Letter 2: A Gaping Hole Instead of Partisan Bases
Nine Letters to Our Comrades
by Mike Ely
A painful place to start: The RCP has not developed, ever, a mass partisan political base for revolutionary communist politics anywhere, among any section of the people.
The RCP has no partisan base.
Any synthesis that doesn’t solve this has a gaping hole at its core.
This political current has won recruits, in ones and twos, from people whose life and study gave them a inclination toward communism. But the language and banners of this movement have never connected. Revolutionary communists have never found the ways to fuse revolutionary politics with the aspirations of the masses. They have not created the thousands of “organized ties” or the “political base areas” that they worked for decades to build. The RCP never succeeded in transforming its racial or class composition — it has not trained or recruited significant numbers of new communists from the proletariat and oppressed nationalities despite all the efforts in that direction.
The RCP tried to take up the responsibilities of a vanguard force. But it has never succeeded in becoming a “party” — in the sense of actually leading a section of people that consciously supports its cause. 
Any synthesis that does not solve or even acknowledge these basic problems has a gaping hole at its very core.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) criticizes a trend within the international communist movement (ICM):
“What seems to be their regular routine is not to concentrate on how revolutionary struggle can be developed in one’s country by developing correct strategy and tactics but to talk more of world revolution, enjoy classical debate, eulogize strategy and tactic of the past successful revolutions, teach other fraternal parties as if they know everything about the concrete situation in that country and stick to what Lenin and Mao had said before. This trend represents dogmatism.” 
Dealing with Errors and Failure
Since we are talking bluntly here about failure, we need to talk about context. Reading an essay by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently, I stopped hard on this sentence:
“The greatness of Lenin was that in this catastrophic situation, he wasn’t afraid to succeed — in contrast to the negative pathos discernible in Rosa Luxemburg and Adorno, for whom the ultimate authentic act is the admission of the failure which brings the truth of the situation to light.” 
Yes! There is far too much of this “negative pathos” around, as if we communists should chant, “We’re not worthy,” alongside Wayne and Garth. As if a shuffling, round-shouldered self-hatred would be the only possible proof that we communists “get” the lessons of our own past. That would be exactly wrong.
We need to excavate our shortcomings and listen to the criticism of others. But we will do so because the people of the world need a radically reconceived communist project. They need revolutionary internationalists in the U.S. to do our part well, here and now. We have something worthy to bring to this passage of history. And for that we must emulate Lenin’s hunger to win and his focus on grabbing the chance within the maelstrom.
This is a matter of intention, but not just intention. New truth emerges from the currently inexplicable — after practice reveals fissures in previous conceptions. We are at such a moment, not just around our own specific political practice, but at several levels of the human adventure.
Up Against It
How much of this failure of the RCP comes from the difficult objective conditions in the U.S.? How much is rooted in flaws of the RCP’s line and approach?
We excavate shortcomings because people need a reconceived communist project.
Clearly both are involved and intertwined.
These have been “awful decades” for communist work here. The plunder of a whole world has nurtured a corrupt political stability. The people are deeply affected by illusions, pulls of passivity and dreams of advancing within this system.
Here is one sign that these objective difficulties are very real: The RCP is hardly the only organized trend to have had trouble. No radical, left or revolutionary forces have gotten durable traction since the ‘70s — not revolutionary Black nationalists, not anarchists, not soft-socialist trade union organizers, not the Greens. Various left trends have also had their moments of influence, but all failed to develop ongoing support for their larger programs. Most have fared far worse than the RCP. Oppositional politics has flowed into loose social and cultural movements that are often organized around pressuring for reforms.
The objective conditions are the main reason why there has not been either a mass revolutionary movement or the basis for any actual revolutionary attempts. And these conditions have acted back on the subjective factor (the lines within the party itself) exacerbating now one or another “pull” — sometimes toward non-revolutionary tailing of the mass movements, sometimes toward a sectified acceptance of “puny thinking,” and now increasingly toward rampant wishful thinking.
