Asad Haider: What was the New Communist Movement (NCM) and how did you come to be involved in it?
Paul Saba: I became involved in the NCM in 1973. Two years earlier, on my 18th birthday, I had joined the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) and was immediately sent to its summer-long National Cadre School in New York City. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, where there had been no organized Communist presence since the early 1950s, my only prior contact with the organization had been with its written materials. Seeing the Party close up for the first time, I quickly discovered that I was in profound disagreement with much of its line and practice – and began to say so. Two years later, I was expelled for “ultra-leftism.” Together with a friend, Kim Malcheski, I immediately sought to find an organized expression of the alternative communism I believed in. This led me to the NCM.
What was the NCM? Between 1969 and the early 1980s, a small but extremely active number of former 1960s radicals who also rejected the tradition of the CPUSA as well as that of its Trotskyist opponents, sought to give birth to a different model of communism in the United States. Drawing inspiration from the Chinese revolutionary experience and the writings of Mao Zedong, they formed numerous local and national organizations, attempted to root themselves in the working class and communities of color, and worked to build a powerful mass movement to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist society in the United States. They did not succeed and, for a host of reasons, the movement more or less disappeared by the mid-1980s.
In understanding the NCM, I think it is useful to see it as the product of three principal influences: the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Communist tradition prior to 1956, and the New Left/mass struggles of the 1960s.
First, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution really struck a chord with young American radicals for a whole number of reasons. The prominent role played by Chinese youths in the Red Guard movement, and the respect with which they were treated by Mao and his supporters and in the Chinese press, was terribly appealing to young Americans, frustrated by the way our own society appeared to either reject or ignore them. The pronounced voluntarism of the Chinese form of Marxism-Leninism likewise appealed to young people in the ’60s, when the possibilities for remaking the world seemed virtually unlimited.
At the same time, the Cultural Revolution provided young radicals with a militant political framework for understanding world events and the roles of different nations, peoples and social movements within it. Finally, the Cultural Revolution offered newly radicalized youth a way to construct for themselves an alternate identity by connecting them to a heroic revolutionary tradition and an easily understandable historical narrative of their place within it.
The politics of the Cultural Revolution that so inspired the NCM were decisively shaped by its own origins. Of course, events in China played the primary role, but the sharpening Soviet-Chinese rift in the late 1950s and 1960s was also important. The Cultural Revolution tried to address what the Chinese perceived to be fundamental weaknesses/failures in the way socialism was functioning in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe.
Even before the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party had initiated a series of polemics on the general line of the Soviet Communist Party in the world communist movement. Central to these polemics were a number of valuable criticisms of Soviet formulations about peaceful coexistence, the nature of the world revolutionary process, the meaning and continuing relevance of Marxism-Leninism, etc. With the Cultural Revolution, the scope of these polemics were expanded to critically questions on the very nature of socialism itself and the possibility that, after the overthrow of capitalism, a new bourgeoisie could arise within a communist party to oppress the working masses anew.
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the quality of many Chinese polemics against Soviet “revisionism” deteriorated sharply with the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Had they been accompanied by rigorous theoretical investigations and had they seriously examined, in an all-sided way, Soviet policies, the theories behind them, and the historical roots of the Sino-Soviet rift, the Chinese polemics might have sparked a long overdue general reassessment of the history of the communist movement and its contemporary crisis. Had the Chinese gone even further, and thrown their weight behind the urgent need for a critical reexamination and the further development of Marxist theory in light of the distortions introduced into Marxism during the Stalin period, as well as the tremendous changes that had occurred in the world since Lenin’s time and the fact that Marxist theory had not kept pace with these changes, a much needed revitalization process within Marxism might have resulted.
Such an outcome was not impossible. The entire history of the Chinese revolutionary process, before and after 1949, had been one of conflict and contestation with Soviet advice, and in private Mao had made a series of critical studies of Soviet theory and practice, both during and after the Stalin’s time. The struggles of the Cultural Revolution represented a profound critique of the Soviet model, not just in the post-1956 period, but in the Stalin period as well. The best European Marxists who were paying attention to events in China, such as Louis Althusser, Charles Bettelheim, K. S. Karol, and Maria Antonietta Macciocchi immediately recognized this.
