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


Asad Haider: What was the New Com­mu­nist Move­ment (NCM) and how did you come to be involved in it?

Paul Saba: I became involved in the NCM in 1973. Two years ear­lier, on my 18th birth­day, I had joined the Com­mu­nist Party, USA (CPUSA) and was imme­di­ately sent to its sum­mer-long National Cadre School in New York City. Grow­ing up in Tuc­son, Ari­zona, where there had been no orga­nized Com­mu­nist pres­ence since the early 1950s, my only prior con­tact with the orga­ni­za­tion had been with its writ­ten mate­ri­als. See­ing the Party close up for the first time, I quickly dis­cov­ered that I was in pro­found dis­agree­ment with much of its line and prac­tice – and began to say so. Two years later, I was expelled for “ultra-left­ism.” Together with a friend, Kim Malch­eski, I imme­di­ately sought to find an orga­nized expres­sion of the alter­na­tive com­mu­nism I believed in. This led me to the NCM.

What was the NCM? Between 1969 and the early 1980s, a small but extremely active num­ber of for­mer 1960s rad­i­cals who also rejected the tra­di­tion of the CPUSA as well as that of its Trot­sky­ist oppo­nents, sought to give birth to a dif­fer­ent model of com­mu­nism in the United States. Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tion­ary expe­ri­ence and the writ­ings of Mao Zedong, they formed numer­ous local and national orga­ni­za­tions, attempted to root them­selves in the work­ing class and com­mu­ni­ties of color, and worked to build a pow­er­ful mass move­ment to over­throw cap­i­tal­ism and estab­lish a social­ist soci­ety in the United States. They did not suc­ceed and, for a host of rea­sons, the move­ment more or less dis­ap­peared by the mid-1980s.

In under­stand­ing the NCM, I think it is use­ful to see it as the pro­duct of three prin­ci­pal influ­ences: the Chi­nese Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, the Com­mu­nist tra­di­tion prior to 1956, and the New Left/mass strug­gles of the 1960s. 

First, the Great Pro­le­tar­ian Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion really struck a chord with young Amer­i­can rad­i­cals for a whole num­ber of rea­sons. The promi­nent role played by Chi­nese youths in the Red Guard move­ment, and the respect with which they were treated by Mao and his sup­port­ers and in the Chi­nese press, was ter­ri­bly appeal­ing to young Amer­i­cans, frus­trated by the way our own soci­ety appeared to either reject or ignore them. The pro­nounced vol­un­tarism of the Chi­nese form of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism like­wise appealed to young peo­ple in the ‘60s, when the pos­si­bil­i­ties for remak­ing the world seemed vir­tu­ally unlim­ited.

At the same time, the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion pro­vided young rad­i­cals with a mil­i­tant polit­i­cal frame­work for under­stand­ing world events and the roles of dif­fer­ent nations, peo­ples and social move­ments within it. Finally, the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion offered newly rad­i­cal­ized youth a way to con­struct for them­selves an alter­nate iden­tity by con­nect­ing them to a heroic rev­o­lu­tion­ary tra­di­tion and an eas­ily under­stand­able his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of their place within it. 

The pol­i­tics of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion that so inspired the NCM were deci­sively shaped by its own ori­gins. Of course, events in China played the pri­mary role, but the sharp­en­ing Soviet-Chi­nese rift in the late 1950s and 1960s was also impor­tant. The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion tried to address what the Chi­nese per­ceived to be fun­da­men­tal weaknesses/failures in the way social­ism was func­tion­ing in the Soviet Union and the coun­tries of East­ern Europe. 

Even before the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party had ini­ti­ated a series of polemics on the gen­eral line of the Soviet Com­mu­nist Party in the world com­mu­nist move­ment. Cen­tral to these polemics were a num­ber of valu­able crit­i­cisms of Soviet for­mu­la­tions about peace­ful coex­is­tence, the nature of the world rev­o­lu­tion­ary process, the mean­ing and con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism, etc. With the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, the scope of these polemics were expanded to crit­i­cally ques­tions on the very nature of social­ism itself and the pos­si­bil­ity that, after the over­throw of cap­i­tal­ism, a new bour­geoisie could arise within a com­mu­nist party to oppress the work­ing masses anew. 

