Family Tree: Exchange — Dennis O’Neil 12/01/2000

Thanks for the time and thought you devoted to your comments. I really appreciate it and will try in my response to curb my old polemical instincts, dormant but not extinct. (Word processing programs make it so much easier to edit out the parts about "Back to the swamps of social democracy if you must, Messrs. the Bernsteinists, but don't drag us from the high hard path of revolution…")

There is much I do agree with in your summation, and where we disagree, predictably, I think that other readers may find some useful points in the clash of our viewpoints. Because our exchange is to be posted on the website, I have taken the liberty of explaining some stuff you already know. Both of us could understand the shorthand version, but I’ve chosen not to go that route in the hope of making this accessible to the young readers who are finding their way to the family tree.

Overall your letter goes to the heart of some of the major questions facing anyone trying to sum up the new communist movement and criticized my short essay for ducking these issues. I did in fact not set out to do a complete history of this movement and both in my title (“Some Lessons…“) and introduction I laid out modest goals of trying to put forward a few lessons targeting young folks who have gravitated toward revolution in the last decade or so, long since the events we are discussing. You point out, correctly I believe, that some of the particular points I make can only be incompletely understood unless some of the larger context of ideological line is understood.

Let me start by a quick run-through with what I agree with. First your opening rhetorical question pointing out that the family tree of the New Communist Movement poses questions about who is included and who is not is surely true. I agree with you that groups in that movement shared common ideological assumptions, and while I would not frame it exactly as you did, I won’t quibble with the points you raise.

I would add however that there are other, practice-based characteristics the movement had in common, and that influenced its development at least as much as political line flowing from Beijing. The presence of so many groups, all largely homegrown, and mainly young, requires investigation too.

The new communist movement grew out of the New Left. As you point out, it was shaped by the anti-racist and ant-imperialist politics of the New Left. And it was new because it rejected, it had to reject, the existing communist politics available in the US because they were insufficiently anti-racist and anti-imperialist, and particularly because they were not revolutionary.

The common self-definition as anti-revisionist Marxist -Leninist was not merely or mainly an abstract ideological statement. At heart, it was a rejection of what the old Communist Party USA had become by the 1960s. We felt, and I would still argue, that the CP was a revisionist party, that it had abandoned some of the most important insights of revolutionary Marxism.

The obvious question is: why did the great majority of young radicals who were turning to Marxism and revolution not wind up in the orbit of the CP? For all that it had been crippled by McCarthyism and societal anti-communism, it remained far and away the largest group on the US left, and had a proud tradition that many young radicals actively identified with—I was not alone in haunting used bookstores buying every book and pamphlet Workers Library and International Publishers had ever brought out.

The main reason is quite simple—the CPUSA was not revolutionary. Period. By the ’60s, its theory proclaimed that the road to socialism in the US would be peaceful and electoral. In practice the Party fawned on liberal politicians and mildew-butt trade union bureaucrats. Its voice, the Daily World, attacked Black nationalists while upholding reformist civil rights groups, criticized youth culture and promoted folk dancing, and regularly slandered or patronized or ignored militant college students, and SDS in particular.

(The reason that there was no similar efflorescence of new organizations in the Trotskyist tradition and that only a relatively small section of those radicalized in the upsurge rallied to this tradition is another discussion.)

Again, I agree that the Black Panther Party did not, even when it identified most strongly with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, identify itself as part of the NCM. One reason they are included is because they had a profound influence on many of the groups which formed after them, especially but not exclusively nationality-based outfits like I Wor Kuen and the Young Lords and because many BPP members and sympathizers wound up in various organizations of the NCM. The next version of the family tree will, we hope, also include other formations from the Black movement like the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) and Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU) which fed into the new communist movement. In fact, the question of Black Liberation and revolutionary nationalism was a central concern for most of the forces in this camp. While the extended summation of the whole Panther experience you call for is definitely needed, I am skeptical that pulling their thread out of the family tree would be helpful.