However, for reasons which have never been adequately explained, the Chinese refused to build their critique on this foundation. Instead, the Maoist leadership chose to present their critique of the Soviet line as one of defending orthodoxy in communist politics and theory against revisionism. This was a fatal mistake. As the French communist G. Madjarian correctly noted: “The fight against ’revisionism’ cannot be waged by conserving, or rather, by merely re-appropriating, Marxism as it existed historically in the previous period. Far from being the signal for a return to the supposed orthodoxy of the preceding epoch, the appearance of a ’revisionism’ is a symptom of the need for Marxism to criticize itself.”
Indeed, the entire history of Marxism was frequently recast in Chinese polemics as a “two-line” struggle between orthodoxy and its opponents. Since the Soviet line being criticized was said to have emerged after Stalin’s death, Maoism divided the history of the Soviet Union and the world communist movement into two distinct periods. First, the correct and revolutionary era that began with Lenin and came to an end with Stalin’s death and the triumph of Khrushchev, followed by a second period of revisionism and betrayal. According to this formulation, the truths of Marxist-Leninism as developed by Lenin and Stalin were subsequently abandoned by the Soviet Union and the pro-Soviet CPs, only to be correctly taken up and defended by the Chinese under Mao. The irony of all this is, as previously noted, that Maoism itself evolved out of a critique of the Comintern line for making revolution in China and the Stalin model of building socialism in the USSR. But this critique, and Maoism’s genuine innovations in theory and practice, was largely concealed from the outside world by China and the orthodox framework it employed in its polemics.
As a result, the Maoism of much of the NCM was a dead form of orthodoxy, rather than a dynamic and creative approach to the theoretical tasks necessary to develop an alternative communism in the United States.
The second major influence on the NCM was that of the world communist movement before 1956, including the old CPUSA. While a rejection of contemporary Communist Parties as revisionist was universal in the NCM, equally widespread was the identification with their historical antecedents. This identification was facilitated by a number of factors. First, the Chinese championing of this tradition, as noted earlier. Second, the fact that the CPUSA had been, since the 1920s, the largest and most influential communist organization in the United States, an organization that had championed the struggles of working people and Black Americans, fought racism, fascism, and McCarthyism, and trained generation after generation of selfless activists in how to organize unions, build social movements, and fight for fundamental reforms like health and unemployment insurance, social security, and equal rights under the law. Finally, there was the influence of a small number of former CP members who joined the NCM and became influential leaders in several groups. Most of these individuals had departed from or been expelled from the CP at one time or another “from the left,” primarily in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As such, they were distinguished by their training in, and rigid adherence to the communism of the Stalin period, and the practice of the CPUSA during the Depression and early Cold War years. They played a major role in communicating the CPUSA tradition to the NCM.
The Cultural Revolution and the legacy of International Communism before 1956 were complementary and mutually reinforcing influences on the NCM. They combined to present it with an historical tradition and a contemporary stance, complete with political orientation, theoretical framework, and organizational culture. NCM cadre viewed this tradition as the essential foundation on which a new communist movement would be built.
In truth, this tradition could have greatly assisted the positive development of the NCM, had it been treated critically and selectively as a starting point for further analysis and practical work. But the great tragedy of the NCM is that this is not what happened. Instead, a greatly simplified and impoverished version of the tradition, and its theory and politics were taken up mechanically and uncritically by the NCM. We were lazy, dogmatic, and backward looking when we needed to be open, flexible, and creative. Groups actually vied with one another to prove their orthodoxy and their unchanging fidelity to the tradition, to see who was “more Bolshevik” than the rest, who could show more loyalty to the memory of Stalin, etc.
As a result, the NCM ended up with an ideology that combined uncritical adulation of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin (and, of course, China under Mao) with an equally uncritical faith in “Marxism-Leninism” as a perfected theory of revolutionary practice. In all too many cases, the NCM practiced a form of communism that was little more than religious dogma and impassioned sloganeering, a politics hopelessly out of touch with American reality, bureaucratic centralist organizational forms, an arrogant and elitist style of work in mass organizations, and an obsessive preoccupation with ideological purity.