Unfor­tu­nately, for a num­ber of rea­sons, the qual­ity of many Chi­nese polemics against Soviet “revi­sion­ism” dete­ri­o­rated sharply with the onset of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. Had they been accom­pa­nied by rig­or­ous the­o­ret­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions and had they seri­ously exam­ined, in an all-sided way, Soviet poli­cies, the the­o­ries behind them, and the his­tor­i­cal roots of the Sino-Soviet rift, the Chi­nese polemics might have sparked a long over­due gen­eral reassess­ment of the his­tory of the com­mu­nist move­ment and its con­tem­po­rary cri­sis. Had the Chi­nese gone even fur­ther, and thrown their weight behind the urgent need for a crit­i­cal reex­am­i­na­tion and the fur­ther devel­op­ment of Marx­ist the­ory in light of the dis­tor­tions intro­duced into Marx­ism dur­ing the Stalin period, as well as the tremen­dous changes that had occurred in the world since Lenin’s time and the fact that Marx­ist the­ory had not kept pace with these changes, a much needed revi­tal­iza­tion process within Marx­ism might have resulted. 

Such an out­come was not impos­si­ble. The entire his­tory of the Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tion­ary process, before and after 1949, had been one of con­flict and con­tes­ta­tion with Soviet advice, and in pri­vate Mao had made a series of crit­i­cal stud­ies of Soviet the­ory and prac­tice, both dur­ing and after the Stalin’s time. The strug­gles of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sented a pro­found cri­tique of the Soviet model, not just in the post-1956 period, but in the Stalin period as well. The best Euro­pean Marx­ists who were pay­ing atten­tion to events in China, such as Louis Althusser, Charles Bet­tel­heim, K. S. Karol, and Maria Antoni­etta Mac­cioc­chi imme­di­ately rec­og­nized this. 

How­ever, for rea­sons which have never been ade­quately explained, the Chi­nese refused to build their cri­tique on this foun­da­tion. Instead, the Maoist lead­er­ship chose to present their cri­tique of the Soviet line as one of defend­ing ortho­doxy in com­mu­nist pol­i­tics and the­ory against revi­sion­ism. This was a fatal mis­take. As the French com­mu­nist G. Mad­jar­ian cor­rectly noted: “The fight against ’revi­sion­ism’ can­not be waged by con­serv­ing, or rather, by merely re-appro­pri­at­ing, Marx­ism as it existed his­tor­i­cally in the pre­vi­ous period. Far from being the sig­nal for a return to the sup­posed ortho­doxy of the pre­ced­ing epoch, the appear­ance of a ’revi­sion­ism’ is a symp­tom of the need for Marx­ism to crit­i­cize itself.”

Indeed, the entire his­tory of Marx­ism was fre­quently recast in Chi­nese polemics as a “two-line” strug­gle between ortho­doxy and its oppo­nents. Since the Soviet line being crit­i­cized was said to have emerged after Stalin’s death, Mao­ism divided the his­tory of the Soviet Union and the world com­mu­nist move­ment into two dis­tinct peri­ods. First, the cor­rect and rev­o­lu­tion­ary era that began with Lenin and came to an end with Stalin’s death and the tri­umph of Khrushchev, fol­lowed by a sec­ond period of revi­sion­ism and betrayal. Accord­ing to this for­mu­la­tion, the truths of Marx­ist-Lenin­ism as devel­oped by Lenin and Stalin were sub­se­quently aban­doned by the Soviet Union and the pro-Soviet CPs, only to be cor­rectly taken up and defended by the Chi­nese under Mao. The irony of all this is, as pre­vi­ously noted, that Mao­ism itself evolved out of a cri­tique of the Com­intern line for mak­ing rev­o­lu­tion in China and the Stalin model of build­ing social­ism in the USSR. But this cri­tique, and Maoism’s gen­uine inno­va­tions in the­ory and prac­tice, was largely con­cealed from the out­side world by China and the ortho­dox frame­work it employed in its polemics. 

As a result, the Mao­ism of much of the NCM was a dead form of ortho­doxy, rather than a dynamic and cre­ative approach to the the­o­ret­i­cal tasks nec­es­sary to develop an alter­na­tive com­mu­nism in the United States.


