When Ethan Young spoke highly of the family tree of the new communist movement, we seized on the opportunity to ask him if he would lend his expertise in the field to helping us flesh out the part of the tree covering the section best known as "the Trend." This grouping arose in the second half of the 1970s and had important differences in line and analysis with the organizations whose roots lay earlier in that tumultuous decade.
To our surprise and gratification, Ethan has produced a full essay on the history of this grouping. Because the Trend is not the section of the NCM which gave rise to Freedom Road, we could never have on our own gone into it in this depth. Readers will find in it not only valuable historical material, but a summation of the whole experience of the NCM which is in some places at variance with our own and more like that elaborated by Max Elbaum in his exchange with Dennis O'Neil.
As with that exchange over the lessons of the new communist movement, we welcome comments from readers on Ethan's article. (Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.) In addition, we promise that we will incorporate that material, as well as other important facts and lineages that have been sent to us, in a new improved version of the family tree (sooner or later).
In the mid-1970s, a new tendency emerged on the left, in opposition to the “anti-revisionist” party-building groups of the new communist movement where Freedom Road traces its roots. Commonly known as “the Trend,” this collection of “anti-revisionist, anti-dogmatist” party-building groups coexisted with the NCM through the 1980s until the whole scene collapsed around 1989.
The most widely recognized rallying point for the Trend was the New York-based weekly Guardian, the acknowledged national voice (and “newspaper of record”) of the independent left since 1948. The Guardian had played a similar role for the nascent NCM from 1969 until the paper broke with China over foreign policy issues in 1975. The paper abandoned party-building efforts around 1979. The Guardian folded in 1992.
The Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center, the largest national group to emerge from the various constituent parts of the Trend, was a federation of local working class-oriented collectives grouped around the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC). OCIC was formed in 1978 and collapsed after an internal crisis in 1981.
The most coherent national cadre-based formation produced by the Trend was the Oakland-based group Line of March. The history of this group is complicated, as it was formed out of a variety of movement groups and operated semi-clandestinely in its early years. It too was decimated by an internal crisis and transformed itself into a more democratic but short-lived group, Frontline Political Organization, in 1989.
At its start, the Trend’s politics stood between the Soviet camp on the “right,” and on the “left,” the Chinese Communist Party and its supporters. Trend groups commonly opposed the Communist Party USA for “revisionism” and reformism (more or less consistent with China’s critique of the Soviet line from the early 1960s, as presented in the 1963 Proposal on the General Line of the International Communist Movement which can be found at http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/PGL63.html), and the NCM for sectarianism and dogmatism. All the Trend groups also broke from China’s post-Cultural Revolution foreign policy of open hostility to the USSR and its allies.
[BACKGROUND NOTE: After the Sino-Soviet split, Moscow and Beijing each headed up mutually antagonistic camps in the name of Marxism-Leninism. The split began as a difference over whether to emphasize national liberation struggles against U.S. imperialism (as the Chinese CP argued) or to seek long-term peaceful coexistence to head off a nuclear war (the Soviet CP position). It became a mini-cold war by 1970, with Beijing calling the USSR restored capitalism and “social-imperialist,” and Moscow declaring the Mao Zedong-Zhou Enlai leadership traitors to anti-imperialist unity for splitting the Communist movement and courting Washington at the height of the Indochina war.
In the U.S. left in the early 1970s, Mao and the Cultural Revolution were widely viewed as the more revolutionary alternative within international Communism. The term “Maoism” was an insult in NCM circles, particularly for its constant use by their opponents in the left—mainly the CP and the Trotskyists. I stick to the label “NCM” because it refers to a specific set of groups in the history of U.S. Maoism from the period examined here. Both the Soviet and Chinese positions held that the USSR was on the rise and the U.S. was in decline. To the Soviet CP and its supporters, this scenario demonstrated the strength of Soviet socialism that would sooner or later triumph over imperialism. The groups supporting the Chinese CP adhered to that party’s “three worlds theory” (laid out in the pamphlet Chairman Mao’s Theory of the Three Worlds is a Major Contribution to Marxism-Leninism), which cast the Soviet Union, not the U.S., as the “main danger” whose “hegemonism” posed the greatest threat to world peace and the sovereignty of third world nations. History does not bear out either view.]
