to action. Marxist ideology can fuse with the workers movement and guide communist practice because of its two-fold character. First, it is the product of scientific knowledge, and secondly it can correspond to the demands placed on the proletariat and its party by the particular moment of the class struggle.

Since Marxist ideology is never pure, it is constantly the site of class struggle, between revolutionary Marxism which struggles to represent proletarian class positions, and ideologies hostile to Marxism, which represent the class position of the bourgeoisie. In other words, Marxist ideology (Marxism as historically constituted) does not automatically embody or reflect Marxist science, it must be fought for.

In every period in the history of the world and U.S. communist movements, we must direct our attention to examining general line and ideology – Marxism as it is historically constituted, to determine whether or not they function under the domination of revolutionary Marxism, whether or not they reaffirm and develop the theses of revolutionary Marxism, whether or not ideological elements hostile to Marxism are being curtailed or strengthened.

Thus, Bettelheim has concluded that during the early 1920’s the dominance of the ideas of revolutionary Marxism within the Bolshevik ideological formation tended to grow stronger, while by the late 1920’s various changes contributed to reinforcing ideological elements hostile to revolutionary Marxism.[5]

We would never deny that elements of revolutionary Marxism have always existed in the theory and practice of the Communist Party, USA, even up to today. What we would argue is that after 1928-29 these elements were no longer dominant, but rather dominated by ideological currents alien to Marxist theory. It was these alien ideological currents which were decisive in shaping the general line which guided the Communist Party’s work after 1928-29 (first in the “third period” and then in the era of popular and democratic fronts). Among the most important of these hostile ideological currents we can identify economism, voluntarism, and bureaucratic centralism.

In the process of striving to develop a solid understanding of the revolutionary character of Leninism, the main danger is not, as Tim Patterson would suggest, that we will go so far back into history that we abandon Marxism-Leninism itself. The main danger today in this regard is that in attempting to go forward we will carry with us in our theory and our politics, a whole series of approaches and concepts which are alien to Marxism-Leninism.

Ultimately, differences in identifying the decisive turning point in the history of the world and U.S. communist movements reflect differing conceptions of the very nature of Marxist-Leninist theory itself.


The Clubs consider the Marxism of the 1930’s and 1940’s (the Marxism of the Stalin period) to have been generally correct. Because of this, they have taken much of their conception of Marxist-Leninist theory from that period, particularly its method of defining the character of Marxism itself.

In his article in this issue, Tim Patterson puts forward several contradictory assessments of Marxism-Leninism. In one place he states that it is a science; in another that it is an ideology; and in still another place, that it is scientific socialism. Historically, all these terms have been used to describe Marxism-Leninism, but this lack of rigor leads to a confusion which inevitably accompanies the equation of qualitatively different concepts. Lack of rigor was a typical characteristic of the new communist movement, and the NNMLC is not alone in this respect. But for the Clubs, which uphold the importance of theory in this period, to confuse science with ideology is a serious matter.

According to Tim Patterson, the Clubs define Marxism-Leninism as a scientific socialist ideology with two aspects: method and class stand. Method is the scientific aspect; socialism expresses the class stand.

From the primacy of theory perspective, this definition is confused to the point that it blocks a revolutionary understanding of Marxist theory, and renders theoretical practice difficult, if not impossible.

Marxism-Leninism is the unity of two distinct but interrelated disciplines: a philosophy – dialectical materialism, and a science – historical materialism. The source of Marxism approaches the contradictions of society as the expression of class conflict. From this premise, we situate philosophy as the expression of class struggle within the realm of theory – philosophical questions are quite important class questions. Dialectical materialism is the revolutionary philosophy of the workingclass. As such, it struggles to represent and defend positions in the theoretical class struggle that are in the best interests of the workingclass. Dialectical materialism does this by providing a materialist orientation and a dialectical method which can defeat idealist and metaphysical notions, notions which tend to defend the interests of the capitalist class.

At the same time, the Marxist science, historical materialism, utilizes this materialist orientation and dialectical method to produce knowledge of class struggle and society from which we can develop an ideology and a political line to change the world. Thus, Marxism demonstrates its scientificity not just in its method, but in its scientific practice of producing knowledge in the service of the workingclass.

Finally, it is the constitution of this Marxist theory into a “systematized set of ideas and practices” corresponding to the needs and demands of the class struggle which creates Marxist ideology, capable, under determinant conditions, of fusing with the workers movement and leading it to victory.