Perhaps nowhere was the poverty of this misplaced orthodoxy more apparent than in the areas of political line and organization. Most NCM organizations were nothing more that tiny sects, united around rigid and often idiosyncratic political programs. Each group, no matter how small, insisted on the correctness of its own political line and all too frequently demanded complete agreement from others as a precondition for joint work. When it came to differences, savage polemics were the order of the day. On this basis, unity between different organizations was difficult, if not impossible. As a result, the history of the NCM is a record of the rise and fall of innumerable warring grouplets on the one hand, and the repeated failure of attempts to build genuinely multi-national national organizations on the other.
The third principal source of the NCM was the mass struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s, out of which emerged the vast majority of its members and supporters. Many of these individuals had played critical roles in important battles – anti-war, anti-draft, and student organizing, labor insurgencies, the civil rights movement and black liberation struggles, solidarity campaigns, the women’s movement, etc. Many still had organic connections with ongoing struggles of a mass character, and initially were able to bring significant components of these struggles into the NCM. Many activists were recruited out of groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Workers Congress, and the Young Lords Party.
This experience, and the lessons and skills learned in mass struggle, were invaluable to the development of NCM cadre. Their militancy, dedication and sacrifice were often exemplary. Moreover, the continued development of these struggles and the many important battles fought with NCM participation and leadership were the NCM’s principal contributions to the Left and progressive movements in the US during its brief history.
But the mass struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s were more than just the objective milieu out of which the NCM emerged. They also exercised an important political and ideological influence on it. This influence was perhaps most pronounced in two areas. The first was the voluntarism that characterized so much of ’60s style activity – the belief that human willpower and determination alone could overcome any obstacle. This tendency toward voluntarism meshed with, and was reinforced by examples of voluntarist excesses from the Cultural Revolution, and from the ultra-left periods in the history of international communism. The political conjuncture in the United States and a number of other advanced capitalist countries in the late 1960s appeared to justify the belief of many young people that revolutionary élan and dedication, if resolute and active enough, could indeed change the world. However, in reality this conjuncture was of relatively short duration and the NCM was increasingly forced to confront a downturn in mass activism and other objective limitations constraining its efforts in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
The other important influence of these mass struggles on the NCM was a relative indifference to if not outright hostility toward what was perceived as excessive theorizing and analysis. This attitude was memorialized in the late 1960s in the phrase: “less talk, more action.” In part, this attitude was a correct reaction to the isolation from mass struggles of the academic and social democratic left; but some of it was good old American pragmatism, empiricism, and anti-intellectualism. There was also a class component to this as well. Many ’60s radicals who joined the NCM were college-educated people from “middle class” families and wrestled with a certain amount of guilt over their class origins. One response to this guilt was a total immersion in mass action. It was the reaction of, as Louis Althusser described them in reference to the French Left, “intellectuals of petty bourgeois origins who… felt they had to pay in pure activity, if not in political activism, the imaginary Debt they thought they had contracted by not being proletarians.”
Many of these folks adopted Marxism-Leninism when they joined the NCM, but saw it primarily as a “scientific” framework and tool kit to do better what they were already doing, namely mass activity. For them, mass work would always be primary (even though the “masses” involved grew smaller and smaller as time went on). Putting significant time and resources into extended theoretical/political training and analysis, other than the obligatory study of the M-L classics and one’s own group’s publications, was seen as an unnecessary diversion from the real work of revolutionaries. For many of these individuals, the necessary theoretical/political analysis had already been done (by Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao); our job was to put it into practice here in the US.
While an understandable reaction against “armchair revolutionaries,” this relative neglect of urgent needs in terms of theoretical/political work and cadre training and development was to hurt the NCM as objective conditions grew more and more unfavorable. Without significant mass struggles in which to immerse themselves, or a real Marxist foundation to make sense of what was happening, many of these activists found themselves increasingly isolated and disoriented as the ’60s faded into history and Reaganism transformed American politics in the 1980s.
AH: The NCM is often dismissed as a moment of sectarianism and dogmatism, yet you’ve gathered an enormous collection of its texts on the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online. What motivates this archival work?