Trend groups were critical of the “Black nation” thesis that most NCM groups upheld. The thesis revived the 1930s Comintern position that Blacks in the U.S. constitute a distinct oppressed nation in the area of densest African American population in the South. While Trend groups emphasized the fight against racism, they tended to view Black liberation as a struggle for equality and democracy within the national United States, not one for national self-determination. As with NCM groups, supporting or opposing the thesis had no bearing on Trend groups’ positions on specific issues like busing for school integration, affirmative action, or police brutality.
Importantly, all Trend groups rejected the homophobia of the NCM. Trend groups included out gay men and lesbians as members and leaders.
From the early 1970s, many in the independent left were raising questions about China’s friendly overtures to the military rulers in Pakistan, General Pinochet in Chile, and the Shah of Iran, and withdrawal of aid to guerrilla movements in the Middle East. This tension was played out in the U.S. left as some NCM groups aggressively pushed China’s pro-U.S. turn as an appropriate left response to a Soviet threat. For example, supporters of Puerto Rican independence were confronted with one NCM group calling for “Superpowers [i.e., the U.S. and USSR] out of Puerto Rico.” Since the only Soviet “presence” in the U.S. colony was among pro-Soviet independentistas, the slogan only made sense as an attack on the independence movement. Cooperation between the NCM and various solidarity movements turned into antagonism nationally.
The matter came to a head when various U.S. groups expressed opposition to China’s mid-1970s policy towards the embattled government of Angola, a recently liberated colony of Portugal in southern Africa. In 1975 in that country, a coalition of three guerrilla fronts, the first post-liberation government, collapsed into violence. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) held on to the capital. Two rival groups retreated to base areas: National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was sheltered by Zaire, and Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) by apartheid South Africa. Both of the last two groups received Western aid; in fact, a former CIA operative led the FNLA. MPLA had long received Soviet backing. China initially argued that the three groups were equivalent, with aid from one superpower balancing aid from the other, and in effect gave sanction to a U.S.-backed counterrevolution.
This may seem like an obscure event to base a political struggle on, but in terms of what was understood as an international struggle against imperialism, the stakes were high. To many in the Africa solidarity movement, China’s position was tantamount to treason, especially given the implications for the looming struggle with Apartheid in South Africa. (MPLA had close ties to the ANC.) When Cuba sent troops to support the MPLA, Beijing condemned this as a major shift in the balance of power and de facto Soviet aggression. While most of the NCM supported China’s position, the Guardian and many other groups rallied to denounce it. It was the biggest challenge within the U.S. left that China and the NCM ever had to face.
Alongside the “international line” dispute was the widespread rejection of the arrogant, sectarian posturing and in-fighting that characterized most of the NCM groups. In the early 1970s, NCM groups produced volumes of newspapers and pamphlets denouncing each other and the rest of the left as hopeless sell-outs. Trotskyists, non-Leninist socialists and the Communist Party were especially marked as agents of the devil.
This schism led several groups to consider the goal of party building outside the NCM. The emerging Trend sprang from several different 1970s movement scenes. Like the NCM, Trend activists considered themselves Marxist-Leninists, but they supported Cuba and Vietnam, who increasingly were vilified by China and the NCM. The Trend groups wanted to form a Leninist party but without the bombast of the NCM, which they considered “ultra-left,” self-destructive and a turn-off to workers.