These are errors made by sincere and dedicated revolutionaries operating under frustrating political conditions — but they are errors nonetheless. While the RCP tried to “wrench” all it could out of each moment — practice has fallen very far short of their hopes, and also — I believe — short of what could have been done with different methods and plans.
There have been long-standing problems of method and approach in the RCP’s work — how it viewed itself, the masses and the revolutionary process — that have all contributed to the overall failure.
Communists have not yet charted the uncharted course.
Communists have not successfully “charted the uncharted course” or mastered how to “do revolutionary work in a non-revolutionary situation.” 
The RCP’s failures in practice were not for lack of trying: This party fought from many sides to create a revolutionary movement around its politics. At one time or another over 35 years, the RCP tried to dig in among industrial workers, farm workers, Black proletarian youth, various immigrant communities, the homeless in major cities, the social movements of radical activists, punk street youth, progressive artists, outraged scientists and more. The party launched itself into militant trade unionism, then later into building proletarian bases around “mass combativity,” and then building broad mass movements around police brutality, imperialist war and the rise of the Christian fascists.
This work was carried out under an evolving strategic plan: In the 1970s, we told ourselves that “taking Marxism-Leninism to the workers is taking it home.” But we discovered that this “home” (among the unionized workers of basic industry) was already well stocked with other ideologies. The workers were apparently quite attached to them. The RCP then concluded that the real home for Marxism was “lower and deeper” in the ranks of the “real proletariat” — who are less privileged and conservatized. 
The RCP’s failures were not for lack of trying.
By 1980, the RCP rejected a previous emphasis on trade union struggles and the workers in heavy industry. It adopted a new central task called “Create Public Opinion, Seize Power” (CPOSP). This was intended to pursue doing “revolutionary work in a non-revolutionary situation” — in preparation for “the Time.”
From the beginning there was tension (and real line struggle) within the framework CPOSP. How much was communist work rooted in agitation and propaganda (centered around the newspaper)? How much was it focused on leading the masses in struggle (along key social faultlines)? How much do we focus on exposing the outrages of this system, and how much on the need for a new system? How does a communist movement accumulate forces, train revolutionary organizers, develop mass organization under communist leadership, and raise consciousness of the need for a new society and change-through-revolution?
There were real controversies over how, and even whether, to use the party’s press among the people. Formally the communist press was seen as the key way of connecting the people to an explicitly communist movement, and “diverting” their understandings. But at various times and places over the decades of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the What-Is-To-Be-Done-ist work around the newspaper took a distant second place behind efforts to lead people in political struggles.
After the late 1980s, and then especially after the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, the party made a series of shifts toward developing base areas among the most oppressed sections of the population — focused on selected housing projects and sweatshop districts. Two things were asserted as part of those shifts: First, that it was important to “come from within.” There had not been much success in acting as “revolutionary ambulance chasers” — showing up as unknowns, with leaflets and newspapers, whenever some atrocity or struggle went down.
Going “lower and deeper” did not solve the problem.
And second there was an emphasis on building the organized “mass combativity” of people — taking the 1917 Viborg district or the Peruvian experiences of Raucana as rough models of how a mass radical oppositional movement could be built  — especially among oppressed youth. This took distance from an early trend toward “advanced actions” where the party and a few individuals combatively stepped out — to burn flags or obstruct the destruction of housing projects — in hopes of inspiring others to follow.
This was a plan to create partisan political base areas — where the party would lead combative mass political struggle, build wisely-constructed party organization around the communist press, and publicly set radical new terms for how people related to each other. And there remained a view of building a broader revolutionary united front — in many ways that would be energized and radicalized around an emerging proletarian core. 
There was much value to this orientation toward the youth, toward the oppressed, toward the protracted work of “coming from within” and toward polarizing society around an emerging revolutionary core.
Experience reveals a continuing gap between communist politics and the advanced.
