Theoretical Practice in the New Communist Movement: An Interview with Paul Saba

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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.

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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 elan 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.

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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.

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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 Mon­tre­al, 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.

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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.

Author of the article

is a long-time communist activist living in Tucson, Arizona who edited the Theoretical Review journal (1977-1983) under the name Paul Costello. He is the founder and editor of the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online.