For the most part, the forces that made up the Trend came from neither the new nor the old Communists. The groups in the OCIC were mainly worker-organizing collectives that formed in the wake of the collapse of SDS. These (mostly white) activists threw themselves into labor and community organizing with self-sacrifice and dedication. They were more interested in reaching workers in local areas than in setting up a national pre-party based on M-L principles, in contrast to the largest NCM groups, the Revolutionary Union and the October League, despite similar roots in the worker-oriented wing of the student movement. A unity initiative in 1977 by the largest and most established of these collectives, PWOC, brought together like-minded groups: Detroit Marxist-Leninist Organization, Baltimore Socialist Union, Potomac Socialist Organization (in D.C.) and El Comite-MINP. (The last group was distinct in its origins in Puerto Rican communities in New York and Boston.) As the Committee of Five, they sought to pull together other groups around the country that identified with the new Trend. In this the Five were successful: collectives from all over joined discussions, including Boston, southern Massachusetts, Buffalo, Louisville, Milwaukee, Orange County, the Bay Area, Cincinnati, Seattle, and other locales.
For PWOC, the key to party building was transforming the composition of the Trend from left intellectuals and proletarianized ex-students to radicalized workers. (They described this process as “fusing communism with the workers’ movement.”) This meant focusing on recruiting workers until the non-prole-born elements in the Trend become insignificant. On this point they were challenged by the Guardian, which in 1977 set up the Guardian Clubs as an alternative party-building project (but still identifying with the Trend). The Guardian set out to prioritize theory as the first step to political self-definition for the Trend, which at that time referred to itself as “anti-revisionist, anti-dogmatist” but not distinctly pro-anything. (It was for armed socialist revolution, organizing the working class for a dictatorship of the proletariat, the centrality of Black liberation, etc. But, arguably, so were all the other would-be MLs—the CP and the anti-revisionists in and out of the NCM, not to mention the Trotskyists.) The Guardian Clubs became a site for political discussions that found their way into the paper’s opinion columns.
Also calling for primacy of theory were two local Trend groups, the Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective and the Ann Arbor Collective, which together launched the journal Theoretical Review. This wing of the Trend rejected the other groups’ Third International attachments (like implicit identification with Stalin), turning instead to the more modern academic school of Western Marxism, in particular the work of French Communist theorist Louis Althusser. But the “fusion line” predominated in the Trend, in part due to a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in the movement. Neither the Guardian nor TR were able to convince the bulk of Trend forces around PWOC that developing theory should take priority over recruiting workers.
At the same time, the Boston-based Proletarian Unity League (PUL) was making its own attempt to influence the direction of the Trend. They had their own critique of the NCM as ultra-left, criticizing small-group sectarianism while still supporting China’s foreign policy and its “three worlds theory” (See PUL, Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type). PUL, a forerunner of FRSO, brought their case against sectarianism to the Trend discussions. But as the Chinese leadership developed their strategic alliance with the U.S. in the years immediately following the Vietnam war and the Cultural Revolution, PUL’s view of China’s path as the standard of socialism found no takers in the Trend.
So the formation of the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC) in 1978 around PWOC’s “fusion” party building line went smoothly. (However, El Comite-MINP abandoned the effort as premature and returned to a base-building focus.) But soon OCIC and the Guardian were rattled to find in their midst a seasoned, politically sophisticated corps of cadres with a developed alternative party-building strategy for the Trend. This group called for “rectification of the general line of the communist movement” and its members were tagged “rectification.” The group quickly gained dominant influence in the Guardian Clubs and sharpened the debate with OCIC’s fusion line.
Line of March
The rectification group had diverse roots. Its members included longtime activists from the Bay Area, including veterans of student struggles at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State, leaders of the Filipino left and the Third World Women’s Alliance, former Black Panthers, and labor and community activists in the Northern California Alliance. Key members were involved in an intensive theoretical effort that produced a widely read pamphlet, Critique of the Black Nation Thesis (1975). [NOTE: This work, which predates the rectification party-building effort, can be found at http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/CBNT75.html.]
The rectification group’s approach to political work drew on the experience of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), one of many organizations formed in communities of color during the sweeping radicalization of the late 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, KDP had demonstrated ability in organizing and training activist cadres and setting up broad coalitions in the Filipino community, particularly in targeting the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship. When KDP leaders turned their attention to the broader U.S. left and the Trend in particular, they put that experience to work. Recruiting like-minded activists, mostly veterans of the vibrant and fertile political culture of the California left, they formed a network of national and local leadership core groups around the rectification party-building strategy. These cores organized forums and discussion groups around the theoretical work initiated by the network. In the rectification leaders’ traditional ML view, cadre development was an extended process requiring a high standard for members’ theoretical understanding and responsibility to collective tasks while fielding them into mass movements under close supervision.