The sec­ond major influ­ence on the NCM was that of the world com­mu­nist move­ment before 1956, includ­ing the old CPUSA. While a rejec­tion of con­tem­po­rary Com­mu­nist Par­ties as revi­sion­ist was uni­ver­sal in the NCM, equally wide­spread was the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with their his­tor­i­cal antecedents. This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was facil­i­tated by a num­ber of fac­tors. First, the Chi­nese cham­pi­oning of this tra­di­tion, as noted ear­lier. Sec­ond, the fact that the CPUSA had been, since the 1920s, the largest and most influ­en­tial com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion in the United States, an orga­ni­za­tion that had cham­pi­oned the strug­gles of work­ing peo­ple and Black Amer­i­cans, fought racism, fas­cism, and McCarthy­ism, and trained gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of self­less activists in how to orga­nize unions, build social move­ments, and fight for fun­da­men­tal reforms like health and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, social secu­rity, and equal rights under the law. Finally, there was the influ­ence of a small num­ber of for­mer CP mem­bers who joined the NCM and became influ­en­tial lead­ers in sev­eral groups. Most of these indi­vid­u­als had departed from or been expelled from the CP at one time or another “from the left,” pri­mar­ily in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As such, they were dis­tin­guished by their train­ing in, and rigid adher­ence to the com­mu­nism of the Stalin period, and the prac­tice of the CPUSA dur­ing the Depres­sion and early Cold War years. They played a major role in com­mu­ni­cat­ing the CPUSA tra­di­tion to the NCM.

The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and the legacy of Inter­na­tional Com­mu­nism before 1956 were com­ple­men­tary and mutu­ally rein­forc­ing influ­ences on the NCM. They com­bined to present it with an his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion and a con­tem­po­rary stance, com­plete with polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, and orga­ni­za­tional cul­ture. NCM cadre viewed this tra­di­tion as the essen­tial foun­da­tion on which a new com­mu­nist move­ment would be built. 

In truth, this tra­di­tion could have greatly assisted the pos­i­tive devel­op­ment of the NCM, had it been treated crit­i­cally and selec­tively as a start­ing point for fur­ther analy­sis and prac­ti­cal work. But the great tragedy of the NCM is that this is not what hap­pened. Instead, a greatly sim­pli­fied and impov­er­ished ver­sion of the tra­di­tion, and its the­ory and pol­i­tics were taken up mechan­i­cally and uncrit­i­cally by the NCM. We were lazy, dog­matic, and back­ward look­ing when we needed to be open, flex­i­ble, and cre­ative. Groups actu­ally vied with one another to prove their ortho­doxy and their unchang­ing fidelity to the tra­di­tion, to see who was “more Bol­she­vik” than the rest, who could show more loy­alty to the mem­ory of Stalin, etc.

As a result, the NCM ended up with an ide­ol­ogy that com­bined uncrit­i­cal adu­la­tion of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin (and, of course, China under Mao) with an equally uncrit­i­cal faith in “Marx­ism-Lenin­ism” as a per­fected the­ory of rev­o­lu­tion­ary prac­tice. In all too many cases, the NCM prac­ticed a form of com­mu­nism that was lit­tle more than reli­gious dogma and impas­sioned slo­ga­neer­ing, a pol­i­tics hope­lessly out of touch with Amer­i­can real­ity, bureau­cratic cen­tral­ist orga­ni­za­tional forms, an arro­gant and elit­ist style of work in mass orga­ni­za­tions, and an obses­sive pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ide­o­log­i­cal purity. 

Per­haps nowhere was the poverty of this mis­placed ortho­doxy more appar­ent than in the areas of polit­i­cal line and orga­ni­za­tion. Most NCM orga­ni­za­tions were noth­ing more that tiny sects, united around rigid and often idio­syn­cratic polit­i­cal pro­grams. Each group, no mat­ter how small, insisted on the cor­rect­ness of its own polit­i­cal line and all too fre­quently demanded com­plete agree­ment from oth­ers as a pre­con­di­tion for joint work. When it came to dif­fer­ences, sav­age polemics were the order of the day. On this basis, unity between dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions was dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble. As a result, the his­tory of the NCM is a record of the rise and fall of innu­mer­able war­ring grou­plets on the one hand, and the repeated fail­ure of attempts to build gen­uinely multi-national national orga­ni­za­tions on the other. 