These changes were an assertion of the importance in accumulating forces, leading struggle and “developing the muscles” of a real social force. And the importance of actually organizing people was incorporated in a new formulation of the central task (in the 2001 draft program): “Create Public Opinion, Seize Power — prepare minds and organize forces for revolution.”
The organizing projects associated with these “shifts” played an important role in training the next generation of communists. But the RCP never succeeded in creating the much-desired base areas for the party’s politics. The U.S. has no Red Wedding District, Raucana, Kreuzberg or Putilov Works.  There were never multiplying circles of newspaper readers creating an ongoing basis for the party’s influence and leadership. 
At the same time, this practical work was never characterized by simple isolation. At times, the RCP has been able to unite with significant numbers of people to wage struggle — from the 1970s coalfields, to antiwar resistance, to the 1990s marches in LA against police brutality. Those have been moments when the “crown lay in the gutter” and a bold political force could give shape to grievances. Still, the influence built around important short-term demands and the “felt needs of the masses” did not develop into a partisan base of support for the party itself or its program of proletarian revolution.
Like it or not, the RCP’s experience reveals a real and continuing gap between communist politics and even the advanced among the masses.
We either bridge that gap or we don’t.
There are significant numbers of people curious about revolutionary politics. We meet them whenever we walk out the door. But even the most
advanced, discontented, restless, conscious sections of the people, even those who CRAVE a revolutionary change, are often not particularly inclined toward a revolutionary communist pole. It is a gap that is objective to us. It has deep roots — in how politics in the U.S. developed, in the international position of U.S. imperialism, in social mobility, in the privatization of American life, in the dynamics of racist oppression — and in the general verdict that alternative societies have sadly “failed.”
This is a gap that a communist movement either learns how to bridge or doesn’t. This needs to be much more deeply summed up in order to be transformed — a process the RCP has shied away from in regard to its own practice.
Real disappointment within the RCP over the protracted failures of base-building encouraged currents of orthodox dogmatism that seemed resigned to puny marginalization — content with political work in tired familiar circles, in ways that never lit the sky or dared to actually lead. It also fanned a tendency to tail whatever promised traction — content to become administrators of mass movements and willing to lower sights in a reformist way. “Build the sea to swim in, bring in an independent role.” Or so it was said in the 1990s — but far too often the second half of that slogan evaporated. An unspoken verdict gained influence: “We have seen all the revolution we are going to see.”
The wind of life gusting around the Mumia campaign, the national movement against police brutality, and the post-911 antiwar activities actually caused intensified stresses. These problems demanded line struggle and new theoretical work — grounded in a materialist accounting of all that previous work. That did not happen. In particular: There has been no summation of the last twenty years of work in building base areas in the “real proletariat” — at least no serious summation known to the membership, or those involved in this work, or that emerged to be discussed as part of the larger Draft Programme process. And silence still surrounds those important experiences. The spiral from theory to practice back to theory has been broken.
No serious known summation of seeking political base areas over 20 years.
In the last few years, a new leading line in the RCP argues that the problem over decades has been that the party (as a whole) was gripped by a “revisionist package,” in opposition to Avakian. The party itself “got in the way” of its own chairman’s ability to reach and transform the masses. Such a simple-but-unlikely explanation makes summation of real work and real shortcomings less necessary.
In theory and practice, this new line has pointed in a very different direction. The old tension between newspaper agitation and leading mass political struggle has been superseded: Both are now overshadowed (and redefined by) the work of promoting Avakian as the central leader of the revolution. Communist work must now be centered around the task of “appreciating, promoting and popularizing this rare, unique and special leader, his body of work, method and approach.”
In the absence of materialist summation, a project of multiple fantasies can take hold. There is the fantasy of “re-polarizing” the society around one leader, linked to other fantasies of “vaulting” to mass influence in a crudely voluntarist way. 
Summing up decades of precious experience is crucial for the forging of new practice and a new communist synthesis. Whoever among us is willing, let’s dig in.
