Family Tree: Exchange — Max Elbaum 12/20/2000

I'm glad to see this discussion now joined at the level where it can be of most value to both veteran and new generation revolutionaries. Dennis' latest comments make clear there's a good deal of common ground, so I will focus here on clarifying and sharpening a few outstanding areas of disagreement.

Dennis and I clearly differ over the accuracy and consequences of the Maoist assessment of the USSR in the 1970s. I don't think the US revolutionaries who adopted the Chinese viewpoint were making the "central ultra-left error" of the period. But I do think Chinese foreign policy—and the idealist outlook infusing the Cultural Revolution —played major negative roles in legitimizing and consolidating the new communist movement's fundamental flaws: ultra-left historical assessments, strategies and tactics; a debilitating and dogmatic quest-for-orthodoxy mindset; a rigid, narrow and anti-democratic organizational model.


It’s not re-fighting old battles to bring this point up. (Especially since Dennis essentially concedes the argument, at least as regarding the Cultural Revolution model contributing to sectarianism, and the blunders committed by US activists who slavishly followed late-’70s Chinese foreign policy.) Dennis wouldn’t dream of writing even a brief summation of the lessons of the CPUSA without addressing that party’s relationship to the USSR and the problems it caused. Why should he or anyone else think it’s possible to write about the lessons of the new communist movement without flagging the huge controversy that broke out over China and its policies?

In that regard, I have numerous differences with Dennis’ (welcome) effort to summarize the contending views back in the 1970s. Here I will tackle only one. The main alternative to the Three Worlds Theory was not, as Dennis claims, the Two Camps Theory—which was a perspective that died with Stalin. The alternative was the framework of a “world revolutionary process” with three interconnected components—the socialist camp, the national liberation movements, and the workers’ movements in the advanced capitalist countries—with these three components, together, viewed as gaining ground against imperialism. This was the framework utilized by the Soviets; by the overwhelming bulk of national liberation movements from Vietnam to Palestine to Latin America to southern Africa; and by the Chinese themselves up to the Cultural Revolution and the moment (in the mid-1960s) when Mao rejected a proposal by the Japanese Communist Party for the USSR and China to join with others in a worldwide campaign of “united action” in defense of Vietnam. A key tragedy of the entire period from the late 1950s through the 1980s is that neither the USSR nor China consistently practiced the proletarian internationalism required of the socialist countries in the world revolutionary process framework. Neither consistently supported the national liberation movements which were on the frontlines of the anti-imperialist struggle, and further, they both mishandled their differences, which mushroomed into the bitter Sino-Soviet split which imperialism utilized to its tremendous strategic advantage. Both sides bear responsibility for this. The leaderships of both the Soviet and Chinese parties substituted “realpolitik” for revolutionary principle, and both were dominated by narrow factional, bureaucratic and nationalist interests.

As long as we don’t let differences over this history translate into pointless competition when hammering out forward-looking strategies, debating them when the topic is the history of the 1970s is valuable and healthy. I find less positive Dennis’ statement that on looking back 20 years he is inclined to “stick with what I thought, lo, these many years ago.” Too many facts have been revealed that were then hidden (or denied)—not to mention all of us now having the benefit of hindsight—for this to be a good approach. It is one thing to defend positions we took in the 1970s or 1980s as the best judgments we could make given what we knew at the time. It is quite another to ignore or downplay all that has come to light since about the political intrigue, narrow-mindedness, and profoundly anti-democratic practices at the center of both the Soviet and Chinese Parties; about the depth of the problems built into the Soviet model in the Stalin era; about the myriad ways in which the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc and alienated two generations in China from the ideas of Marxism, class struggle and internationalism; or about the glee with which US imperialism greeted and took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split, playing each country off against the other in turn. I know almost no one in the section of the communist movement I come out of who has not rethought many of the positions we took back then. I cannot fathom why, in light of all the facts revealed and experience accumulated since the mid-1970s, Dennis works so hard to defend an old Maoist framework whose analytic centerpiece is that the USSR was on the “anti-revisionist” revolutionary road under Stalin (after whose death it quickly “restored capitalism”) and that all was revolutionary and “anti-revisionist” in China until some unspecified time after the Cultural Revolution—and then China too restored capitalism (apparently under the leadership of the main proponent of the Three Worlds Theory, Deng Xiaoping).

I also differ—and this has more immediate practical consequences—with Dennis’ views on the new communist movement’s organizational model. Again, it is one thing to argue that there were plausible reasons to regard that model as the most advanced available back in the 1970s. But it is totally another to cling to our old positions in the face of overwhelming evidence that the “d.c./M-L” model needs more than a little tinkering and had fundamental ideological and structural problems: the endless splits led by cadre who all genuinely sought revolutionary unity; the thousands of activists burned out; the fact that even the most flexible efforts to build a party on that model united only a tiny fraction of the revolutionary ranks; the near-universal suppression of democracy in the name of political unity and fighting opportunism; the fact that in almost every country where anything like the new communist movement existed veterans and younger activists alike have moved beyond its boundaries to search for other forms. Or to be very mundane but very concrete: in organizations built on that model, activists with differences over history such as those between Dennis and me could not co-exist no matter how much we agreed on current matters: one or another tendency would have to drive the other out as a revisionist headquarters undermining genuine “Marxism-Leninism.” I realize Dennis doesn’t advocate going back to that kind of thing. But where he sees the biggest danger in “throwing out the baby with the bath,” I don’t see the baby he is trying to hold on to here other than the ideas of collective action and organization themselves; and I see tremendous pitfalls in clinging to an outdated, discredited model.