PS: In one sense certainly, as my response to the first question indicated, the history of the NCM can be summed up as “a moment of sectarianism and dogmatism.” In another sense, however, the NCM was more than the sum total of its sectarian and dogmatic errors. It attempted to keep alive the remnants of the mass movements of the 1960s, it organized workers, built left caucuses in unions, mobilized struggles around fundamental issues of racism, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and built movements in solidarity with liberation struggles around the world. It introduced thousands of people to Marxism, US radical history, and revolutionary movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
For all its theoretical poverty and dogmatism, the NCM nonetheless sought to address the big questions confronting the US left: What role could unions play in radicalizing US workers? Were blacks a nation? How could the mass of the American people be won to a radical program? Was US imperialism the main enemy of the peoples of the world? What is the relationship between reform and revolution? What role should culture play in the revolutionary process?
Any revival of revolutionary Marxism in the United States will have to come to terms with – and learn the lessons from – the history of communism in this country, including the history of the NCM. And that means learning from the mistakes, the failures, and the dead ends, as well as the achievements.
The Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online was created to enable people to study the documentary history of the NCM in its full complexity. The record of the movement is all here, the arguments, the debates, the sum-ups of organizing and activism, the unification attempts and the splits. There is no attempt to cover up the horrors (paeans to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea) or to minimize the follies (“China’s Chairman is our Chairman”). But equally present are the documents attempting to frankly confront and overcome the movement’s real limitations, efforts to break with dogmatism, sectarianism, and flunkeyism. And it’s all available free to anyone with access to a computer.
When, in 1973, my friend Kim and I tried to learn about the past history of alternative communism in the US, we had a terrible time collecting materials, writing to a couple hundred public and university libraries, hoping to find documents that they might be willing to copy for us. With the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online nobody is going to have to go through that process again, at least in relation to much of the documentary record of the NCM.
AH: Your journal Theoretical Review presented the work of Louis Althusser and others as a source of political insight, somewhat rare for an American left organization. How was this journal formed?
PS: The Theoretical Review (TR) was created as a specific intervention in the NCM, made possible by a series of events in 1976 that provoked a crisis in the movement. The TR was our response to that crisis, our attempt to seize upon the theoretical/political opening created by the crisis to move the NCM in a new direction.
The crisis of the NCM to which the TR responded began in 1976 with a number of events: the death of Mao Zedong, the fall of the “Gang of Four,” and subsequent dramatic changes in Chinese foreign and domestic policy. For US Marxist-Leninists, perhaps an even more important factor in sparking the crisis was Chinese policy in post-Portuguese Angola. The MPLA, an Angolan national liberation movement, had played a leading role in the struggle to end Portuguese colonialism. However, it maintained good relations with the Soviet Union, and this led the Chinese to refuse to support it. Instead, China attempted to elevate two other Angolan groups – Holden Roberto’s FNLA and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA – to equal status with the MPLA as legitimate national liberation organizations in Angola, equally worthy of support, even as it was clear to many that they were little more than proxies for US Imperialism and South African interests.
Before 1976, China’s revolutionary line, foreign and domestic, was virtually unquestioned in the NCM. And the Cultural Revolution was a touchstone, personal and political, for many NCM activists. All this began to be thrown in doubt in 1976. Had the Cultural Revolution been a tragic mistake – the result of machinations by the discredited “Gang of Four” – as the new Chinese leadership was starting to argue? Had China, foremost champion of revolutionary movements in the Third World, begun to abandon its revolutionary commitments, as a consequence of its growing antagonism to the USSR, as its position on Angola seemed to indicate? Was it possible that Mao Zedong Thought was not the final word in revolutionary theory? More and more people in and around the NCM were starting to ask these questions. The people who would go on to create the TR saw this situation as an opening, an opportunity to bring something new to the table.
I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, attending graduate school at the University of Michigan. Together with some other folks who would later go on to create the TR editorial board in Boston (but at the time also living in Ann Arbor), we pulled together a collective and issued a pamphlet, “Against Dogmatism and Revisionism: Toward a Genuine Communist Party.” The pamphlet called attention to the crisis in the NCM, suggested that a principal source of the crisis was the theoretical poverty of the movement, and argued that the work of Gramsci, Althusser, Poulantzas, and others offered us the possibility of rebuilding the movement on new foundations. The pamphlet met with a favorable response; several thousand copies were sold around the country.