The third prin­ci­pal source of the NCM was the mass strug­gles of the 1960s and early 1970s, out of which emerged the vast major­ity of its mem­bers and sup­port­ers. Many of these indi­vid­u­als had played crit­i­cal roles in impor­tant bat­tles – anti-war, anti-draft, and stu­dent orga­niz­ing, labor insur­gen­cies, the civil rights move­ment and black lib­er­a­tion strug­gles, sol­i­dar­ity cam­paigns, the women’s move­ment, etc. Many still had organic con­nec­tions with ongo­ing strug­gles of a mass char­ac­ter, and ini­tially were able to bring sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nents of these strug­gles into the NCM. Many activists were recruited out of groups like Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­tic Soci­ety, the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers, the Black Work­ers Con­gress, and the Young Lords Party.

This expe­ri­ence, and the lessons and skills learned in mass strug­gle, were invalu­able to the devel­op­ment of NCM cadre. Their mil­i­tancy, ded­i­ca­tion and sac­ri­fice were often exem­plary. More­over, the con­tin­ued devel­op­ment of these strug­gles and the many impor­tant bat­tles fought with NCM par­tic­i­pa­tion and lead­er­ship were the NCM’s prin­ci­pal con­tri­bu­tions to the Left and pro­gres­sive move­ments in the US dur­ing its brief his­tory.

But the mass strug­gles of the 1960s and early 1970s were more than just the objec­tive milieu out of which the NCM emerged. They also exer­cised an impor­tant polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal influ­ence on it. This influ­ence was per­haps most pro­nounced in two areas. The first was the vol­un­tarism that char­ac­ter­ized so much of ‘60s style activ­ity – the belief that human willpower and deter­mi­na­tion alone could over­come any obsta­cle. This ten­dency toward vol­un­tarism meshed with, and was rein­forced by exam­ples of vol­un­tarist excesses from the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, and from the ultra-left peri­ods in the his­tory of inter­na­tional com­mu­nism. The polit­i­cal con­junc­ture in the United States and a num­ber of other advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries in the late 1960s appeared to jus­tify the belief of many young peo­ple that rev­o­lu­tion­ary 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.


AH: The NCM is often dis­missed as a moment of sec­tar­i­an­ism and dog­ma­tism, yet you’ve gath­ered an enor­mous col­lec­tion of its texts on the Ency­clo­pe­dia of Anti-Revi­sion­ism Online. What moti­vates this archival work?

PS: In one sense cer­tainly, as my response to the first ques­tion indi­cated, the his­tory of the NCM can be summed up as “a moment of sec­tar­i­an­ism and dog­ma­tism.” In another sense, how­ever, the NCM was more than the sum total of its sec­tar­ian and dog­matic errors. It attempted to keep alive the rem­nants of the mass move­ments of the 1960s, it orga­nized work­ers, built left cau­cuses in unions, mobi­lized strug­gles around fun­da­men­tal issues of racism, women’s rights, immi­grant rights, and built move­ments in sol­i­dar­ity with lib­er­a­tion strug­gles around the world. It intro­duced thou­sands of peo­ple to Marx­ism, US rad­i­cal his­tory, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments in Africa, Asia and Latin Amer­ica.

For all its the­o­ret­i­cal poverty and dog­ma­tism, the NCM nonethe­less sought to address the big ques­tions con­fronting the US left: What role could unions play in rad­i­cal­iz­ing US work­ers? Were blacks a nation? How could the mass of the Amer­i­can peo­ple be won to a rad­i­cal pro­gram? Was US impe­ri­al­ism the main enemy of the peo­ples of the world? What is the rela­tion­ship between reform and rev­o­lu­tion? What role should cul­ture play in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process?

Any revival of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism in the United States will have to come to terms with – and learn the lessons from – the his­tory of com­mu­nism in this coun­try, includ­ing the his­tory of the NCM. And that means learn­ing from the mis­takes, the fail­ures, and the dead ends, as well as the achieve­ments.

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Anti-Revi­sion­ism Online was cre­ated to enable peo­ple to study the doc­u­men­tary his­tory of the NCM in its full com­plex­ity. The record of the move­ment is all here, the argu­ments, the debates, the sum-ups of orga­niz­ing and activism, the uni­fi­ca­tion attempts and the splits. There is no attempt to cover up the hor­rors (paeans to Pol Pot’s Kam­puchea) or to min­i­mize the fol­lies (“China’s Chair­man is our Chair­man”). But equally present are the doc­u­ments attempt­ing to frankly con­front and over­come the movement’s real lim­i­ta­tions, efforts to break with dog­ma­tism, sec­tar­i­an­ism, and flunkey­ism. And it’s all avail­able free to any­one with access to a com­puter.