Moving on, I agree that the roots of the anti-gay line so many organizations adopted was rooted in good old home-grown homophobia and that my reference tends to let that slide. You are also right that workerism, tailing the existing values of many workers, was a major factor. It is nevertheless still true that this stuff was rationalized by selective use of historical precedents and foreign models, which made opposition harder to fight. Compare the Workers World Party, some of whose leaders ran an anti-gay position to me in the late ’60s, but who soon embraced the rising gay liberation movement, both theoretically and practically, to its benefit and to their own organization’s.

Again, I think you have deepened the point on how ultraleftism was a major crippling factor in the new communist movement. There was indeed a strong connection between folks’ sectarianism and the model of the Cultural Revolution. Of course the same thing can be said of many of Lenin’s writings, and should be said. (Incidentally the standard response to the criticism you make of the Mao quote, “The correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line determines everything,” is that to be correct, an ideological and political line must have an accurate assessment of objective conditions. That said, I used to make the same argument. I think it goes more like: objective conditions determine 85 percent of everything, blind fool luck—what Stephen Jay Gould calls contingency—another 10 percent and the line maybe 5 percent . Of course, there are times when that 5 percent may mean the difference between huge advances and huge setbacks to the struggle.)

Now we come to the crunch, the crux of our differences. Max, your argument seems to be that the central ultraleft error in this period was the adoption of by the new communist movement of an analysis of the USSR propagated by the Albanian and Chinese Communist Parties.. That analysis held that a new ruling class, in essence capitalist, had seized control of the Communist party in the USSR and turned the Soviet state into an organ of dictatorship over the working class and masses of people. It further argued that the role of the USSR in the world was not that of a bulwark of socialism and friend of the oppressed, but of a great power out for its own interests. We called the Soviet Union “social imperialist,” socialist in form, imperialist in essence.

Re-fighting this old battle seems pretty peculiar today, when few would debate that capitalism is indeed the governing system in the former Soviet bloc and, despite its increasingly pro forma self-identification as socialist, in China as well. In truth what we really need is a much deeper and more objective summation of the whole experience in building socialist states and economies which developed out of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, what Samir Amin calls “Socialism I.” This task is beyond me, and probably even you, but is a collective one facing all the forces in this country who want to see a new revolutionary organization numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands develop.

That said, I would go into such a summation process with an initial inclination to use the insights of the new communist movement as a starting point (just as you would surely start with your criticism of my views.) I do feel that the Chinese critique of internal developments in the USSR was more right than wrong, that a new ruling class arising from within the Soviet Communist Party had come to dominate most major political and economic institutions and was destroying what accomplishments socialism had been able to build there. I think the Chinese Cultural Revolution was, however flawed and ultimately unsuccessful, a worthy effort to solve a historic problem posed by the rise of the new ruling class in the USSR.

I referred above to the revisionism, the embrace of a non-revolutionary world view by the US Communist Party. Make no mistake, the CPUSA was the official voice in the US of the leadership of the Soviet Union, parroting its every stand and hailing its every deed. The revisionism of the CPUSA was in great degree a local manifestation of the revisionism in the Soviet Communist Party.

The line of peaceful transition to socialism in the US was a corollary to the Soviet line of “peaceful coexistence” between socialism and capitalism on a world scale. In practice this idea also led to the main emphasis of the CPUSA and forces allied to it being on “peace.” This was at a time, the 1960s, when revolution in Third World countries was on the rise and support for it was a duty and a hallmark of revolutionaries in this country. To pivot everything around peace was to implicitly criticize those in Africa, in Palestine, in India, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, in the Philippines who had picked up the gun to free their countries.

And after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring and “socialism with a human face,” when demonstrators at the famous 1968 Democratic Convention action protested police repression with signs which read “Czechago,” we viewed the Soviet Union as a brutal mirror image of our own ruling class.

The role of China in combating this revisionism and international bullying was one of the main factors in winning many of the young fighters to the New Communist Movement and giving it such a pronounced Maoist flavor.

(Here I will digress into a short history lesson for the sake of those to whom our exchange might otherwise be incomprehensible. What was known as the Sino-Soviet split broke into the open in the early 1960s when the Chinese Communist Party opened “the polemic concerning the general line of the international communist movement.” The Chinese criticized positions of peaceful coexistence and peaceful transition to socialism, upheld national liberation struggles and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and rejected Soviet claims to be the leader of the world movement.