But it wasn’t enough to merely assert that Gramsci, Althusser, et al had something to teach the NCM. The theoretical value of their work needed to be concretely demonstrated in the context of the ongoing life of the movement. People needed to be exposed to what they had to say, to see how their ideas could be used to produce genuinely valuable new ways of thinking and acting. How their contributions could help solve the crisis that the NCM was going through. A single pamphlet couldn’t do that; we thought a regular journal could.
When I returned to Tucson, Arizona in 1977 and to the Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective in which I had previously been active, we decided to prioritize the publication of a new journal which would expand upon the intervention inaugurated by the Ann Arbor pamphlet. We called the new journal Theoretical Review, in tribute to Theoretical Practice, a short-lived Althusserian journal that had been published in the UK. Once when asked his goal for the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall answered by referring to Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual. On the one hand, said Hall (I am paraphrasing him here) we wanted to be at the very forefront of advanced theoretical work, to know it “deeply and profoundly.” On the other hand we wanted to be able to transmit the ideas and knowledge being produced by that theoretical work to political activists who lacked the time or the training to immerse themselves in the theory itself.
Our goal with the TR was similar. We wanted to identify and take what we felt was the best, most advanced Marxist thinking being produced in the world, understand its relevance for a revolutionary project in the United States, and then present it in language accessible to rank-and-file communist militants around the country. By explaining advanced theory and putting it to work answering the burning questions facing the movement, we sought to demonstrate its value and relevance, convince other activists of the need to take it seriously, and encourage them to take up its study themselves.
AH: What did you find useful in theorists like Althusser?
PS: The writings of Louis Althusser were central to the TR project from the very beginning, because he recognized the crisis of Marxism, pinpointed its causes, correctly oriented us toward its solution, and provided us with critical tools to move forward. In regard to each of these elements, he helped us to demarcate ourselves from much of the rest of the New Communist Movement.
For the bulk of the NCM, Marxism-Leninism was an already fully finished theoretical system, sufficient for guiding any revolutionary party or group’s understanding of the world, its strategy and tactics. Althusser taught us that Marx and Lenin had only laid the foundations of this theory and that, for many long years, starting in the 1930s, it had remained stagnant, failing to keep pace with developments in economics, politics, ideology, science, and technology, and failing to produce new knowledge. Not only that, but in the USSR under Stalin (and consequently in much of the international communist movement), theory had been reduced from a guide to practice to little more than a mode of justification after the fact of whatever policy had previously been decided upon. Hence the crisis in Marxism.
The bulk of the NCM denied the crisis in Marxism, denied that theory had stagnated or been corrupted during the Stalin period, and denied that these problems posed significant challenges for groups trying to learn and practice revolutionary Marxism in the US. Accepting Althusser’s analysis demarcated the TR from much of the NCM in this regard.
While denying the crisis in Marxism, the NCM was very clear that there was a crisis in the world communist movement, a crisis caused by the abandonment of the revolutionary teachings of Marxism-Leninism in favor of revisionist and reformist ideas by the Communist Party of the USSR and its supporting parties throughout the world. To overcome this crisis, to defeat revisionism, the NCM demanded a return to Marxism-Leninism, a return to the strict teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Althusser and his associates taught us that the solution to the twin crises of Marxism and the world communist movement was not to go backward but forward, not simply to return to the writings of the past but to focus on using the best of the past in the production of the new. The famous quote from Althusser himself on the crisis of Marxism makes this point clearly: “What the end of dogmatism has restored to us is the right to assess exactly what we have, to give both our wealth and our poverty their true names, to think and pose our problems in the open, and to undertake in rigor a true investigation.” (For Marx)
We saw the 1976 crisis in the NCM which helped launch the TR as a new “end to dogmatism” and we accepted the challenge posed by Althusser: to give the NCM’s wealth and poverty their true names, to pose the problems facing our movement clearly and openly, and to use our understanding of Marxism as enriched by Althusser, Gramsci, Poulantzas, Hall, etc. to rigorously propose solutions to them. In taking this approach, we further demarcated the TR from much of the NCM.