[NOTE: The “rectification line,” whose initiators included the KDP leadership, echoed aspects of the party-building process of the Communist Party of the Philippines in the late 60s and early 70s. When the pro-China CPP broke away from the old pro-Soviet PKP, they called on communists to “rectify errors” in the PKP’s general line and “rebuild the party” around a new improved line. The concept of “rectification” was a recurring theme in the history of the Chinese CP, often accompanying internal political struggles and purges.]
Meanwhile the debate spread among staff members and supporters of the Guardian. In a move to insulate the paper against outside influences, the Guardian’s managing editor rallied the staff around pulling the paper back from the party-building discussions, a move that was opposed by the majority of the Guardian Clubs’ members nationally. Several staffers who had become active rectificationists, including the executive editor and the general manager, were isolated and shortly after left the paper. In March 1979 the Guardian Clubs split from the paper and became the National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs, the first public group devoted to spreading the rectification line. (The paper and the Clubs also differed on Vietnam’s 1979 invasion of Kampuchea and ouster of Pol Pot, which the Guardian opposed and the rectification group supported.) With the Clubs as a vehicle, principally in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, D.C., Chicago, and Boston, the debate between rectification and fusion began to attract attention on the broader left. The OCIC leadership immediately resisted the efforts of the rectification group to set the terms for the Trend’s party-building discussions.
By 1980 the rectification group had their own theoretical journal, Line of March, a name drawn from a line in the Communist Manifesto describing the role of communists in the workers’ movement. Their emphasis on line development offered a sharper focus than the Guardian’s and TR’s vaguer calls for general theoretical work. Following the example of Lenin’s What is To Be Done?, the leadership consolidated into an editorial board and began to try to shape the thinking of the Trend on questions of world outlook, political strategy, class analysis, the race/national question, and the class nature of social movements. Using the journal as its soapbox, the rectification group went public as Line of March, a Marxist-Leninist organization incorporating the Clubs, moving cadres into new cities to build local units, and spinning off a number of educational and organizing initiatives. With trained, notably multiracial cadres—including a high proportion of women at all levels-and with a relatively coherent set of politics, and a collective spirit which (despite a rigid internal structure) generated energy and even some critical thinking, Line of March had the look of a rising force in the increasingly marginalized and besieged U.S. left at the dawn of the Reagan-Bush era.
By now LOM was making headway with conferences and discussions aimed at Trend-identified activists in which they challenged the ideological pillars of the NCM. The LOM-initiated Soviet Union Study Project targeted the “capitalist restoration thesis,” China’s characterization of the USSR as capitalist and “social-imperialist.” They published and circulated a book, The Myth of Capitalism Reborn, written by two non-LOM participants in the study project. LOM, moving to a pro-Soviet position, argued (as did the Cuban and Vietnamese Communists) that the USSR was socialist and a bulwark against imperialism. (LOM later abandoned the Maoist critique of Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” line, and finally embraced the Soviet worldview, including its rejection of Maoism. They supported Soviet military moves in Afghanistan and the Polish Communist government’s imposition of martial law, and opposed the Solidarity opposition union movement.) LOM expanded the earlier critique of the Black nation thesis; their alternative analysis characterized African Americans as an oppressed racial group whose special oppression is enforced by a system of white racial privilege—a permanent and integral feature of U.S. capitalism. LOM critiqued the tendency on the left to romanticize workers, and argued that a significant portion of the U.S. working class was a privileged labor aristocracy. They proposed a strategic framework, “united front against war and racism,” in response to the CP’s cross-class “anti-monopoly coalition” and the sketchy “united front against imperialism” strategy advanced by some NCM groups.
