The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

42. Revolutionary Primitivism and the Masses

Primitivism in 1919

In the years 1919-1923 the first American communist organizations were formed, inspired of course by the recent Bolshevik Revolution. Because of the newness of communism in America, its primitive theoretical development here, and the political immaturity of most of the individuals who gravitated towards communism, there was great confusion about how to advance toward revolution—even with the Russian model in view. One result of this confusion was a pronounced tendency towards organizational disunity, splitting and infighting. Not only were two communist parties formed in 1919, but there was great disunity and confusion within each of them. There were a variety of reasons for this, of course, including the Palmer raids and general anti-communist crackdown by the government, but the primary reason was confusion about how communists should relate to the masses.

The reactionary bourgeois historian, Theodore Draper, is quite perceptive on this point. He describes the split of a faction led by Charles E. Ruthenberg from one of the two major parties, the Communist Party of America. This faction later joined up with the other major party, the Communist Labor Party, under the new name, the United Communist Party:

A succession of splits paralyzed the underground Communist movement, but essentially they were always the same split. In April 1920, a minority group led by Ruthenberg demanded unity with the C.L.P., belatedly rebelled against the foreign-language domination, and bolted from the C.P. A leaflet to railway strikers helped to cause this break. The foreign-language majority insisted on calling for armed insurrection. Ruthenberg’s group protested that, much as it also believed in “open insurrection and armed conflict” in the party’s program, it did not consider them appropriate in a leaflet to striking railwaymen. “They will compromise principles and tactics in order to get ‘contact with the masses,’” the anti-Ruthenberg extremists thundered back.1

Yes, in truth the splits were always the same split, caused by confusion over the question of how to combine a revolutionary position with the need to win over the masses. It is no exaggeration to say that this question was not only the central problem in that era, it is the central problem (contradiction) for the world communist movement in general.

Primitivism in 1970

In the 1970s the new communist movement in the U.S. faced the same confusion, and with the same results. The main difference from an organizational perspective was that this time around there was no Communist International to pressure all the factional groups into eventually merging and adopting a unified line. So as disunited and confused as things were in 1919, they were worse still in 1970 and the years following.

When you look back at the early 1970s you can’t help but be struck by the incredible primitivism and instability of political lines among the revolutionary groups active at the time. Not only were there dozens of different organizations, not only were there factions and splits within all of them, not only were there temporary alliances and mergers which proceeded to quickly fall apart—more characteristic still was the fact that all of these organizations occasionally flip-flopped on their basic political lines, especially with regard to the question of how to relate to the masses.

One curious example of this was the mirror image turn-abouts by the RU/RCP, on the one hand, and the October League/Communist Party (ML), on the other. For years during the early 1970s the OL denounced the RU for “left opportunism”. During this period the OL itself was involved in a number of union struggles and was trying to relate to the working class in their day-to-day struggles on the job. It tended to shy away from promoting revolutionary ideas among the masses. The RU, on the other hand, was much more focused on revolutionary propaganda, especially in its early days. Then, suddenly around 1976 the OL changed its tune and began denouncing the RCP (which formed out of the RU in late 1975) as “right opportunist”.2 The RU in its later period had in fact begun to lean somewhat towards Economism, and the new RCP—after its spike of revolutionary sentiment at the time of its founding—soon began to drift a bit in an Economist direction too. But at least as big of a change occurred in the October League (soon to become the “Communist Party (ML)”) itself. While the RU/RCP was beginning to soften its revolutionary propaganda in order to try to get closer to the workers, the OL was now in a “party building” period and sought to emphasize its revolutionary credentials. In effect the two groups changed places, to a degree, at least with respect to their attitudes toward joining up with the masses in their day-to-day struggles. As a member at that time of one of these two groups changing places, I found this quite disconcerting!

In the Revolutionary Union and early RCP there were a number of flip-flops on these issues. The early RU was an unstable alliance of those who wanted to bring revolutionary ideas to the workers, and those who wanted to more or less ignore the workers and immediately launch lumpen-based urban guerrilla warfare. After the defection of the latter trend (Bruce Franklin’s followers), the rest of the RU lurched into semi-Economism, and started in practice to down-play revolutionary propaganda and agitation. With the founding of the RCP in 1975, there was a partial correction, and then a relapse. In 1976-77 Bob Avakian wrote articles and led internal struggles which more and more polarized the Party between the revolutionary wing which stressed the overriding importance of revolutionary agitation and the Economist wing that wanted above all to participate in the day-to-day struggles of the workers. After the Economist “Mensheviks” bolted in early 1978 (to form the “Revolutionary Workers’ Headquarters” organization), the remaining RCP moved even further to the “left” in reaction against the line of those who split, and rejected the whole idea of joining up with the workers’ own struggles. In the RU and early RCP, there was a history of overreaction to previous errors, brought about in part no doubt by the failure of initial efforts to correct genuine errors.