Our demarcation from the NCM in relation to the classics of Marxism had another dimension as well. For the bulk of the NCM, whatever Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao wrote, supplemented by orthodox commentaries on the same, certain Comintern texts, etc. was, by definition, revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. Althusser, on the other hand, taught us that Marxism emerged out of a complex web of pre-Marxist ideologies, that its birthing process was a difficult and protracted one, and that vestiges of its pre-Marxist origins (and other foreign elements that subsequently appeared) remained alongside the elements of the new theory as it developed. In particular, as Marxism evolved, it frequently found itself thinking its own new ideas, concepts, methodology, etc. in pre-Marxist language until it could develop new terms and formulations appropriate to them (issues of the young vs. the mature Marx, the epistemological break, etc.). As a result, if we wanted to be serious students of Marxism, Althusser insisted, we needed to critically read and interrogate the texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc., just as we would any other writers, to identify and separate out the genuine elements of the new theory from any pre- or non-Marxist elements which might also be present.
The bulk of the NCM approached the classics of Marxism reverently and uncritically. We took a very different approach. Accepting Althusser’s analysis in this regard further demarcated the TR from much of the NCM.
Althusser also made important contributions to overcoming the crisis in Marxism by providing us with a whole series of new concepts and approaches with which to begin to overcome the crisis in Marxism and to understand and apply the theory in new and creative ways: over-determination, theoretical practice, symptomatic reading, problematic, etc. The value of these contributions was quickly demonstrated by a host of other theorists and militants, who used them to enrich Marxist theory and produce new knowledge in a wide variety of fields. Our use of Althusser’s theoretical contributions and the attention we paid to other theorists influenced by him also demarcated us from much of the NCM.
AH: How were your efforts received?
PS: For most of its five-year history as a bi-monthly journal (1977-1983), the TR printed approximately 2,000 copies of each issue and sold perhaps three quarters of them. Given the size of the NCM this was not an insignificant number. In addition, by 1981, the TR had two editorial boards (in Tucson, Arizona and in Boston, Massachusetts) and small TR support groups in New York City, New Jersey, Boston, Baltimore-Washington DC, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Montréal, Quebec. We also had a certain degree of influence in an ill-fated party-building process called the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center (OCIC) and among forces on its periphery after it collapsed. Outside of these groups, however, I think it’s fair to say that our influence was limited. None of the major NCM organizations took up essential elements of our line, nor did any of them show signs of taking seriously Althusser, Gramsci, etc. or the theoretical project we were engaged in.
Part of the problem was the fact that the lines presented in the TR failed to fit the neat categories that so dominated much of the NCM. Take China, for instance. After Mao’s death and the defeat of the “Gang of Four” most NCM groups fell into one of several camps. Either they endorsed the new Chinese leadership and slowly began to distance themselves from the Cultural Revolution, like the Communist Party (M-L) and the League of Revolutionary Struggle, or they defended Mao and the Cultural Revolution and uncritically hailed the “Gang of Four,” like the Revolutionary Communist Party. Others endorsed the critique of Mao and the Cultural Revolution put forward by Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labor of Albania.
The analysis put forward in the TR did not fit easily into any of these camps. We had a brilliant Marxist China scholar on the Boston editorial board and we ran a series of detailed critical studies on China after Mao, analyzing the theory and practice of the Chinese revolutionary process. We upheld what we identified as positive contributions of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and the “Gang of Four” to Marxist theory and revolutionary strategy, but were quite forthright with our criticisms of their limitations as well. This kind of nuanced, independent position was definitely not the norm in the NCM.
Or take popular culture. The TR paid a great deal of attention to music, having a gifted music critic on the Tucson editorial board, who, for example, wrote a major theoretical analysis of punk rock, and covered a wide range of other music as well. In much of the NCM, culture was seen through the narrowest instrumental lens (“art as a weapon in the struggle”), and consisted of only the crudest agit-prop creations. To not only take mainstream popular culture seriously, but to attempt to understand it using a sophisticated but explicitly Marxist theoretical framework, that was something people in Britain were doing, but it was not typical of the NCM.