 Lenin remarks in passing that a revolutionary party “will not deserve the name until it learns to bind the leaders with the class and the masses into one single indissoluble whole.” “Left-wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder, marxists.org
 The Worker 10, May 2006, “International Dimension Of Prachanda Path” by Basanta. I believe this comment is directed at Avakian’s method and approach.
 Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates, Verso, 2002. The “catastrophic situation” he mentions is the disaster that enveloped Europe during World War 1 – including the collapse of widespread belief in linear progress, and the continent-wide failure of Social Democracy.
 The new communist movement that emerged in the U.S. after the 1960s was often gripped by the notion of emulating the methods and strategies from a “good period” of the old Communist Party. By 1980, after external experience and internal struggle, the RCP summed up that the road to revolution in countries like the U.S. had not ever been developed by the previous communist movement. The task of “charting the uncharted course” remained an immediate theoretical challenge for communists.
The Report of the RCP’s 1980 Central Committee meeting said:
“The general question here is one of rising to the tasks that are required of our party, rising to the unprecedented task of carrying out a revolution in an advanced imperialist country like this. To rise to this task means that we have to destroy still further remnants of economism, remnants of 40 years and more of revisionism in the international communist movement. But even that is not enough, because destroying all this is inseparably linked with making further advances in the revolutionary science and its application.” (See Charting the Uncharted Course – Proletarian Revolution in the U.S., pamphlet, 1981)
 This was a central thesis of the 1980 Central Committee report (published as Charting the Uncharted Course – Proletarian Revolution in the U.S.).
 Viborg was a working class neighborhood that had been an important early center of Menshevik organization, but developed into a key political base area of the Bolshevik Party for launching the 1917 October Revolution in St. Petersburg. Raucana was a shantytown outside Lima that became a militant political base area of Peru’s Maoists during the 1980s and 1990s.
 At the time, Avakian and the RCP spoke about what was needed in order to “really have a basis for making a Beginning”:
“These can be called the ‘three needs’ (or the ‘three what-do-we-needs’). These are: (1) A revolutionary movement and a politicized, radicalized atmosphere among our social base, the proletarian masses; and in society generally; (2) A strong party organization and a solid organized base of support for the party, especially among the most bedrock solid social base, and (3) Leaps in forging the multinational unity of the proletariat and leaps in forging the solid core of the broader united front, under proletarian leadership.” (Bob Avakian, “Some Thoughts,” Revolution magazine, Summer/Fall 1988)
This issue of Revolution is a good place to get a sense of the RCP’s political line at that point. It goes on to say that other strata in society need to “see a revolutionary movement with a conscious political expression — not an ‘intellectualized’ political expression, but a conscious, clear political revolutionary thrust — coming out of our basic social base.” That is in sharp contrast to the current line.
 The Wedding District was a famous, pro-communist, working class neighborhood in 1920s Berlin. Kreuzberg is a district in Berlin where radical immigrant workers and native-born German radicals created a revolutionary mix starting in the 1980s.The Putilov factory complex in early 1900 St. Petersburg emerged as an important political fortress for the Bolshevik revolution.
 These problems emerged early in the effort. By 1989, Avakian was mentioning arguments (arising from within the party) that “we’re making no real progress among the basic masses so even if the situation should erupt we would be totally unprepared and it would be a disaster.” This was discussed in “Making New Leaps in Preparing for Revolution” (Revolution Spring 1990). It was a rare public acknowledgement of the problems, shortly before the party would launch renewed efforts in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion.
 Voluntarism is thinking you can overcome problems and obstacles based on will and subjective desire. It is an underestimation of the need to systematically transform material constraints and necessity — and (as part of that) carefully identify necessary stages, prerequisites and (of course) openings.
Published: December 2007Available online at mikeely.wordpress.comSend comments to: kasamasite (at) yahoo (dot) comFeel free to reprint, distribute or quote with attribution to Mike Ely and a link.This website and all contents are licensed under a
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