The whole 1970s period was one of political instability and floundering in the American revolutionary movement, which continued into the 1980s and beyond. And frankly, now well into the second decade of the 2000s, I don’t think this political floundering is over even yet. Despite the relative stability of lines in the surviving groups during the 1980s and later (compared to the 1970s), things were still basically unsettled and shaky. This has also been the case with many of the small new revolutionary political collectives and groups formed in the new century. This fundamental instability will continue until one group, at least, comes up with a correct resolution of the contradiction of how to both maintain a revolutionary stance and connect up with the masses. As of 2015, none really has yet, at least for any significant length of time.

Speaking of the American revolutionary movement as a whole, and looking back dispassionately (insofar as that is possible), how can we sum up the whole period from 1970 to the present? The two essential points are these:

  1. We have made enormous progress toward the development of a genuinely revolutionary communist ideology in this country. Many American revolutionaries today are much more sophisticated theoretically than anybody in this country was in 1970. But...

  2. We have still not completely emerged from our primitive re-beginnings and infantilism. Except for individuals here and there, our movement has still not embraced a fundamentally correct revolutionary strategy based on genuinely bringing revolutionary ideas to the masses while participating with them in their own day-to-day struggles. Our movement still is deeply conflicted over the very basic issue of how to both educate and lead the masses.

Because we haven’t grasped and properly understood the mass line method of revolutionary leadership, our movement still really believes (despite its protestations to the contrary) that the revolutionary education of the masses is something quite opposed to joining up with and leading the masses in their own day-to-day reformist struggles. Some folks lean one way, while others lean the other way. Very few American revolutionaries yet understand that both things are absolutely necessary, let alone how to to do both simultaneously. And thus we still do not have a revolutionary organization or party seriously attempting to implement such a strategy.

The Two Sides of Lenin’s Thinking

If you had to organize a revolutionary political group from scratch, which book or books would you choose as your bible? No doubt it depends somewhat upon the time and place; the choices might vary a bit in a fairly quiet, reactionary period as compared to a moment when revolutionary ideas and phrases were all the rage. But probably the first choice in any situation would have to be Lenin’s magnificent work, What Is To Be Done?, which is basically a manual on how to go about organizing a proletarian party around a revolutionary newspaper. This work has been the main inspiration for the development of not only the Bolshevik Party, but most other communist parties and organizations both in Lenin’s day, and ever since.

But it is a fact that revolutionary-minded individuals setting out to form communist parties based only on enthusiasm for revolution and What Is To Be Done?, have tended to make all kinds of foolish “leftist” errors. Due to lack of experience and weak acquaintance with Marxist theory they have constantly exhibited their childishness and primitivism—not only in 1919, but also during the parallel period from the late 1960s onward.

Lenin saw this phenomenon in other countries after the Bolshevik Revolution and wrote an important work to combat it, “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder. This pamphlet was certainly not welcomed by the ultra-“leftists” in 1920 when it was first published, and ever since then ultra-“leftists” have shunned it and acted like it does not exist. This was definitely true circa 1970 in the U.S.

After coming across the first Red Papers, I came out to the San Francisco Bay Area in late 1969 in order to make contact with the Revolutionary Union and try to learn from them how to engage in revolutionary work among the workers. When “Malvita” (the name has been changed to protect the guilty), the RU representative, came by to see me for the first time, she inquired into what Marxist works I had been reading. I was just finishing “Left-Wing” Communism... at the time and remarked how good it was, and how important I viewed it. Malvita, however laughed derisively, and said that it was not relevant to our situation; that I should be re-studying What Is To Be Done? (which I had already read and absorbed). That opinion epitomizes not only Malvita’s view, not only the view of the RU at the time, but the overall view of the new communist movement in the U.S. during that period.

So “Left-Wing” Communism... was irrelevant to our situation, was it? A couple months later, even though I was not yet an RU member, I was invited to a meeting of RU people to discuss political work at an upcoming antiwar demonstration. I was amazed at the diverse political lines expressed at this meeting (which was supposed to be a meeting of just RU comrades and close friends), the most vociferous being a line virtually identical with the Weather Underground anarcho-terrorist group. Later on Bruce Franklin and his followers split off about a third of the RU and formed the Venceremos Organization. As noted earlier, their ridiculous scheme for making revolution was to lead the students and lumpenproletariat in urban guerrilla warfare. Malvita herself stayed with the RU at this time, though much later she left the RCP to join some pro-Albania “left”-sectarian group.

In retrospect it is clear that the tendency towards infantile ultra-“leftism” was in fact the primary problem with the RU in 1970, and the work that most needed studying by their members at that time was Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder. There were also rightist errors being made in those days, and all kinds of ideological immaturity; but at least until the departure of Bruce Franklin and his followers, the primary contradiction was between Marxist ideology and “left” adventurism.

The worst thing about pseudo- or ultra-“leftism” is that its failure breeds rightist errors and tendencies towards right opportunism. Unfortunately this happened in the RU too. Perhaps in over-reaction against the departed Franklinites, the rest of the RU veered somewhat into Economism. Though it attracted a lot of new people for a while, at this point the RU started acting like it had never heard of What Is To Be Done? For example, a great deal of effort went into publishing a slew of local newspapers which concentrated on local small-scale labor struggles. These newspapers may have been “radical”, or even “anti-imperialist”, but they were not communist newspapers; they did not put forward revolution, or explain why socialist revolution was necessary, etc.

