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Everything You Wanted to Ask About Sects … But Were Afraid to Know

We joined the New Communist Movement because we were serious about changing the world. It taught us much about how to organize — and how sectarianism ruins everything.

Fifty years after 1968, Marxism-Leninism sounds as off-putting to most leftists as it did to everybody else back in the day.

For those of us active in that period (and the ‘70s and ‘80s in my case), the old buzzwords — “democratic centralism,” “proletarian internationalism” — really had cache. They don’t any longer, but some of our worst tendencies, a sectarianism that comes in all flavors and styles, are alive and well with us today.

To understand what we were thinking in those days, there’s no better guide than Max Elbaum’s 2002 history of post-SDS Marxist-Leninist cadre groups, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. Elbaum was a comrade of mine in the group Line of March and a respected organizer who came out of SDS. His recounting of yesteryear revolutionaries uncovers so much about the US left — enlightening, embarrassing, and heartbreaking.

A Home for Serious Sixties Radicals

Verso has brought out a second edition at the start of a new period of radicalization, updated only with a new foreword by Alicia Garza of the Movement for Black Lives and National Domestic Workers Alliance. She notes how the post-election horrors force 2010s activists to reemphasize the importance of electoral politics, a big part of Elbaum’s critique of our movement to build a revolutionary vanguard out of radicalized twenty- and thirty-somethings.

What was the appeal of forming small, multi-city propaganda groups named “workers” this and “revolutionary” that? For one thing, with a hierarchical collective grounded in strong politics, we could get a whole lot done in a short time with few people. It inspired us in ways that no plodding, day-to-day organizing project could offer. We had long meetings, but they were focused, and we sometimes came away learning something about society, class, and politics (although the practical prescriptions too often involved inserting our heads up our asses).

Elbaum tags the politics of these groups “Third World Marxism” (TWM). He describes how this broad school of thought “riveted attention on the intersection of economic exploitation and racial oppression … embraced the revolutionary nationalist impulses in communities of color, where Marxism, socialism and nationalism intermingled and overlapped.” Mostly it was Maoism, although the term was seen as one of derision in those days. It featured several distinctions from the various forms of “revisionist” and pre-sixties “anti-revisionist” Communism, social democracy, and Trotskyism.

Third World Marxism militated against what was perceived as left-Eurocentrism. It emerged at the same time as social movements that are now associated with “identity politics,” and it was more focused on national liberation movements than with liberal parties or organizations built out of mass movements, the Old Left’s focus.

One important, redeeming feature was the “New Communist Movement” (NCM) groups’ record of breaking through racial segregation that had marked the New Left, particularly after the more radical civil rights activists embraced black nationalism in the mid-1960s. SDS, the largest New Left group, was virtually all white. There were plenty of radical black students; they chose to meet elsewhere.

Many of these ‘60s activists converged in ‘70s communist groups, which tried to reshape their orientation and strategies in class terms. Some joined the Communist Party, some became Trotskyists. But the most multiracial post-SDS phenomenon was in the NCM.

The NCM also offered the usual benefit of sects: “shaping up” young, footloose radicals with disciplined, coordinated activity, and political education. Slack off and you were out on your ear. Factionalize and you were beyond redemption. (Interestingly, many of the former soldiers from warring factions get along great today.)

But sects are sects, not pre-parties as these imagined themselves to be. When their shelf-life expires, they tend to either collapse (like Elbaum’s and my group, and the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which won Beijing’s blessing after Mao died) or go off the rails (like Progressive Labor and the Revolutionary Communist Party).

We can see the continuing impact of the revolt against both the Old and New Left’s inability to break free of patterns of racial segregation. In the ‘60s, this was triggered by the recognition that the goal of integration was suddenly seen as too limited, not just by activists but by growing numbers of young and many older African Americans across the country.

Elbaum recounts the progression in which the promise of a non-European alternative to both the Old and New Left drew radicals to Mao, and through Mao to a class-centered framework that appropriated elements of Soviet and Chinese Communism in the name of Marxism-Leninism. It was never a stable body of theory, and chaotic battles broke out over “lines of demarcation” in a futile effort to become Bolshevized.

Even so, it had a remarkable attraction for organizers and activists from SDS; SNCC; the women’s movement; the Black Panther Party and, later, their arch enemies the cultural nationalists; former CPers; former Weatherpeople, and radicals from numerous oppressed nationalities, including Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Mexicans and Chicanos, Dominicans, Filipinos, Japanese, and foreign students from Iran, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

An Anti-Imperialist Appeal

The attraction puzzled older leftists — early boomers, Depression-era veterans, and survivors of the 1950s wilderness, like Michael Harrington.

Elbaum devotes a chapter explaining the appeal of Third World Marxism, starting with the fierce anti-imperialism of mid-sixties China and Cuba, and the international example of Vietnam and Che’s “two, three … many Vietnams,” kicking Uncle Sam’s butt. There wasn’t much to read in those days more stirring than the magnificent “Second Declaration of Havana.” China, while no longer sympathetic to Cuba, pushed its own brand of revolutionary internationalism during the Cultural Revolution.

This led to a return to a Leninist brand of Marxism that had not marked the student movement since the 1930s. It brought a new, wider appreciation of class and the potential of working people to become the agents of social emancipation.