In short, our line was simply too unorthodox in too many different ways for most people to make the leap from where the majority of the NCM was to where we were at.
AH: One of the central NCM debates was around the process of party-building. What was your group’s line on this, and what would you say about it in retrospect?
PS: For much of its history the organized forces around the TR approached the question of party building largely from within the Leninist problematic. That is, we identified with the Leninist Party model and worked toward the creation of a genuine Communist Party here in the US. The way we understood and practiced party building, however, distinguished us in a number of respects from much of the rest of the NCM.
While all NCM groups agreed on the importance of party building, they were divided on how best to achieve this objective. In the language of the times, “What was the central task in party building?” Some groups argued that it was “uniting Marxist-Leninists and recruiting advanced workers.” Others argued it was “fusing communism with the workers’ movement.” Others argued for other priorities. The TR argued that the principal weakness of our movement was its theoretical poverty and that without an advanced theory and theoretically trained cadre, we would not be able to produce the political analyses, strategies, tactics, and line capable of uniting Marxist-Leninists, winning over advanced workers, fusing communism with the workers’ movement, or accomplishing any of our other major tasks. As a result, we defined theoretical practice as the central task in party building and prioritized the study and promotion of advanced Marxist theory, and the training of cadre in its understanding and use, as the primary focus of our activities.
The way we approached the study of theory within our organizations also set us apart from many other NCM groups. For most groups, theoretical study, if conducted at all, meant reading the classics, Comintern resolutions, Mao’s Red Book, etc. Cadre were introduced to the “correct line” as it had developed over time, and little else. TR forces approached study differently. We saw the history of Marxism as a history of line struggles, with different lines and perspectives contending and disputing. We insisted that it was more important for cadre to study the different lines in contention and develop their own abilities to identify correct and incorrect analyses than to simply learn what traditional communist orthodoxy had declared to be the “correct line.” For example, when the Tucson Marxist-Leninist Collective studied the history of the CPUSA it read Browder as well as his critics; when it studied the history of the world communist movement, cadre read both sides of many of the great debates: Luxemburg-Bernstein, Stalin-Bukharin, Eurocommunism and its critics, etc. For us training cadre to be able to think as Marxists, to find their own revolutionary bearings in a complex polemical exchange involving difficult issues, was the most important goal.
By the early 1980s, the TR was increasingly influenced by the work of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and their collaborators. As such, we began to move away from the classical Leninist Party model as a goal. However, given the accelerating collapse of the NCM at that time, we focused our attention on suggesting ways for local groups to salvage their small organizations and cadre, rather than on articulating what an alternative model to the Leninist Party might look like.
AH: What many in the NCM thought was a revolutionary situation in the 1960s and 1970s turned out to be a total defeat in the 1980s, with US politics moving further to the right. What kind of analysis did Theoretical Review seek to formulate of this period?
PS: The TR rejected the dominant trend in the NCM which sought to analyze the rise of Reaganism and neoliberalism through the lens of a rising fascist danger. In so doing, we were enormously influenced by the writings on Thatcherism that were being produced in the UK by Stuart Hall and others (“The Great Moving Right Show”) and we thought that the analyses produced there had direct relevance for understanding what was happening in the US as well.
We agreed with Hall et al that the rise of Thatcher and Reagan signaled the beginnings of a new conjuncture in world capitalism, as well as the launching of a new hegemonic project on the part of capital in both countries. At the level of transformations in the role and function of the state in this new conjuncture, we also were very much influenced by Poulantzas and Hall’s concept of “authoritarian statism” which we saw as a more theoretically appropriate way of understanding what the rest of the NCM was seeing at the state level as “fascism.”
One of the reasons this framework was so congenial to us was that we had been very much influenced by “The Distinguishing Features of Leninist Political Practice,” a text by a UK group, Communist Formation. It introduced us to a theory of “conjunctural analysis,” arguing that understanding the nature of the specific economic-political-ideological conjuncture in which one worked, its possibilities and limitations, was the first step toward the development of political strategy. We saw what Stuart Hall was doing as conjunctural analysis par excellence.