[For quite a while I worked on one of these unofficial RU/RCP newspapers myself, The San Francisco Wildcat (later, The Bay Area Worker). I didn’t agree with the way the newspaper work was being done, and kept bumping heads with the leading RU person on the paper, an older guy who was an ex-CPUSA member. I tried to get the paper to print longer, more in-depth articles, that really explained what was behind current events, instead of the sloganeering style the paper had. I tried to get the paper to do a better job of educating workers by starting from their current assumptions and level of understanding, and raising this level to the communist perspective. I complained about the fact that there was very little revolutionary content in the paper, and suggested that we start a column on the theme “What is Socialism?, And Why We Need It”. Under the influence of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? I suggested that we amalgamate all the local RU newspapers into a national one, or at least a few regional ones. All of these suggestions were rejected completely at the time, and eventually I was removed from newspaper work. It was explained to me that the newspaper was purposely not supposed to be a communist newspaper—that it was an “anti-imperialist” newspaper. And my attempts to get the newspaper to explain capitalist reality to the workers better was viewed as some kind of rightism. (“Underestimating the understanding of the people, especially the advanced workers.”)

I don’t want to make it sound like I was completely correct in my views about newspaper work. There was a lot of weakness and immaturity in my own understanding. But I think I was correct in seeing two major problems with the newspaper and general work of the RU and early RCP: 1) failure to use the mass line, and 2) Economism. Unfortunately I hammered away mostly on the first theme, even though long afterwards I realized that the second problem had been the primary contradiction which should have been concentrated on at that time.

I continued to make this same mistake after I was shifted to political work among San Francisco bus drivers. I saw that our RCP branch was failing to use the mass line, and also that we were making systematic rightist errors. But at that time I mistakenly viewed the failure to use the mass line as the bigger of the two problems and the cause of the Economist tendencies (on the grounds that those who neglect the mass line tend to shift to the right in order to avoid complete isolation from the masses.) I now consider that this failure to correctly identify the primary contradiction in that situation vitiated whatever small chance I had to help correct either of these errors.]

It was Bob Avakian who led the struggle against the Franklinites, and later on when the Economist course of the late RU/early RCP became evident, it was Bob Avakian who led the struggle against it. The political development of the RU and RCP, in both its positive and negative aspects, have been primarily due to Bob Avakian.

Of course influential leaders are not themselves all-knowing and perfect. When long-standing leaders direct a group out of an error, they are also leading themselves out of that same error, an error which they themselves previously presided over. Leaders too, even in much better parties than what the RCP has become, make errors. And most of the errors of the group are due, at least in considerable part, to the errors of the leaders. But good leaders tend to recognize their own errors and those of their group before others do, and lead the group in correcting those errors. This is the role that Bob Avakian once played in the RU/RCP. It is quite unfortunate that after the progress of the early years he has no longer been capable of doing this again and leading the RCP in correcting the continuing serious errors that he—more than anyone else—is mostly responsible for. And this is especially the case with regard to the failure of the RCP to have a correct approach to the masses which requires the participation of the Party in the actual day-to-day struggles of the working class and masses.

One of the principal themes of the anti-Economist struggle in the RCP in the late 1970s was a rediscovery of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? The suggestions about newspaper work that Lenin makes, for example, were finally taken seriously. More importantly, the central importance of the Party engaging in revolutionary propaganda and agitation was reaffirmed. But while this period marked a return, in a sense, to What Is To Be Done?, things were on a higher theoretical level than they were in 1970. Many of the infantile conceptions and simplistic views of 1970 were gone. But this doesn’t mean that a truly correct line was being put forward. The lessons of “Left-Wing” Communism... were still not discovered. What was needed at that point was a coherent blending of the essential ideas of both of Lenin’s books; a blending which would definitely mean avoiding any shift back into Economism.

The RCP erroneously views “Left-Wing” Communism... to be opposed to What Is To Be Done?, at least in part. Furthermore, I was told by a Party member that around the time of the rightist “Menshevik” split (early 1978) the Party internally criticized Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism.... I don’t know whether the criticism was concerned with just a few points, or if it was more general. But judging from the line of the RCP since 1978, it is clear that the RCP has little use for this aspect of Lenin’s thought.

For 25 years or so after that I waited for the RCP to sum up and correct these “left” sectarian errors, and still hoped that eventually circumstances would force them to do so. [I no longer have any such hopes. —S.H. (2007).] I have maintained for decades now that if the RCP did not change its line toward the masses and start to use the mass line it would continue to stagnate, gradually lose members and eventually disintegrate, which will be an ignominious end for an organization that once promised to be so important for the American revolutionary movement.

What the RCP really needs is a major rectification campaign centered on the theme of the mass line and having a mass perspective. But I no longer believe that such a rectification is ever going to happen in the RCP.

