From Max Elbaum's book

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Nov 24 15:31:41 MST 2002

(I think that Jose is correct to focus on the late 1970s as a kind of
dividing line. Although I never would have joined the SWP in 1967 had I
known back then what I know now, there is little doubt that I learned much
and helped to contribute to important changes in American society in the
first five years or so when I was a member. But with the beginning of the
Reagan years, (which actually started under Carter when you stop and think
about it--just as Truman anticipated Joe McCarthy), there was a profound
crisis throughout the American left. Instead of seeing a powerful upsurge
against reaction, we saw very little in the way of a mass movement. This
took its toll on every left group, from the Trotskyists to the Maoists.)

Max Elbaum, "Revolution in the Air", pp. 255-260:

Reagan's policies provoked widespread anxiety and popular opposition. As
different movements mobilized and searched for allies, a hunger for fresh
strategies, broad coalitions and militant leadership made itself felt. This
created new openings for left organizations to take initiative.

Even had they been at peak form, the largest antirevisionist groups would
have been able to constitute only a small part of an anti-Reagan advance
guard. Their small size if nothing else precluded them from playing the
central role they had anticipated back when the New Communist Movement was
young. But as it turned out, the movement's late 1970s standard-bearers
performed even worse. Instead of turning their energies outward toward
stirring mass movements, the main organizations in each of the movement's
rival wings sank into crisis and collapse.

The CP(ML) began its downward spiral in 1979. By the spring of that year
the negative impact of the group's policy of aiming its fire at progressive
reformers became undeniable. Once-influential cadre became isolated in mass
movements; criticisms of out-of-touch leadership and lack of internal
democracy rumbled through the ranks. The leadership responded with a
campaign against the "Three Evils" of "subjectivism, sectarianism and
bureaucracy." As first this change in course was greeted enthusiastically
by the membership. But unity did not exist at the organization's top levels
on how far criticisms of ultraleftism ought to go, and membership
discontent had grown too great to be quelled by one short-term campaign.
Then Call editor and key leader Daniel Burstein threw an even bigger wrench
into the works by questioning the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism and
calling the dictatorship of the proletariat thesis antidemocratic.
Burstein's heresy apparently stemmed from his observations during a 1978
trip to China and Kampuchea, where he was shaken by evidence of the damage
inflicted by the Cultural Revolution and by Pol Pot's genocidal killings.
Though remaining publicly silent on the latter atrocities, within the
CP(ML) Burstein called for a sweeping re-examination.

Burstein won a number of allies and by the beginning of 1980 the CP(ML)
core was split into warring factions. The rank and file rebelled against
the leadership as a whole and began to leave in substantial numbers. As the
organization went into free-fall, efforts were made to breathe new life
into unity efforts with other groups that supported the Three Worlds
Theory. But if those organizations had resisted joining CP(ML) at the
zenith of its influence they were even more reluctant to jump onto a
sinking ship, especially since the Chinese had effectively withdrawn their
recognition of the CP(ML) as their franchised US party.

Matters soon went from bad to worse. Amid preparations for an
organization-wide congress intended to address the crisis, Burstein
declared that the root of the CP(ML)'s problems was Marxism-Leninism,
resigned, and took several other key activists with him. By the time the
congress convened in the spring of 1981, CP(ML) had lost nearly two-thirds
of its membership and the proposals presented for consideration were all
over the ideological map. (About the only matter that was not a subject of
controversy was China's foreign policy. Virtually no one raised an eyebrow
when party chair Klonsky stated in the summer of 1980 -just as Reagan's
military buildup was swinging into high gear - that China was correct to
align with Washington in a worldwide "antihegemonic" front.) A majority at
the congress ended up voting to reaffirm the basic principles of
antirevisionism, but even in the majority camp most activists were on their
way out. By the end of 1981 the CP(ML) had altogether collapsed.