When, in 1973, my friend Kim and I tried to learn about the past his­tory of alter­na­tive com­mu­nism in the US, we had a ter­ri­ble time col­lect­ing mate­ri­als, writ­ing to a cou­ple hun­dred pub­lic and uni­ver­sity libraries, hop­ing to find doc­u­ments that they might be will­ing to copy for us. With the Ency­clo­pe­dia of Anti-Revi­sion­ism Online nobody is going to have to go through that process again, at least in rela­tion to much of the doc­u­men­tary record of the NCM.

AH: Your jour­nal The­o­ret­i­cal Review pre­sented the work of Louis Althusser and oth­ers as a source of polit­i­cal insight, some­what rare for an Amer­i­can left orga­ni­za­tion. How was this jour­nal formed? 

PS: The The­o­ret­i­cal Review (TR) was cre­ated as a speci­fic inter­ven­tion in the NCM, made pos­si­ble by a series of events in 1976 that pro­voked a cri­sis in the move­ment. The TR was our response to that cri­sis, our attempt to seize upon the theoretical/political open­ing cre­ated by the cri­sis to move the NCM in a new direc­tion.

The cri­sis of the NCM to which the TR responded began in 1976 with a num­ber of events: the death of Mao Zedong, the fall of the “Gang of Four,” and sub­se­quent dra­matic changes in Chi­nese for­eign and domes­tic pol­icy. For US Marx­ist-Lenin­ists, per­haps an even more impor­tant fac­tor in spark­ing the cri­sis was Chi­nese pol­icy in post-Por­tuguese Angola. The MPLA, an Angolan national lib­er­a­tion move­ment, had played a lead­ing role in the strug­gle to end Por­tuguese colo­nial­ism. How­ever, it main­tained good rela­tions with the Soviet Union, and this led the Chi­nese to refuse to sup­port it. Instead, China attempted to ele­vate two other Angolan groups – Holden Roberto’s FNLA and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA – to equal sta­tus with the MPLA as legit­i­mate national lib­er­a­tion orga­ni­za­tions in Angola, equally wor­thy of sup­port, even as it was clear to many that they were lit­tle more than prox­ies for US Impe­ri­al­ism and South African inter­ests.

Before 1976, China’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary line, for­eign and domes­tic, was vir­tu­ally unques­tioned in the NCM. And the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion was a touch­stone, per­sonal and polit­i­cal, for many NCM activists. All this began to be thrown in doubt in 1976. Had the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion been a tragic mis­take – the result of machi­na­tions by the dis­cred­ited “Gang of Four” – as the new Chi­nese lead­er­ship was start­ing to argue? Had China, fore­most cham­pion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments in the Third World, begun to aban­don its rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­ments, as a con­se­quence of its grow­ing antag­o­nism to the USSR, as its posi­tion on Angola seemed to indi­cate? Was it pos­si­ble that Mao Zedong Thought was not the final word in rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory? More and more peo­ple in and around the NCM were start­ing to ask these ques­tions. The peo­ple who would go on to cre­ate the TR saw this sit­u­a­tion as an open­ing, an oppor­tu­nity to bring some­thing new to the table.

I was liv­ing in Ann Arbor at the time, attend­ing grad­u­ate school at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan. Together with some other folks who would later go on to cre­ate the TR edi­to­rial board in Boston (but at the time also liv­ing in Ann Arbor), we pulled together a col­lec­tive and issued a pam­phlet, “Against Dog­ma­tism and Revi­sion­ism: Toward a Gen­uine Com­mu­nist Party.” The pam­phlet called atten­tion to the cri­sis in the NCM, sug­gested that a prin­ci­pal source of the cri­sis was the the­o­ret­i­cal poverty of the move­ment, and argued that the work of Gram­sci, Althusser, Poulantzas, and oth­ers offered us the pos­si­bil­ity of rebuild­ing the move­ment on new foun­da­tions. The pam­phlet met with a favor­able response; sev­eral thou­sand copies were sold around the coun­try.