Organized groups of people have most of the same failings that individuals have. In particular they tend to get very set in their ways as they age. There is a political and cultural “hardening of the arteries” that sets in. The political culture of the RCP, its methods of work, and its overall political line, are all so firmly established and solidly enshrined that it would be almost impossible for even some hypothetical new leadership group to change it significantly.

When a party goes bad, the only thing to do is to create a new one. Parties go bad not only by going over entirely to the enemy (as the ruling parties of the Soviet Union and China did), but also simply by becoming hopelessly wedded to a grossly incorrect political line that cannot possibly advance society toward revolution. Therefore, what we need today is a new party that returns to the traditional Marxist-Leninist-Maoist view, the view of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao themselves, of how to both participate with the working class and masses in their own struggles and to make use of that opportunity to bring revolutionary ideas to the masses.

We still have a long way to go towards revolution in this country, and sectarian groups or parties, such as the RCP has long since become, have little or nothing of a positive nature to contribute to the process. New revolutionary groups, and eventually a new communist party, must now take on the responsibility of constructing a mass-based strategy of making socialist and communist revolution in America. These organizations, and the eventual party which arises out of them, must merge with the masses in their lives and struggles and seek to use the mass line method of “from the masses, to the masses” to lead those struggles successfully. And at the same time, these new communist groups and then the party must never forget their obligation to not only lead the masses in their struggles, but to also educate them in the course of that about the need for and meaning of proletarian revolution. Education and leadership; two things not one.

Between Scylla and Charybdis

The Strait of Messina between mainland Italy and Sicily is notoriously dangerous for sailing ships. Scylla is a dangerous rock on the mainland side, and Charybdis is a whirlpool on the Sicilian side of the strait. Both were personified in classical Greek mythology as female monsters out to devour sailors. Thus the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to mean being between two dangers, the risk from each of which can only be lessened by increasing the risk from the other.

Among the sailors there will inevitably be some who fear Scylla more than Charybdis, and vice versa. Thus, in sailing through the Strait, some will want to veer more to the left, and some more to the right. Of course, if you get too close to one monster, the only thing to do is to head a bit in the direction of the other. But if you do, some will still object. Finding the safest course between the two evils is no easy trick, and convincing everyone aboard that it is in fact the best course is even more difficult. Constant course corrections may be necessary, and constant explanations to the crew.

Dealing with dialectical contradictions in society and in a political party is frequently akin to this. It is because of the nature of certain kinds of contradictions (but definitely not all contradictions!), which represent opposed, but equally unacceptable poles, which must be balanced or steered between.3

Economism and Semi-Anarchism: Two Opposite Ways of Going Wrong

Lenin characterized the infantile “leftists” of his day, such as the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), as “not very good Communists” and as “semi-anarchists”.4 “Anarchism,” he said, “was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other.”5 The “leftists”, Lenin noted, “have been inclined towards anarchism because of their hatred for the opportunism of the old Social-Democrats”.6 A certain amount of ultra-“leftism” in reaction against the right opportunists was inevitable, said Lenin, and even beneficial for a time. They helped expose the opportunists and helped build a revolutionary pole in the form of the Communist International in opposition to the opportunists. For a while their infantilism had to be tolerated, and they had to be given a chance to learn. Many did learn. But by 1921 Lenin’s patience with those who refused to learn was exhausted:

Beginning with the Second Congress of the Communist International, the “Leftists” or “K.A.P.ists” have received sufficient warning from us in the international arena. Until sufficiently strong, experienced and influential Communist Parties have been built, at least in the principal countries, the participation of semi-anarchist elements in our international congresses has to be tolerated, and is to some extent even useful. It is useful insofar as these elements serve as a clear “warning” to inexperienced Communists, and also insofar as they themselves are still capable of learning. All over the world, anarchism has been splitting up—not since yesterday, but since the beginning of the imperialist war of 1914-18—into two trends: one pro-Soviet, and the other anti-Soviet; one in favor of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the other against it. We must allow this process of disintegration among the anarchists to go on and come to a head. Hardly anyone in Western Europe has experienced anything like a big revolution. There, the experience of great revolutions has been almost entirely forgotten, and the transition from the desire to be revolutionary and from talk (and resolutions) about revolution to real revolutionary work is very difficult, painful and slow.

It goes without saying, however, that the semi-anarchist elements can and should be tolerated only within certain limits. In Germany, we tolerated them for quite a long time. The Third Congress of the Communist International faced them with an ultimatum and fixed a definite time limit. If they have now voluntarily resigned from the Communist International, all the better. Firstly, they have saved us the trouble of expelling them. Secondly, it has now been demonstrated most conclusively and most graphically, and proved with precise facts to all vacillating workers, and all those who have been inclined towards anarchism because of their hatred for the opportunism of the old Social-Democrats, that the Communist International has been patient, that it has not expelled anarchists immediately and unconditionally, and that it has given them an attentive hearing and helped them to learn.