In the US, Hall’s innovative work on Thatcherism and its hegemonic project was mostly taken up by people working in the field of cultural studies (for example, Lawrence Grossberg). We argued for its use in rethinking revolutionary left strategy in a new period.
AH: Many veterans of the NCM embraced the Jesse Jackson campaign in the ‘80s and have ended up as supporters of the Democratic Party – surprising for a movement which started out in opposition to the “revisionism” of the CPUSA. How do you understand this phenomenon?
PS: There are a number of factors that contributed to this phenomenon. First of all, you have to remember that the NCM was born in the mass struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the continuing decline of these struggles in subsequent years, the opportunities for communist mass work among the people significantly diminished as well. This was a real crisis for the NCM. Groups appeared doomed to remaining small sects, isolated from the working class and communities of color. If success for the NCM meant building large, powerful organizations, developing close ties to the masses, and winning the vanguard to communism, by the early 1980s, it was clear that the NCM had been a failure.
In the 1980s, the Jesse Jackson campaign was one of the few progressive initiatives around that involved large numbers of activists, particularly activists of color. Remember, Jackson won approximately three million primary voters in 1984 and more than double that number in 1988. For the major surviving NCM group, the League of Revolutionary Struggle, and for veterans of other groups, the Jackson campaign was, for lack of alternatives, a central focus of activity. It provided them with a broad audience and a place to test their ideology and demonstrate their organizing, leadership, and public mobilization skills.
One also has to be careful about what we mean when we say that many NCM veterans ended up “supporting” the Democratic Party. For communists in the NCM tradition, one goes where the masses are at. If the masses are in motion around a candidate running as a Democrat, communists can play an active role in that campaign – seeking to raise critical political and ideological issues, mobilizing activists to understand and deploy political power, etc. – toward a variety of ends. Some, no doubt, had abandoned any hope of radical social change and had settled for the “left wing” of capitalist politics. But others saw “giving support” to a Democratic Party candidate as nothing more than a way to make contact with an audience they felt could be further radicalized toward goals that would ultimately lead to a break with bourgeois politics. I think many communists active in the Jesse Jackson campaigns fell into the latter camp (as did a smaller number who supported Barack Obama or a larger number who are supporting Bernie Sanders today).
Finally, there is an historical factor that helps us to understand NCM veterans supporting Democrats. The NCM considered itself a successor to the pre-1956 CPUSA. And that CPUSA had a long history of working with and in the Democratic Party, dating back to the mid-1930s and the Party’s close involvement with Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. So while “anti-revisionists” were unrelenting in their opposition to the contemporary CPUSA’s class collaborationism and tailing behind the Democratic Party, most NCM groups failed to make a critical study of CPUSA history and failed to learn the lessons from/develop a clear critique of the Communist Party-Democratic Party relationship before 1956 that could guide their own practice on this issue.
AH: You’re currently working on a book about American communists in the 1930s. What lessons can we draw from that history?
PS: The history of the NCM is a study in grouplet politics. The history of the CPUSA, particularly in the 1920s through 1940s, is a study in mass politics. There is a major difference between the two.
The history of the CPUSA shows us how a mass Communist Party, rooted in important urban centers and in the organized labor movement, was able to play a role, disproportionate for its size, in American life, pioneering major social reforms, advances in civil and immigrant rights, and providing a home for creative intellectuals and artists.
If the Left in this country is going to become a significant force once again, there is much that we can learn from the successes and failures of the CPUSA in that period. To take only some of the most urgent questions facing us today: How can the labor movement be revitalized to be a real force for progressive social change? What is the relationship between the struggles of the US working class as a whole and the Black liberation struggle? How should revolutionaries operate in the electoral arena in general and in relation to the Democratic Party in particular?
When it was a real political force in this country, the CPUSA was compelled to confront all of these issues and to develop specific theoretical and practical responses to them. How it thought through these challenges, what conclusions it came to, and the concrete activities and interventions resulting therefrom, both positive and negative, have much to teach us today, even taking into account a new period and the benefits of hindsight.