But it wasn’t enough to merely assert that Gram­sci, Althusser, et al had some­thing to teach the NCM. The the­o­ret­i­cal value of their work needed to be con­cretely demon­strated in the con­text of the ongo­ing life of the move­ment. Peo­ple needed to be exposed to what they had to say, to see how their ideas could be used to pro­duce gen­uinely valu­able new ways of think­ing and act­ing. How their con­tri­bu­tions could help solve the cri­sis that the NCM was going through. A sin­gle pam­phlet couldn’t do that; we thought a reg­u­lar jour­nal could.

When I returned to Tuc­son, Ari­zona in 1977 and to the Tuc­son Marx­ist-Lenin­ist Col­lec­tive in which I had pre­vi­ously been active, we decided to pri­or­i­tize the pub­li­ca­tion of a new jour­nal which would expand upon the inter­ven­tion inau­gu­rated by the Ann Arbor pam­phlet. We called the new jour­nal The­o­ret­i­cal Review, in trib­ute to The­o­ret­i­cal Prac­tice, a short-lived Althusse­rian jour­nal that had been pub­lished in the UK. Once when asked his goal for the Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Cul­tural Stud­ies, Stu­art Hall answered by refer­ring to Gramsci’s con­cept of the organic intel­lec­tual. On the one hand, said Hall (I am para­phras­ing him here) we wanted to be at the very fore­front of advanced the­o­ret­i­cal work, to know it “deeply and pro­foundly.” On the other hand we wanted to be able to trans­mit the ideas and knowl­edge being pro­duced by that the­o­ret­i­cal work to polit­i­cal activists who lacked the time or the train­ing to immerse them­selves in the the­ory itself. 

Our goal with the TR was sim­i­lar. We wanted to iden­tify and take what we felt was the best, most advanced Marx­ist think­ing being pro­duced in the world, under­stand its rel­e­vance for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary project in the United States, and then present it in lan­guage acces­si­ble to rank-and-file com­mu­nist mil­i­tants around the coun­try. By explain­ing advanced the­ory and putting it to work answer­ing the burn­ing ques­tions fac­ing the move­ment, we sought to demon­strate its value and rel­e­vance, con­vince other activists of the need to take it seri­ously, and encour­age them to take up its study them­selves.

AH: What did you find use­ful in the­o­rists like Althusser? 

PS: The writ­ings of Louis Althusser were cen­tral to the TR project from the very begin­ning, because he rec­og­nized the cri­sis of Marx­ism, pin­pointed its causes, cor­rectly ori­ented us toward its solu­tion, and pro­vided us with crit­i­cal tools to move for­ward. In regard to each of these ele­ments, he helped us to demar­cate our­selves from much of the rest of the New Com­mu­nist Move­ment.

For the bulk of the NCM, Marx­ism-Lenin­ism was an already fully fin­ished the­o­ret­i­cal sys­tem, suf­fi­cient for guid­ing any rev­o­lu­tion­ary party or group’s under­stand­ing of the world, its strat­egy and tac­tics. Althusser taught us that Marx and Lenin had only laid the foun­da­tions of this the­ory and that, for many long years, start­ing in the 1930s, it had remained stag­nant, fail­ing to keep pace with devel­op­ments in eco­nom­ics, pol­i­tics, ide­ol­ogy, sci­ence, and tech­nol­ogy, and fail­ing to pro­duce new knowl­edge. Not only that, but in the USSR under Stalin (and con­se­quently in much of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nist move­ment), the­ory had been reduced from a guide to prac­tice to lit­tle more than a mode of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion after the fact of what­ever pol­icy had pre­vi­ously been decided upon. Hence the cri­sis in Marx­ism.

The bulk of the NCM denied the cri­sis in Marx­ism, denied that the­ory had stag­nated or been cor­rupted dur­ing the Stalin period, and denied that these prob­lems posed sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for groups try­ing to learn and prac­tice rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism in the US. Accept­ing Althusser’s analy­sis demar­cated the TR from much of the NCM in this regard.