We must now pay less attention to the K.A.P.-ists. By polemising with them we merely give them publicity. They are too unintelligent; it is wrong to take them seriously; and it is not worth being angry with them. They have no influence among the masses, and will acquire none, unless we make mistakes. Let us leave this tiny trend to die a natural death; the workers themselves will realise that it is worthless. Let us propagate and implement, with greater effect, the organisational and tactical decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International, instead of giving the K.A.P.-ists publicity by arguing with them. The infantile disorder of “Leftism” is passing and will pass away as the movement grows.7

Today, alas, there is no Lenin or Communist International to pressure the “leftists” to come to their senses; there is no revolutionary pole in the U.S. which has yet managed to combine a fervant revolutionary perspective with a mass perspective. Until such a pole does develop and mature, and become dominant in the revolutionary movement, it will be necessary to continue to focus considerable criticism against “leftism” as well as against right opportunism, against semi-anarchism as well as against Economism.

I wish that American revolutionaries would pay more attention to history (as well as revolutionary theory); how many old mistakes might we avoid repeating! When you investigate the K.A.P.-ists and other semi-anarchists of Lenin’s day, you can’t help but notice the similarities between their line and that of some American revolutionaries today. It does seem all too often true, as Santayana remarked, that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.

Semi-anarchism and Economism are two opposite ways of going wrong. The “Economists” recognize that we must join up with the existing mass movement, but they see agitating for revolution as opposed to this, and therefore drop all revolutionary work like a hot potato. The semi-anarchists or “leftists” on the other hand, are not willing to give up a revolutionary perspective—which is to their credit. But they also see revolutionary work as incompatible with joining up with the existing (mostly non-revolutionary) struggles of the masses, and therefore drop participation in the mass movement like another hot potato. The revolutionary Marxist approach, the dialectical approach, is that the revolutionary movement (and thus revolutionary agitation and propaganda) must be combined with the existing struggles of the masses, so that these struggles can gradually advance, from being the mere reformist struggles that they are today, toward revolution. Both the semi-anarchists and the Economists are certain that such a thing is impossible, even though there are historical demonstrations to the contrary by Lenin and (in a different social context) by Mao.

Sure, the dialectical approach is difficult; it is in truth like juggling two hot potatoes. To shift the metaphor, there are dangers that the party might lean too much one way or the other. We will inevitably make some mistakes, and have to lean back the other way a bit, from time to time. We can’t combine a revolutionary perspective and a mass perspective absolutely perfectly during periods when the masses are not themselves revolutionary; we can’t completely avoid mistakes here, and fortunately we don’t need to. But we do have to combine the two successfully to a considerable degree; we do have to get it more or less right. Either that, or we will never find the path to revolution.

The Ghost of Blanqui is Still With Us

There is a ghost from nineteenth century France who still haunts us today. His name is (Louis-) Auguste Blanqui (1805-81). He was a revolutionary communist who spent most of his life either attempting to organize small revolutionary conspiracies against the government, or in prison. The bourgeois historian A. J. P. Taylor remarked that “Blanqui always turned up when there was a revolution, though usually a little late, because whenever there was a revolution he was already in prison.”8 Blanqui believed that due to bourgeois indoctrination and religion the workers did not recognize their own revolutionary interests, and that therefore it was useless to try to organize them to make revolution. Instead a small, well-organized revolutionary group should seize the organs of government, overthrow capitalism, and establish their own revolutionary dictatorship on behalf of the masses. The role of the masses, if any, in this process was to suddenly begin to wake up a bit once the leading party of revolutionaries achieved some successes, and to join in in support. (In a way, this a glorified version of the theory of “advanced actions” that we discussed in chapter 26!) Blanqui pooh-poohed objections from his critics that an insurrection required a long period for preparing the masses, and once remarked that “I can make a revolution in forty-eight hours.”9

Marx and Engels originally admired Blanqui as a courageous revolutionary leader, and tried to convince him to join the First International. But they also rejected totally his conspiratorial approach. They always argued that while the masses are indeed not originally conscious of their revolutionary interests, through their struggles, and with the help of communists, they can become conscious. From a class in itself, the proletariat must become a class for itself. Marx and Engels always held that true revolutionary change can only be accomplished by the masses themselves. This overall point of view is expressed in the Communist Manifesto, and many other places.10

Clearly what Blanqui lacked was an appreciation of the dialectics of change, and any conception of how you might go about educating the masses in their revolutionary interests so that they can bring about the revolutionary changes needed. Blanqui, in fact, said that he would not even trust the working class after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, until his elite dictatorship had indoctrinated them for a long period. Thus for him, as for some people today, the revolutionary education of the masses was totally divorced from, and unrelated to, anything the masses might learn in the course of their own struggles.