The CP(ML)'s disintegration was strikingly different from all the previous
crises that had wracked major New Communist groups. To begin with, it was
the most rapid and complete: in less than three years CP(ML) went from
being the largest antirevisionist organization to total dissolution. Even
more important, it was the first time that such an upheaval had not ended
with different factions going in different directions based on different
ideas of what constituted Marxism-Leninism. When the Black Workers Congress
broke up in 1974, when the entire movement divided over Angola in 1975-76,
and when the Revolutionary Communist Party split in 1978, the various
warring parties all laid claim to being the genuine communists. But the
CP(ML)'s demise was characterized by an internal challenge to the
fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism on one side and a lethargic defense of
those principles on the other. And in the wake of the CP(ML)'s collapse,
most former members refused to affiliate with any other communist
organization, with a substantial proportion abandoning left activism
altogether. In part, this was due to identification of revolutionary
organization with dogmatism and antidemocratic practices. But such a
widespread retreat also - and more fundamentally -reflected the larger
social context. Signs that anything like a substantial revolutionary-minded
workers movement was on the near-term horizon - so prevalent in 1968-73 -
were now almost nonexistent. The economic and political shifts of the 1970s
had taken their toll.

Almost simultaneously the largest formation in the rival "antirevisionist,
anti-dogmatist" trend went into terminal crisis. The Organizing Committee
for an Ideological Center had never attained the size or coherence of the
CP(ML); its promise had rested on the potential to turn its critique of
ultraleftism into a well-grounded and unitary party building process. But
results by 1979 were meager. The OCIC's "fusion" party building strategy -
while a useful corrective to ultraleftism as a broad orientation - proved
incapable of generating much concrete analysis of the increasingly complex
political landscape. Instead it encouraged narrow localism and
antitheoretical prejudices, so the OCIC was unable to get its projected
theoretical journal off the ground and failed to mount any nationally
coordinated campaigns.

Complicating matters further was a mounting challenge from the
rectification-ists in the National Network of Marxist-Leninist Clubs. From
1976 to 1978 the relationship between the fusion and rectification centers
had consisted mainly of guarded cooperation in opposing the pro-China
organizations. As the importance of that task receded with the collapse of
pro-China sentiment, intense competition over whose perspective would lead
those who had taken up the critique of ultraleftism came to the fore.
Though in 1980 the rectificationists still were fewer in number than the
OCIC, they had qualitatively increased their relative influence.
Rectification (soon to be called Line of March) started a theoretical
journal in the spring of 1980, launched the National Anti-Racist Organizing
Committee on the basis of its work in the anti-Bakke campaign, and
initiated an ambitious Marxist-Leninist education program that enrolled
scores of activists. And with a central leadership composed of a majority
of activists of color and more ambitious antira-cist work, rectification
attracted a larger number of Black, Latino and Asian American activists
than the OCIC.

The combination of internal inertia and external pressure wore on the OCIC
leadership. In the fall of 1979 they abandoned their original cautious and
consensus-building approach and turned to high-intensity ideological
campaigns. Soon their entire focus was on conducting an internal Campaign
Against White Chauvinism, which targeted alleged racism within the
membership as the OCIC's key problem. The campaign consisted of lengthy
criticism sessions dissecting individuals' attitudes and psychology. The
effort was all but completely divorced from any kind of grounding in
practical work, demagogy ran rampant, and during its peak the campaign
turned into the worst kind of sterile purification ritual.

At first the bulk of the membership - to their credit willing to examine
themselves for possible shortcomings - went along with the crusade. But by
the fall of 1980 resistance had begun. When the leadership charged that its
critics were merely defenders of racism, members started leaving in droves.
During 1981 every OCIC activity except the campaign ground to a halt, and
that October the PWOC's Organizer admitted that the OCIC was
"near-collapse" with "functioning local areas reduced from 18 to 6 and 80%
of the membership resigned." The Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee
itself was also in shambles. The next issue of the newspaper was its last,
and by the spring of 1982 both the PWOC and the OCIC were defunct.

The OCIC's implosion paralleled CP(ML)'s collapse in several respects.
Again the speed of the process stunned members and opponents alike. Though
the OCIC was only a few years old, key constituent collectives like the
PWOC stretched back to the movement's formative years. And for PWOC to
self-destruct so soon after leading the way in carving out a new
antidogmatist trend was a huge blow to the morale of everyone who had
invested hopes in the OCIC's success.

Furthermore, while the OCIC's internal conflict did not include a direct
challenge to Marxism-Leninism as in CP(ML), the experience was at least as
traumatic for the members who went through it. Few retained any energy for
communist activism once the dust had settled. Most were deeply affected by
the fact that an organization founded to oppose ultraleftism reverted to
some of its worst excesses, and this led many to conclude that something
fundamental was wrong with Marxism-Leninism. As with former CP(ML) members,
only a small percentage of former OCIC members went on to join other
Leninist groups.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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