But all this was taking shape in a contradictory situation: rising radicalism smashing up against state repression and a conservative public mood, especially among workers. Elbaum argues that this made the tight, secretive cadre model seem not just attractive but necessary. (The same mystique took hold in the early Communist Party and during the Red Scare years.)

There was also the shell shock of the successful destruction of SDS by the prototypical Third World Marxist sect, Progressive Labor Party (PL). PL was the largest breakaway from the CP at the time of the China-Soviet split. They were a spark plug of the early ‘60s re-radicalization of the Left — particularly in New York, where the CP was still entrenched in the local political culture, and the Bay Area, where the student movement was raising hell.

PL crested early and then had to respond to the challenge of minor success. They made two fateful choices. First, they developed an aggressively divisive political line, inspired by the turbo-left posturing of Red Guards in China. This included attacking black nationalists as class dividers (at the time the Panthers and others were under murderous attack by the FBI and local police). They also proclaimed, at the height of the Vietnam War, that the Vietnamese Communists were selling out to US imperialism.

Then PL moved their cadre into SDS with a rule-or-ruin mission. They knew with their party-honed political chops, they would easily cut through SDS’s loosey-goosey student radicalism. And they did.

Anti-PL forces in SDS found themselves cold-cocked. Leaders who sought to oppose the PL raid formed a faction, but they shared PL’s judgement that SDS had reached its limit in what appeared, wrongly, to be an emerging revolutionary situation. The faction, based in the SDS national office, split (just before the anti-PLers left the 1969 SDS convention) over whether to opt for violent death in the streets (Weatherman) or evacuating campuses for factories and working-class neighborhoods (Revolutionary Youth Movement-II).

The debacle laid to waste the largest radical group the country had seen since in the postwar period (a history recently recounted in Jacobin by Paul Heideman).

Unlike the Panthers, guns weren’t needed to wipe out SDS. Some of the survivors founded the New Communist Movement. Mostly male leaders, with a number of ex-PLers in the mix, went off to form their own sects. In effect, they started their own PLs, with politics that invoked “true Marxism-Leninism,” crafted out of their debates in SDS.

RYM-II (renamed RYM) tried to pick up the pieces in November 1969, in a watershed meeting covered in Elbaum’s detail-packed text. SDS was dead, but the body was still warm. Weatherman’s gas-filled balloon of a national violent protest (“days of rage”) in October had deflated with a slow fart noise.

At the RYM meeting, future leaders of RCP, CPML, and other would-be vanguards were confronted by comrades with something besides party building on their minds: women’s liberation. The women’s caucus pushed politics much more reflective of social movements — the revolutionary nationalism of the Panthers, and what was to emerge as socialist feminism — than of revived industrial workerism and Old Left doctrine that most sects were pushing, as PL had, to replace the more loosely radical politics of SDS.

It was the first and last conference of RYM. The discussion posed demands for political leftists to expand their understanding of class, based on the aspects of capitalist social relations exposed and highlighted by reemerging social movements, outside the bounds of classic syndicalism and Comintern-era politics. This was a road not taken.

The Promise of Being the Vanguard

Over the next decade, the NCM groups wrestled with tradition, doctrine, and the actual motion in society. Some fell prey to the illusion that an inherent unity of workers against the state would vanquish racism; they joined rightists in South Boston in opposing busing for school desegregation. The largest NCM groups shamefully scorned the gay movement in the name of the proletariat, adapting to social conservatism among workers and the historic homophobic bias of Communist parties in power.

Elbaum describes the successes as well as failures of NCM groups, radicalizing and politicizing workers, maneuvering in unions and movement coalitions. In fact, the intervention of NCM sects into socialist-feminist groups led to a similar outcome as PL in SDS. But there is no denying that for many women, centralized cadres seemed a more effective alternative to the ‘70s women’s unions’ looser orientation of autonomous work groups.

The NCM offered a point of attraction not just in its centralism, but in the illusory security of the vanguard-as-savior. The pursuit of security was sparked by fear and despair at the very moment that the dream of mass resistance took hold. That dream is absolutely crucial to every radical’s commitment, if they have any democratic sentiment, romantic or otherwise.

But the point is to be awake when it comes true. Sectarianism, with its implicit messianic mission, confuses the dream with the actual reality.

The idea of party building as something above, or just not intrinsic to, the political development and direction of social movements from the inside out — the idea of imposing leadership (or “fighting to win” it, as we all interpreted Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?), is antidemocratic at heart. It ultimately does harm to the movements and thwarts, rather than enhances, workers’ ability and means to take on capitalism.

Yet movements, social or political, need cadres — professional organizers, ideologues, accountants, teachers, artists, and mobilizers, on twenty-four/seven duty. The problem for democratic socialism, as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism, is developing cadres accountable to “the working class” as actual people, not abstractions. They need to organize people from different backgrounds, not just to build the organization, not just to get work out of them, not to “proletarianize” them, but to enhance the capacities of all for a fuller life.

Democratic action prepares everybody for democratic power. Cadres need to freely express their opinions and hear and understand those of others, to advance a pluralist political culture that is consciously, constantly in transformation.

Many of the unnamed subjects in Revolution in the Air accomplished this, despite the smog of sectarianism around them. May they speak up, and be heard. Revolution in the Air remains the essential access to their stories.