In 1874 Engels summed up Blanqui and Blanquism as follows:

In his political activities he was essentially a “man of action”, believing that, if a small well-organized minority should attempt to effect a revolutionary uprising at the right moment, it might, after scoring a few initial successes, carry the mass of the people and thus accomplish a victorious revolution. Naturally, under Louis Philippe he was able to organize this nucleus only in the form of a secret society, and it met the fate usually reserved for conspiracies: the people, fed up with the constant proffering of empty promises that it would soon begin, finally lost all patience, became rebellious, and there remained only the alternative of letting the conspiracy collapse or of striking without any external cause. They struck (May 12, 1839), but the insurrection was immediately suppressed.... Since Blanqui regards every revolution as a coup de main by a small revolutionary minority, it automatically follows that its victory must inevitably be suceeded by the establishment of a dictatorship—not, it should be well noted, of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small number of those who accomplished the coup and who themselves are, at first, organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals.11

Engels went on to say that “Obviously, Blanqui is a revolutionary of the old generation” whose views “have long since become obsolete”. Unfortunately, it is apparent today that such views are not always seen as obsolete, but—on the contrary—are sometimes embraced as the latest thing in revolutionary Marxism! I’m sure you recognize by now some of the familiar themes: The constant predictions of imminent revolution; the failure to grasp the real objective situation; the constant attempts to deemphasize the role of the majority of the masses, and glorify the role of the party or a small minority; the tendency towards immediate action, “advanced actions”, and premature “combativity”; the divorce between revolutionary education and mass struggles; the glorification of the leadership and the failure to oppose cults of the individual; etc. It is hard to deny the number of striking similarities between the present revolutionary movement in the U.S. and Blanquism.

Engels also pointed out the similarities between Blanquism and Bakuninist anarchism. For example, their “exaggerated revolutionism” (to use Lenin’s phrase):

Our Blanquists have a basic feature in common with the Bakuninists, in that they want to represent the most far-reaching, most extreme trend. It is for this reason, incidentally, that the Blanquists, while opposing the Bakuninists over aims, often agree with them over means.12

Lenin has often been falsely accused of Blanquism himself by various opportunists and bourgeois commentators. But, apparently, some people who are certain that they are following Lenin also see Leninism as at least rather similar to Blanquism!

(On the other hand, there is more than a germ of truth in viewing Stalin and the CPSU during Stalin’s tenure as a de facto application of the party dictatorship that Blanqui hoped to institute once he came to power. And that too turned out to be a disaster in the end—because the proletariat and the masses lost control of society, and the once revolutionary party eventually turned against them.)

Somehow we must exorcise the ghost of Blanqui from the contemporary American revolutionary movement.

Confusion Over the Basic Revolutionary Strategy: Another Form of Primitivism Today

There are, of course, other forms of primitiveness that exist within our revolutionary movement in the U.S. today besides the aspect we have been focusing on here with regard to the proper relationship of communist revolutionaries to the masses. We’ll just briefly mention one of these for sake of illustration: Namely, regarding our fundamental revolutionary strategy and how well-thought-out (or not!) it may presently be.

What is the basic strategy for revolution in the United States? Should we follow the Russian path, the Chinese path, or copy some other path that worked (or appears to be working) somewhere else in the world?

It is dogmatism to insist on absolutely and totally following any path to revolution based simply on the fact that the path was successful elsewhere. True, it may have been sucessful, but it was successful at a given time and place given the situation faced by the revolutionaries at that time and place. Our task is to find the path appropriate to our time and place.

Only a considerable number of quite abstract strategic principles are virtually always and everywhere true, such as that revolutionaries must always seek to work with the masses and move them in a revolutionary direction; that successful revolutions must be most essentially the work of the masses themselves; but that the leadership of a proletarian revolutionary party is essential; that revolutionary violence is virtually always necessary in one form or another, or to one degree or another; and that a revolutionary dictatorship of the working class must be established to keep the overthrown bourgeoisie from making a comeback.

Even within the U.S. itself there are different revolutionary tasks appropriate to the varying circumstances, depending on the precise development of things at the moment. I must repeat again: the mass line (the leadership method of “from the masses, to the masses”) is primarily a tool for advancing the present situation, whatever it is, in a revolutionary direction. Let us grant then that every revolution must find its own precise path, based on constant investigation, continuous thinking and a constant application of the mass line in light of our gradually but steadily improving Marxist revolutionary theory.

But if it is dogmatism and slavishness to strictly or automatically follow the “October Road”, or any other previous path in every detail, in working toward revolution in this country today, it is nevertheless also true that our movement has already determined a number of major aspects of our revolutionary strategy and most of these do correspond rather closely to the path followed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It should at least be clear that a successful proletarian revolution in an advanced capitalist country like the U.S. will have to follow a basic strategy much more like that of the “October Road” in Russia than that of the peasant-based Protracted People’s War in the countryside of the sort that Mao led in China. Of course there will inevitably prove to be many secondary and tertiary differences here from the October Road in the precise form it was actually implemented in Russia. But as a first and general approximation, the “October Road” is pretty obviously the basic stategy for revolution in the U.S., as best as we can determine at this time.