It strikes us as a serious matter when the Clubs, in striving to uphold the importance of theory, seem unaware of this vital distinction between science and ideology.


Of necessity, the differences over characterizing communist history and the nature of Marxist-Leninist theory lead to differing conceptions of the process of producing a general political line.

Contrary to the assertion of Tim Patterson, both the primacy of theory line and rectification recognize the centrality of political line in the struggle for a genuine communist party. Likewise, both lines recognize the decisive role of the theoretical struggle for a correct orientation in our development of political line. We do not disagree on the centrality of political line. Where we do disagree is on the problem of the character of the current theoretical struggle and its implications for our development of political line.

The Clubs define the current theoretical struggle in terms of drawing on our theoretical resources to analyze and act on reality, identifying and exposing incorrect and opportunist lines emerging within Marxism, and reaffirming the “universal principles” of Marxism-Leninism.

The Clubs speak of these “resources” and “universal principles” in two senses: first, they already exist, a legacy, no doubt, of the principally correct line and theory of the communist movement before 1956. But the Clubs also seem to be saying that any problems and difficulties with our legacy will be solved or rectified in the process of forging a general line.

We see a danger in this approach which views the rectification of our theoretical legacy essentially as a by-product of the effort to create a general line. The new communist movement always operated on the assumption that our theoretical resources and principles were a given; all that was necessary was to apply them to the specific conditions in the United States. To take only one example, Stalin’s theory of the national question was taken as our resource, the existence of a Black nation in the South was one of our necessary principles.

Today, we are striving to break with the tradition of the new communist movement. It is no longer sufficient to assume that we have the necessary resources to draw on, that genuine Marxist-Leninist principles have been separated from sham ones, or that the process of developing a solid revolutionary Marxist theoretical foundation will be the simple by-product of struggle over political line.

Of course, the ultimate test of any Marxist theory or principle is in political practice. However, a theory is a way of approaching a problem, a way of posing problems and looking for answers. No one approaches a problem “blindly.” One begins with a tentative hypothesis, a general idea of what one is looking for and some preliminary concepts.

In this manner, starting with the Black nation thesis, one can “prove” its existence, or one can (as PWOC has done) disprove its existence. But until one calls into question the very concepts and approach of the Black nation thesis itself, one is unable to break out and pose the question of Black oppression in a new way. Of course, we can wait until the “ultimate test,” political practice, proves the Black nation thesis to be incorrect, or we can begin now to establish our theory and political practice on a new foundation.

Such a break requires a difficult and serious theoretical effort. Such an effort is not a single process of producing a general line, which also results in rectifying our theory. Instead, our theoretical task is twofold, corresponding to the two-fold character of Marxism-Leninism. The tasks may go on simultaneously, but they are nonetheless distinct, because each proceeds differently. Charles Bettelheim explains:

The process of transforming revolutionary Marxism and the process of transforming Marxism as historically constituted in each epoch are not “parallel” processes. The former is the development of a’ science, whereas the latter is the transformation of an ideology which has a scientific basis.[6]

The conditions and the means necessary for the development of Marxist science are not identical with the conditions and means necessary for the transformation of Marxist ideology. The one requires a mastery of the practice of Marxism as a living science; the other calls for the forging of a general line in all its aspects.

The Clubs seem to neglect the fact that, unless we give serious and critical attention to our theory its concepts, methodology, and principles – as a distinct theoretical-political task, we run the same risk as the new communist movement, that of approaching political line problems with a theory crippled and contaminated with ideological elements hostile to Marxism. Unless we examine our resources and principles in the light of our understanding of communist history and the nature of Marxist-Leninist theory, and not simply starting with them because they were accepted as correct before 1956, we run the risk of disarming ourselves theoretically as we approach political struggle and the development of political line.


The final area of significant difference between the primacy of theory and rectification lines concerns the question of democratic centralism in the present period of party building.

The Clubs assert that democratic centralist organizational forms in the present period do not provide the most favorable conditions for the movement-wide ideological and theoretical struggle. Democratic centralism in this period, they argue, acts to fetter individuals to organizational lines, limits interaction among Marxists-Leninists, encourages factionalism in the future party, as well as careerism and hegemonism, and prevents individuals from being responsible to the movement as a whole.