From the Trend to the Rainbow
At this point the leadership of the OCIC panicked. Debates over party building had devolved into arch sectarian attacks on other wings in the Trend. Essentially, OCIC was challenged to put up or shut up on the fusion line and its emphasis on bringing workers into their ranks in large numbers. Of course, even in good times for the left, such an endeavor takes years of frustrating, diligent organizing. But it was 1980 and the OCIC leadership didn’t have years to prove the superiority of their line. Nor did they have a political standpoint coherent enough to attract even the most class-conscious workers. So they turned on their own members.
As the rest of the Trend looked on in shock, OCIC members were accused of white chauvinism by their (mostly white) leaders and challenged to publicly purge themselves of ideological poison. The rationale was that the lack (or poor quality) of anti-racist consciousness of the mostly white membership was the reason for more workers and MLs of color not joining OCIC. In fact, the racial composition of OCIC was a glaring deficiency, and the demand for mea culpas as a solution to the problem seemed to many as drastic but necessary. Members were suddenly forced to confront racism as a personal, individualized flaw, removed from the context of the broader society’s historic, fundamental racial divisions, and the results were disastrous for OCIC. By reducing the problem to one of individuals’ attitudes, OCIC leaders maneuvered their loyalists into a humiliating process of accusations and coerced self-criticism that left members demoralized—and in some cases, broken. OCIC collapsed in a matter of months, leaving scores of exhausted and bewildered Trend activists in its wake.
LOM, with a more racially diverse membership than OCIC and a hard line against racism, responded to OCIC’s approach with a devastating polemic. They argued that uprooting segregation in the left demands years of dialogue and reflection (by whites for sure) and the most sensitive, conscious organizing work. However, most importantly, they argued that racism is challenged materially not through group witness-bearing and scapegoating, but in the midst of political struggles that expose the social relations that make racism a material force. But their debate was one-sided. The other side, OCIC, had already self-destructed.
LOM suddenly found itself the only organized force in the Trend still talking about party building. The LOM leadership saw the collapse of OCIC as the end of the “two-line struggle” between rectification and fusion. Seeing their own rise in the decline of the NCM, LOM leaders began to position their still-tiny group as a rival to the CP as the “rectified” party of the pro-Soviet international Communist movement in the U.S.
In the early ’80s the group turned its focus from theory to organizing in four key movements: women, anti-racism, solidarity work (particularly around Nicaragua and El Salvador) and labor. LOM tried to build on the experience of KDP: they launched cadre groups (optimistically called “revolutionary mass organizations” or RMOs), each aimed at a specific movement, through which LOM would try to steer the broader movement toward the “united front against war and racism” orientation, while picking up new recruits. KDP had enjoyed some success with this approach, particularly in the anti-Marcos movement, where it was a “left pole” to offset the influence of bourgeois liberals like supporters of Benigno Aquino, the “elite opposition” to Marcos. In labor, the success of KDP militants in organizing a successful opposition movement in a Seattle-based cannery workers local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union became a LOM model. The two leaders of this effort, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, were martyred in 1981 when their defeated rivals—racketeers acting on orders from the Marcos dictatorship—had them gunned down while they were working late in the union hall.
This tragedy helped cement the resolve of LOM leaders and members through the 1980s to see their revolutionary project through. LOM members, coming from diverse backgrounds, social movements, political tendencies, and regions, forged an organization that generated a common culture and a strong sense of community and commitment. To accommodate parents, members were required to take part in a childcare network. While differing with the group politics was never encouraged, some dissenting views were taken seriously by leadership and at times were part of ongoing political and theoretical discussions. Yet a certain lockstep was demanded, which undermined the group’s ability to assess its own weaknesses and failures.
At its best, LOM showed sophistication in coalition-building in mass movements, but the RMOs were unsuccessful. In the early 1980s, LOM retained a sectarian character towards the rest of the left. It fetishized the practice of drawing “lines of demarcation” as a means of sharpening cadres’ political edge. LOM sometimes “jumped bad,” creating pointless tensions with other left groups with which they had little direct interaction, or in left coalitions when they felt singled out for exclusion. They launched a biweekly paper, Frontline, that sought to compete with the Guardian for independent activist readers. The leaders’ goal was to leave the “minor league” far left aside, to form a united front relationship with the two largest socialist groups, the Communist Party and Democratic Socialists of America. This goal was based more on LOM leaders’ own great expectations than on any expression of interest from the CP or DSA. LOM emphasized political motion in the Black community, rather than the liberal Democrats (DSA) or the labor movement (CP).