It is quite worrisome—indeed alarming!—that some young American revolutionaries who call themselves Maoists today reject these basic principles of the “October Road” and favor the strategy of Protracted People’s War in the United States. (Similar foolishness also exists in Canada and Europe.) And this rejection does indeed also demonstrate just how primitive our general revolutionary movement today really is! Fortunately there are other revolutionaries who are quite clear on all this. [One of the best documents available to study on this question is: “Protracted People’s War is Not a Universal Strategy for Revolution”, by the Mass Proletariat organization (USA), Jan. 19, 2018, 55 pages. Available at:" and also available in HTML format on the MP website at:]

What about the RCP? Does it now really favor following the "October Road"? No, actually it does not! The Bolshevik Revolution was possible only because of the deep connection in struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Russian workers and masses. By rejecting this mass perspective and mass line approach the RCP is also fatally deviating from the “October Road”, even if they do not understand that they are.

Coming From Behind to Make Revolution

Marxism has proved the unscientific character of the views of the bourgois ideologists and Right revisionists, who reduce the development of society to slow evolution and minor reforms, deny leaps and revolutions, and of the anarchists and “Left”-wing adventurists who disregard the long and painstaking work of accumulating strength and organizing and preparing the masses for decisive revolutionary actions.13

Bob Avakian said that “things can undergo rapid and dramatic changes, sudden upheavals with millions of people suddenly being thrown into a situation far different from the one they are accustomed to in the so-called ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ times of this system...”14 This is of course to recognize that there must and will be leaps in the situation as we advance toward revolution. As mentioned in chapter 31, this is the first element of wisdom on this question.

There is also the danger, however, that we will come to rely entirely on the expectation and recognition that such great leaps in the situation will occur spontaneously, and imagine that this means we don’t have to do anything ourselves to help bring about the preconditions for such leaps. It is true that even if there were no proletarian party some such leaps might still occur, and that a revolutionary situation might still develop eventually. But things will develop sooner and more powerfully if we help them along. Life is hardly satisfactory enough under this god-awful system that we don’t mind waiting the extra decades or centuries it might take for a revolutionary situation to develop without our very active participation.

But there are two far more basic points here. First, of course, the revolutionary situation will be wasted if there is not a sufficiently prepared proletarian party ready and able to lead the broad masses when the time is ripe. And second (and more in need of emphasis), if the party does not seriously participate in helping to bring about the revolutionary situation, it cannot really be prepared for its responsibilities when the time arrives. “Seriously participating” means not just engaging in agitation and propaganda (though that is indeed of central importance), but also seriously attempting to lead the current reformist mass struggle in a revolutionary direction and from a revolutionary perspective, to the maximum degree possible.

Thus, it is very important to recognize that there can and will be leaps in the development of the situation towards revolution. And this can certainly help keep our spirits and enthusiasm up during the early stages while the revolutionary movement is still tiny. But it is likewise very important to not allow this recognition to lead to neglect on our part of an important aspect of revolutionary work. This would be a kind of stupid theory of spontaneity in itself, an unjustified belief that all the conditions for revolution, including a prepared party, will come into being no matter what the people in the party themselves do in connection with the mass movement, even if they ignore it, or refrain from participating in it!

In one very crucial respect the RCP has been prepared for revolution virtually from its beginning; it has had the right mindset of firm revolutionary determination. But the Party has also recognized full well that in many respects it is still quite unprepared for revolution—its present size, and influence on the masses, and so forth. It recognized in 1980, and occasionally since then, that it needed to make serious leaps in its own preparations.15 It should also have recognized (though I doubt it ever fully has) that most of its attempts over the decades to make such leaps have failed miserably. I’m referring to campaigns to build the readership of the Revolutionary Worker to 100,000 people a week; campaigns around various May Days and anti-police struggles; plans to expand its presence to new cities and areas, rather than pulling out of one city after another (as has actually been the case); constant ineffective attempts to expand its membership (or at least to keep it from shrinking ever further; etc.

But the Party has never recognized another extremely important respect in which it is not prepared for revolution—its inexperience and inability to actually lead the masses in their struggles. This is one weakness that the Party bizarrely sees as a virtue under present conditions since it considers it politically incorrect (dangerous to its revolutionary stance) to try to lead non-revolutionary masses of people in struggles around reforms. Because it takes this position, it in effect renounces the only school of mass leadership there is.

The RCP does see that it must “come from behind” to make revolution, in Bob Avakian’s words. On the other hand, it does not see itself as starting from zero: “Let’s put it this way: we’re coming from a long way back, but we’re not coming from nowhere.”16 Of course that’s true, the Party has had some years of experience, and at least some Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory going for it. In one respect the Party was not as far behind as it feared, because this assessment that it was so far behind was based on the incorrect notion that a revolutionary situation would develop during the 1980s. Since the objective situation is developing much slower than the RCP always supposes, it was not quite so far behind as it thought back then.