The criticism of Soviet revisionism increased in the late ’60s, and the Chinese put forward the position that capitalist-type relations had been restored in the USSR and its leaders had become New Tsars, who not only exploited the working people of the USSR and the Soviet bloc but also sought to expand their global reach. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China was launched as an effort to prevent the same degeneration of socialism in China and prevent a new elite within the communist party from developing and running things in its own class interests.

The Three Worlds theory was formally put out by China in the early ’70s as a description of the world balance of forces. The First World consisted of the two superpowers, the US and USSR, whose rulers were basically rivals vying for domination of the globe, though they sometimes colluded when upsurges or upstart countries threatened the stability of the world system they dominated. The Third World was made up for the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, some socialist, some capitalist, some semi-colonial and semi-feudal, but all with interests opposed to those of the two superpowers. The Second World was industrialized countries in Europe and the Pacific rim who simultaneously had exploitative imperialist relations with some third world countries and conflicts with the two superpowers.

As a description of the world balance of forces, its main rival was the Two Camps theory, put forward by those sympathetic to the USSR, which held that the world was divided into a socialist camp and a capitalist camp and that some developing countries gravitated toward one or the other.

In the late ’70s the Chinese position evolved into a campaign against “hegemonism,” in which they claimed that the rulers of the USSR were in the position which Lenin had once described as “newcomers to the imperialist banquet table.” Thus, they argued, the USSR had to be the most aggressive power in trying to redivide the world spheres of influence and would be the most likely power to instigate aggression and trigger a new world war.

Personally, I tend to stick with what I thought, lo, these many years ago. The Three Worlds theory was a pretty good description of how the world broke down then, with proper emphasis on the role of the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and generally gave useful guidance in figuring our how to analyze particular situations that arose in the world. The increasing targeting of the rulers of the Soviet Union as the main enemy of the world’s people in the Chinese “anti-hegemonism” period led to advocacy of an objective alliance with US imperialism. Whatever its merits for the Chinese Communist Party, aping it produced some of the more embarrassing moments for US revolutionaries in a long time.

Again, while there are important lessons to be learned from summing all this stuff up, the fact is the world is a very different place now and the questions on our plate are different as well: the relationship of transnational corporations to nation states, the global domination of the US, the relative weakness of less developed countries, the global hegemony of capitalist market ideology and the variety of countercurrents which it has brought into being or magnified, and so on.)

Back to your specific points, Max. I agree again in your section on my point on unity, that rigid organizational models helped forestall motion toward a mass-based and democratic revolutionary party. You are entitled to your “gotcha” about our own recent split after a long string of successful unity efforts, but I do think there are some lessons to be learned from Freedom Road’s long emphasis on left unity. Our roots go back to the Proletarian Unity League’s polemic against ultraleftism and sectarianism in the mid ’70s and extend up through the recent (and post-split) merger into FRSO of some folks from Fire by Night, a group of young people which originated in the anarchist tradition. More important, FRSO is advocating strongly for a new approach to party building, as argued in our paper “Meeting the Challenge of Crisis and Opportunity: Left Refoundation and Party Building.”

Which leads me to your concluding section in which you propose an alternative approach to what we might to carry over and what we might wish to discard from the movement’s experience Without the brief section which cites anti-revisionism, Maoism and China’s foreign policy, I’d sign it as is. Were there a point to it, I bet we could struggle out some language for that piece that both of us could live with.

I do have a caution, though, and that’s the old baby and bathwater problem. Where you cite the bad model we adhered to in that period, I am perhaps not as critical because I don’t see what model was available to us then to replace it. That is also why I said in my original paper to which you are responding, that we need “a disciplined organization which uses Marxist theory,” and not a democratic centralist Marxist-Leninist whatever. There is a range of views on these issues in Freedom Road, and I fall toward the end that thinks we ought to keep a lot of the content of d.c. and M-L. More important, I think each aspect should be examined and evaluated before it is discarded. Let’s not peremptorily chuck everything out, and leave those who come after us to reinvent the wheel all over again, starting with a literal reading of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done.

That is the kind of discussion we in FRSO hope to promote with the paper on left refoundation and party building I cited above. I hope this exchange, if it gets a little circulation and draws some responses from other folks will play a small contributory to the process.

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