On this issue Dennis completely missed the point of my comment about FRSO’s recent split, which was not to denigrate Freedom Road’s unity-building efforts but to press you to a deeper summation of your experience—which, in my view, would reveal the ways loyalty to the new communist movement model inhibits the more ambitious left unity-building efforts you are now embarked upon.

It’s to Freedom Road’s credit that you have succeeded over the years in bringing into one organization activists who before were in several different organizations. But essentially the process has been one of uniting comrades who already agreed with, or became convinced of, a very particular ideological perspective and tradition. In the new communist movement model, that was pretty much the extent of what left unity meant—because folks who disagreed with one’s specific ideological tradition ultimately couldn’t be considered “genuine left” and instead had to be dealt with either as opportunists in need of exposure or misguided progressives to enlist in a lower-level united front. This is why that model becomes unstable, and alternative models are sought, once its adherents recognize that there are genuine revolutionaries who draw their inspiration from alternative ideological traditions; and further, that some way of building organizational unity, on the basis of democracy and equality, among these diverse revolutionaries is required. All the documents made public about FRSO’s 1999 split indicate that it is precisely because the Left Refoundation paper at least opened the door to this significantly broader (and in my view much healthier) view of left unity that it became a matter of sharp contention in Freedom Road; and that it was seen by a significant minority of the organization as incompatible with FRSO’s traditional interpretation of Marxism-Leninism and its longstanding organizational model. If Dennis (or anyone) has a serious alternative summation which shows that the new communist model was not a major factor in this setback, I will of course give it the most serious consideration. But in its absence, I hardly think I am alone in making a connection between events in FRSO and the pattern of divide-every-time-there-is-no-longer-unity-of-thought which was endemic to the entire new communist movement.

After all, the vast majority of today’s revolutionaries—including the majority of new communist movement veterans who are still active—have concluded that it’s not possible to have it both ways—that is, to both “keep a lot of the content of d.c. and M-L” and successfully pursue broad-based left regroupment and unification efforts. Theoretically it requires re-defining so many terms and concepts from how they’ve been used for the last 50-75 years that they become virtually unrecognizable. And practically speaking just about every left organization (in the US and worldwide) that has attempted that balancing act has either moved substantially away from “d.c. and M-L” or retreated back into the ideological comfort of a small, sectarian existence. It would be a shame if Freedom Road, either through conscious decision or just plain political inertia flowing from fear of “throwing the baby out with the bath,” fell back into the latter fate. Of course going in the broader direction has dangers too. But I think they are best guarded against by squarely confronting the underlying structural problems of NCM-style “d.c.” which produces constant splits between folks who actually agree on far more than they disagree about; and coming to grips with the whole dogmatic “there’s one true Marxism-Leninism” mind-set that has led just about every “orthodox” communist party in the world into stagnation if not outright collapse.

Dennis needs to move beyond generalities in this crucial area. I suggested several elements of traditional Marxism-Leninism that need to be tossed out: the one-party state; the idea that Stalin was a great communist leader; the belief that there can be only one revolutionary vanguard in any given country, and that this vanguard is determined mainly by loyalty to a particular ideology. But Dennis is silent on these points, retreating instead to the comfortable formula that we shouldn’t “peremptorily chuck everything out.” First of all, more than ten years after the Soviet collapse and Tienanmen Square massacre, and more than 20 years after the new communist movement started to go downhill, there is nothing at all “peremptory” about coming to these conclusions. But more importantly, this discussion would be a lot more fruitful if Dennis would say whether he wants to hold on to these things or not. If he does, why, and if he doesn’t, why should the eclectic combination that remains still be called by the name Marxism-Leninism? (A term which, after all, was never used by Lenin himself but was a product of Stalin’s rise to power.)

It’s true that in the very early 1990s—in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet implosion and the killings in Beijing—many former Marxist-Leninists just chucked everything and abandoned the field. But the main problem facing those who have hung in there anywhere near the Leninist tradition through the ’90s is not that there is a new rush to toss everything from the past overboard. Rather, it’s that that we’re badly tailing in being able to break free of old dogmas, methods and models, to develop fresh analyses, strategies and organizational forms for what Dennis very correctly says is a very different world.

In this different world, debating the history of the new communist movement has a useful place, and I commend Dennis and Freedom Road for getting this particular round of that debate going. But here again we agree that discussion over proposals about how to move forward—such as FRSO’s Left Refoundation perspective—ought to take center stage. In response to some FRSO comrades’ request, I and other activists drafted a reply to the Left Refoundation paper almost a year ago now, and undoubtedly you have solicited and received other responses as well. It would be a service to the left unity process, and would advance the debate you call for, to post these on your website and encourage an even broader and more active discussion. For I wholeheartedly agree that it is the process of moving forward, both theoretically and practically, that will test which lessons from the experience of the new communist movement prove of value.

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