But in other respects the Party is a lot further behind than it imagines. It does not have anything like the influence over the masses that it fancies that it does, certainly not the influence that Bob Avakian indicated in the 1980 article we are discussing, where he says the RCP “is still small and its influence exists only among tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands—not yet millions, certainly not anything like a majority of the working class.” My guess is that was an exaggeration of at least 10 times, even in 1980; and things have gotten much worse since then. In 1980 the Party supposed that it was in a position to lead some rather large May Day demonstrations—which it wasn’t. And it supposed that it was capable of building the circulation of its newspaper to a steady 100,000 readers a week—which it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

Not only individuals, but also political parties, learn how to do things by actually doing them. The proletarian party can only learn how to lead the masses by leading them, and it can only lead them if it seeks to lead them. It cannot wait for a revolutionary situation to develop and then suddenly step forward to lead the masses, because it won’t know how, and the masses won’t accept it. It must start leading the masses right now, even though we are not in a revolutionary situation, and even though the masses do not now see the need for revolution.

In his “Letter to the German Communists”, Lenin said:

What the German proletariat must and will do—and this is the guarantee of victory—is keep their heads; systematically rectify the mistakes of the past; steadily win over the mass of the workers both inside and outside the trade unions; patiently build up a strong and intelligent Communist Party capable of giving real leadership to the masses at every turn of events; and work out a strategy that is on a level with the best international strategy of the most advanced bourgeoisie, which is “enlightened” by agelong experience in general, and the “Russian experience” in particular.17

While trade unions are not as significant in the U.S. today as they were in Germany in 1921 (both because a smaller part of the U.S. proletariat is organized into them now, and because that part tends to be one of the most bourgeoisified section of the proletariat), the other points here are as true as ever—especially the main point, the need to build up a communist party capable of giving real leadership to the masses at every turn of events.

Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Discouraged By Lingering Primitivism Today

But while I believe that in many respects the revolutionary movement at present still shows lingering signs of primitivism, I would like to end this chapter on a hopeful note. Our movement has advanced well beyond 1970 in both theory and practice. Much of the incredible primitivism of 1970 has been overcome. It is true that in correcting our errors we have sometimes gone a bit overboard, with the result that we succumbed to the opposite errors to some degree. We lurched from Weather Underground type nonsense into a bit of Economism, and from Economism back to a “leftist” approach to revolution that forgot that we must merge the revolutionary movement with the existing class struggles of the masses. But now we are poised for a correction to that error too, I believe, which hopefully will not this time overshoot the mark.

This kind of lurching advance is characteristic of human beings and inherent to intelligent life in general. It is the way of dialectics, which governs the progress of knowledge for not only individuals, but also for classes and their political parties. As William Blake so aptly remarked, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” The fact that we have gone from an excess in one direction to an excess in the other, and back again, should not make us despair, for we have nevertheless spiraled to a new level of wisdom. But the process must now continue; it is time for the next correction.


1   Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period, (NY: Viking, 1963), p. 21. I do not have any further information about the specific railroad strike he discusses, or about additional content in the leaflet issued by the CP. One of the themes of Draper’s book is the conflict between Leninist political “orthodoxy” and mass influence. Being a bourgeois ideologist, he does not of course see that there is any real possibility of a genuine revolutionary communist movement enjoying any mass influence, at least in this country. And of course he is ignorant of the mass line.

2   Another group from that period, the Proletarian Unity League, remarked: “After years of denouncing the RU’s ‘left’ opportunism, the OL now defines the RCP as Right opportunist.” [1, 2, 3, Many Parties of a New Type? (1977), p. 7.

3   It might be better to analyze these Scylla/Charybdis kinds of situations as being complexes of contradictions, rather than a single contradiction. We could analyze this particular situation, for example, as being a pair of contradictions: 1) Between Scylla and a safe course, and 2) Between Charybdis and a safe course. The overall problem then becomes the simultaneous resolution of two separate (though related) contradictions. Thus to speak of “the contradiction between Scylla and Charybdis” is perhaps to speak a bit too loosely.
   Dialectics is still a rather informal (i.e., young?) science, and it is still quite possible to analyze situations in quite different ways but still in terms of “dialectical contradictions”.

4   Lenin, “A Letter to the German Communists” (Aug. 14, 1921), LCW 32:514.

5   Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:32.

6   Lenin, “A Letter to the German Communists” (Aug. 14, 1921), LCW 32:515.

7   Lenin, ibid., LCW 32:514-515.

8   A. J. P. Taylor, Revolutions and Revolutionaries, (NY: Atheneum, 1980), pp. 70-71.

9   Ibid., p. 70.

10   See for example some of the quotes from Marx & Engels I have included elsewhere in this book, especially in chapter 19.

11   Engels, “Programme of the Blanquist Commune Refugees”, MECW 25:13.

12   Engels, ibid., p. 15.

13   From the article on “Transition from Quantity to Quality” in Dictionary of Philosophy, (NY: International, 1984), pp. 429-430. The primary editor (listed only in the Library of Congress cataloging data) is Ivan Timofeevich Frolov. This is a translation of the fourth Russian edition produced in Moscow in 1980.

14   Bob Avakian, “Is Revolution Really Possible This Decade and What Does May 1st Have to Do With It?”, RW, #49, April 11, 1980, p. S-2.

15   See especially the section “Coming From Behind” in the article by Bob Avakian under discussion.

16   Bob Avakian, ibid., p. S-4.

17   Lenin, “A Letter to the German Communists” (Aug. 14, 1921), LCW 32:513-514.

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