During this period, the attention of several left groups, including LOM, turned to the Black empowerment movement that was placing Black Democrats in elected offices, particularly mayoralties in major cities. Most of these figures had progressive politics, and some, like Harold Washington of Chicago and Coleman Young of Detroit, even had past relations with the organized left. LOM saw this movement as a potential area of working class, anti-racist ferment, led by the Black community and attracting Latinos and progressive and liberal whites. On the heels of Washington’s win in Chicago, Jesse Jackson began to campaign for the 1984 Democratic presidential candidacy. The Rainbow Coalition, the Jackson campaign’s umbrella group, became LOM’s main focus for mass movement activity. Without much argument, the members made this turn to electoral work on Democratic Party turf. Four years of Reagan convinced most on the left that backing the Democrats was necessary to undercut the far-right White House and to keep the momentum of the Rainbow going. This was repeated in 1988, as figures from LOM, if not the party itself, began to be taken more seriously in social movement leadership circles drawn to the Rainbow. Here LOM began to find some common ground with former factional opponents, in particular the NCM veterans in Freedom Road Socialist Organization.
Members and leaders of LOM had a blind spot that is common to small revolutionary sects: their ideology and “team spirit” made them overlook clear signs of the party coming apart in the late 1980s. Longtime members were leaving, particularly people of color, without sufficient recruitment to balance the losses. Internal lines of communication began to jam up: members lost touch-and interest-with the overall project. Various leaders’ areas of responsibility became in-groups.
Huge changes in the political scene were not anticipated. LOM ideology now identified most strongly with the Jackson campaign and Gorbachev’s overhaul of the Soviet camp. What looked so promising in 1985 was in shambles by 1989.
In this period a founding leader of LOM and KDP, considered incorruptible by one and all, got addicted to crack. The effect of this crisis on the group was more devastating than the collapse of the Soviet Union could ever be. Personal loyalties built up over two decades were torn apart, and LOM’s entire theoretical framework was opened up for questioning by the membership. The leadership split between a majority that launched a campaign to “Reexamine, Redirect and Democratize,” and a minority that left to form a short-lived group hoping to continue the tradition of LOM’s heyday.
After months of soul-searching and intense reflection, LOM folded its tent. Demoralized, with many more questions than answers, leaders and members chose to carefully, consciously wind things down rather than try to crash land and walk away. The group changed its name to Frontline Political Organization, with full democracy but no centrally planned mission. The focus shifted toward rebuilding the left, appealing to other survivors of the crisis-ridden left to start over on a unitary, pluralist basis. FPO lasted about a year; its members dispersed, and like most post-Reagan era activists have put their political energies into work in social services. In 1990 LOM’s resources were channeled into a new project, a monthly “magazine of contemporary political analysis and left dialogue,” CrossRoads. It had support from a broad collection of activists of many backgrounds and orientations, but ran out of money and momentum after six years of publication.
Historically, OCIC, LOM, and the rest—along with the NCM groups—were what the late former CP leader Earl Browder called “microbiology.” They sought answers and definitions in a panacea, the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism-a closed system of thought that, while basing itself on historical overview, was strangled by its own blindness to historical developments in its own century. The general collapse of the U.S. left was in process when the Trend emerged, so it’s remarkable that this late-20th century communist project survived for nearly twenty years. In those years activists made serious efforts to turn ferment into revolutionary politics and practice, based on the experience of social movements at home and revolutions and liberation struggles worldwide. There are important lessons here, which we expect to see developed in detail in Max Elbaum’s forthcoming historical study, Revolution in the Air: From Malcolm and Martin to Lenin, Mao & Che.Download this piece as a PDF