While deny­ing the cri­sis in Marx­ism, the NCM was very clear that there was a cri­sis in the world com­mu­nist move­ment, a cri­sis caused by the aban­don­ment of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary teach­ings of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism in favor of revi­sion­ist and reformist ideas by the Com­mu­nist Party of the USSR and its sup­port­ing par­ties through­out the world. To over­come this cri­sis, to defeat revi­sion­ism, the NCM demanded a return to Marx­ism-Lenin­ism, a return to the strict teach­ings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

Althusser and his assoc­iates taught us that the solu­tion to the twin crises of Marx­ism and the world com­mu­nist move­ment was not to go back­ward but for­ward, not sim­ply to return to the writ­ings of the past but to focus on using the best of the past in the pro­duc­tion of the new. The famous quote from Althusser him­self on the cri­sis of Marx­ism makes this point clearly: “What the end of dog­ma­tism has restored to us is the right to assess exactly what we have, to give both our wealth and our poverty their true names, to think and pose our prob­lems in the open, and to under­take in rigor a true inves­ti­ga­tion.” (For Marx)

We saw the 1976 cri­sis in the NCM which helped launch the TR as a new “end to dog­ma­tism” and we accepted the chal­lenge posed by Althusser: to give the NCM’s wealth and poverty their true names, to pose the prob­lems fac­ing our move­ment clearly and openly, and to use our under­stand­ing of Marx­ism as enriched by Althusser, Gram­sci, Poulantzas, Hall, etc. to rig­or­ously pro­pose solu­tions to them. In tak­ing this approach, we fur­ther demar­cated the TR from much of the NCM.

Our demar­ca­tion from the NCM in rela­tion to the clas­sics of Marx­ism had another dimen­sion as well. For the bulk of the NCM, what­ever Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao wrote, sup­ple­mented by ortho­dox com­men­taries on the same, cer­tain Com­intern texts, etc. was, by def­i­n­i­tion, rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism-Lenin­ism. Althusser, on the other hand, taught us that Marx­ism emerged out of a com­plex web of pre-Marx­ist ide­olo­gies, that its birthing process was a dif­fi­cult and pro­tracted one, and that ves­tiges of its pre-Marx­ist ori­gins (and other for­eign ele­ments that sub­se­quently appeared) remained alongside the ele­ments of the new the­ory as it devel­oped. In par­tic­u­lar, as Marx­ism evolved, it fre­quently found itself think­ing its own new ideas, con­cepts, method­ol­ogy, etc. in pre-Marx­ist lan­guage until it could develop new terms and for­mu­la­tions appro­pri­ate to them (issues of the young vs. the mature Marx, the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break, etc.). As a result, if we wanted to be seri­ous stu­dents of Marx­ism, Althusser insisted, we needed to crit­i­cally read and inter­ro­gate the texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc., just as we would any other writ­ers, to iden­tify and sep­a­rate out the gen­uine ele­ments of the new the­ory from any pre- or non-Marx­ist ele­ments which might also be present.

The bulk of the NCM approached the clas­sics of Marx­ism rev­er­ently and uncrit­i­cally. We took a very dif­fer­ent approach. Accept­ing Althusser’s analy­sis in this regard fur­ther demar­cated the TR from much of the NCM.

Althusser also made impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions to over­com­ing the cri­sis in Marx­ism by pro­vid­ing us with a whole series of new con­cepts and approaches with which to begin to over­come the cri­sis in Marx­ism and to under­stand and apply the the­ory in new and cre­ative ways: over-deter­mi­na­tion, the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice, symp­to­matic read­ing, prob­lem­atic, etc. The value of these con­tri­bu­tions was quickly demon­strated by a host of other the­o­rists and mil­i­tants, who used them to enrich Marx­ist the­ory and pro­duce new knowl­edge in a wide vari­ety of fields. Our use of Althusser’s the­o­ret­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions and the atten­tion we paid to other the­o­rists influ­enced by him also demar­cated us from much of the NCM.



AH: How were your efforts received?

PS: For most of its five-year his­tory as a bi-monthly jour­nal (1977-1983), the TR printed approx­i­mately 2,000 copies of each issue and sold per­haps three quar­ters of them. Given the size of the NCM this was not an insignif­i­cant num­ber. In addi­tion, by 1981, the TR had two edi­to­rial boards (in Tuc­son, Ari­zona and in Boston, Mass­a­chu­setts) and small TR sup­port groups in New York City, New Jer­sey, Boston, Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton DC, Chicago, Min­neapolis, Kansas City, San Fran­cisco, Los Ange­les, and 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.


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.