Rather than developed democratic centralist organizations, the rectification line advocates the conscious limitation of democratic centralism so that individuals can be accountable to the movement as a whole and not thereby restricted to activity on behalf of a single group.

The cataloging of the dangers inherent in democratic centralism in this period which the NNMLC presents raises several problems for us.

The approach of the Clubs on the issue of democratic centralism is a reflection of their understanding of communist history. Since they uphold the line of the world communist movement before 1956 as principally correct, they seem to equate the theory and practice of democratic centralism in that period with democratic centralism in a Leninist sense. Indeed, the problems that they point out are characteristic of the, practice of democratic centralism in the Stalin period.[7]

At the same time, the Clubs want to have their cake and eat it too. They warn against calling into question the former revolutionary character of the Communist Party, because that would “open the door to social democracy,” yet they deny that their own characterization of democratic centralism, which is virtually identical with the social democratic perspective, will have the same result.

We all recognize the need for a struggle against social democratic deviations on the question of the party, but we are convinced that they will only be successfully waged when we do not equate the bureaucratic centralism of the Stalin period with democratic centralism. On the other hand, we are equally convinced of the necessity of fighting for genuine democratic centralism against those who cannot tell the difference between the two, and confuse the monolithic centralism of the 1930’s with the genuine democratic centralism and political style of work which characterized the Bolshevik party in earlier periods.

Finally, if the Clubs’ characterization of democratic centralism is correct for The contemporary period, how is it going to be different when we have the party? Surely the Clubs do not mean to imply that formation of the party by itself will solve the problems with democratic centralism. But what other conclusion can we draw from the way they present their case? Democratic centralism is not something which can be simply rectified in the theoretical domain, but through its active practice. Surely we cannot wait until we form the party to see if our rectified line of democratic centralism will work “in practice.” For us the rectification of the distortions which have characterized democratic centralism in the past is an immediate question – a question which communists must take up in their current practice and struggles.[8]

The issue of democratic centralism is integrally related to the issue of the development of leadership. The Clubs speak of leadership emerging out of, and accountable to, the movement as a whole. Unfortunately, while this sounds good on paper, its realization is a different matter.

The present state of our communist movement shows that it is a weak, divided, and theoretically and politically impoverished collection of local groups and individuals. The movement is far too weak to hold any leadership accountable for its line and practice. At present, “accountability” to the movement is no accountability at all. If leadership is not accountable to the members of the organizations it leads, it is virtually accountable to no one.

Given this obvious choice, we have upheld the principle of democratic centralism that leadership arises out of and is responsible to the membership of the organizational form of which it is the leadership expression. That is, leadership is not self-ordained but organic; it leads not by proclamation but by practicing its vanguard role within the limits of determinant political-organizational responsibilities. In this way, leadership’s accountability is real rather than illusory, and those who look to leadership can actually hold them accountable for their work.

On the issue of leadership, we conclude our summary of what we consider the major differences dividing the primacy of theory and rectification party-building lines. We have not touched on a host of lesser disagreements, nor have we gone into any great depth in assessing the areas of significant difference. We have not discussed the many areas of unity between the two lines.

What should be clear in any case is that a commitment exists on both sides to deal principally and comradely with these differences, to be open and honest about working to resolve them, and to make every effort to avoid the dangerous fragmentation and isolation which so characterized the new communist movement in the 1970’s. If nothing else, this approach gives us hope about the future of our movement.


[1] For our analysis, see the articles and documents on anti-revisionist communism in the 1940’s and 1950’s in Theoretical Review, #11 and #12.

[2] On the struggle between Leninism and the line represented by Stalin, see the two-part series on Stalin in Theoretical Review, #8 and #9. For a tentative analysis of the line of the Seventh Comintern Congress as practiced by the Communist Party, USA, see Paul Costello’s “Anti-Revisionist Communism in the United States, 1945-1950” in Theoretical Review, #11.

[3] Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR, Second Period: 1922-1930 (MR, 1978), p. 501.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 507.

[6] Ibid., p. 503.

[7] For a discussion of the bureaucratic centralism of the Stalin period, see Bettelheim cited above and the article “Stalin and Problems of Theory”, in Theoretical Review, #9.

[8] See Scott Robinson’s “Anti-Revisionist Lessons for Party Building Today,” in Theoretical Review, #13.