As Marxists (and avid students of Lenin), we have a generally more favorable view of ML “political line” than that of social democracy or anarchism. By “political line”, we mean the ML theoretical framework and historical analysis, such as its conception of the State, view on national oppression, appraisal of which countries are socialist, etc. However, we must consider the significance of “line” in the context of the organizational and strategic shortcomings we outlined above.
The correctness or otherwise of the ideological and political line decides everything. When the Party’s line is correct, then everything will come its way. If it has no followers, then it can have followers; if it has no guns, then it can have guns; if it has no political power, then it can have political power. If its line is not correct, even what it has it may lose. The line is a net rope. When it is pulled, the whole net opens out.
— Mao Zedong, Talks With Responsible Comrades At Various Places During Provincial Tour (1971)
With this dictum, New Communist Movement radicals felt they were given carte blanche to place absolute emphasis on their “party line” and their ideas, fuelling sectarian hostilities between groups. It became a rallying cry, “quoted endlessly” by the dogmatist party-building efforts of the NCM1. This hyper-focus on “line” has not died out with time.
An emphasis on line and on certain historical positions is central to the way that today’s ML groups practice democratic centralism. “Freedom of discussion, unity of action” has a different meaning if we, like today’s ML groups, apply it not just to strategy and tactics, but foremost to ideas and “positions”. In this context, “freedom of discussion” means freedom to debate about which ideas are the correct ideas, and “unity of action” must necessarily mean that once the debate is had, everyone must agree to the same ideas. This was a common practice during the NCM:
[M]ost groups gave high priority to consolidating the membership around the organization’s line. After a group passed through its formative stage, its leaders typically monitored every nuance of base activists’ views. When they noticed a member with differing opinions, it was not uncommon to make detailed plans for dinners, informal late night chats and, if necessary, full-blown struggle sessions to bring that person into line. Largely through such means a stress on unity of thought and not simply unity in action became dominant. This was not written down in official documents, which mostly repeated formulas about individuals’ right to argue for dissenting views as long as they followed proper channels and maintained unity in action. But after a few free-wheeling years, such flexibility existed mostly on paper. Dissenters were either brought into line, pressured to quit, or expelled.2
Of course “unity of action” is required when carrying out a strategy or tactic; to do otherwise would be organizational self-sabotage. This sense of “unity of action” is understood by any group that attempts to carry out a democratically agreed upon action. But none of this implies that every member must have the same ideas or the same interpretation of the strategy. This is an idealist misunderstanding of the original formulation.
Consolidating an organization around its political line, when coupled with the type of “democratic centralism” practiced by these groups, leads to unhelpful practices such as the prohibition of public disagreement on line. But what is the practical value in having to “keep quiet” on internal disagreements, especially on historical or international topics that have very little direct bearing on our practical tasks as it stands (such as whether China is socialist)? Or on relevant modern theoretical questions which do not have a definitive answer yet? We do not see the value in pretending to agree with an organization’s political line publicly. It may even be deceptive or dishonest in organizing spaces. Further, even if these positions turn out to be “correct”, it does not automatically follow that building organizational independence around them is strategic.
This method, and a hyper-focus on line in general, stifles discussion between comrades across organizational lines, leading to lack of openness to criticism and debate among MLs. When was the last time an ML paper published two opposing views or a comradely criticism of another group3? These things can and should be a healthy feature of the socialist ecosystem as we strive to get our bearings for the first time in decades. We believe that open dialogue not only with other MLs but with other trends entirely can only strengthen the socialist movement.
The consolidation of U.S. ML organizations around political line is directly related to their deficiencies in practice. In one sense, U.S. MLism is focused on “politics”: WWP, PSL, etc. are hailed primarily for their “political positions” with respect to historical and current events (who is socialist, who is worthy of support, etc.). In another sense, though, this approach is profoundly apolitical. It is apolitical in that it is defined by ideas, not practice and strategy. The Marxist Theory of Knowledge teaches us that practice is the sole criterion of truth. Not internal consistency, not logical proof. So what does it mean for a trend to be defined by its theory rather than its practice?
We believe the conception of “line” as an end in itself is detrimental to both theory and practice. Placing importance on “line” in this way severs theory from practice by suggesting that theory can be “correct” without practice. This is an impossibility, as the “correctness” of theory is defined foremost by its practical results. This focus on “line” is often justified by the idea that without “correct line”, an organization or movement will necessary degenerate into reformism or bourgeois ideology. However, we believe that the examples of the CPUSA in the 1940s and the rise of Eurocommunism suggest that having a rigid political line does not prevent degeneration. If there is any organizational form or political line that is immune from degeneration, we believe that it has yet to be discovered. Further, we believe that having good theory is not synonymous with having highly specific positions on historical questions.
More and more communists are being educated through the internet, whether that be through Twitter or marxists.org. While having centuries of communist thought at one’s fingertips is no doubt a progressive development, this style of education, disconnected from practice, can have a negative effect on political education. Internet communists learn Leninism as a set of “positions” on historical and modern events, or at worst, a set of dogmas and truisms. Then, new “converts” to MLism (or any other tendency) seek an “affinity group” (almost like a hobby club), and naturally look to WWP, PSL, and FRSO due to their “positions”. Strategy and tactics are rarely brought up in online communities, if at all; it is enough that they have the “correct line” on whether this or that country is socialist, or which forces are deserving of our support in certain conflicts, etc. It is taken as a given that joining the organization with the most similar positions as one’s own is the correct strategic move. We believe this lack of critical thought around what sort of political unity is necessary in this juncture fails to account for the nascent character of the socialist movement as well as the primacy of practice over ideology.
There is hardly ever any talk of strategy in these online circles, just events and political actors and whether they’re “good” or “bad”, whether we should “uphold” or “denounce” something. Not only is it an idealist way to think (because it’s disconnected from concrete struggle) but it’s also a moralistic one: if you don’t “uphold” Bashar al-Assad, you’re “no better than the State Department”, despite the fact that “uphold” in this context means little more than voicing support. The fact of the matter is that without mass organizational structure, we cannot do much of anything to materially support any actors in any international conflict. So the question of whether we should “support” the Syrian government, or the protesters in Iran, is just an intellectual exercise if it is disconnected from our concrete struggles. Not that we should not talk about these questions, but our emphasis should be on building working-class power at home so that our opinions even matter.
This type of behavior is a broader online trend of treating MLism (or any other leftist tendency) as an identity or aesthetic rather than a political worldview and methodology. This can in part be explained by internet culture, the cultivation of a personal “brand”, and the individualism rampant on social media. More broadly this conception of a sort of “fandom” of Marxism-Leninism is likely related to neo-liberalism’s ability to re-appropriate even the most well-intentioned radical sentiments.
In summary, the idea that U.S. MLism is superior to other tendencies due solely to its “line” is fundamentally flawed because it severs theory from practice and reduces Marxism into a set of opinions (or moral judgements) on historical and current events and actors. This approach empties Marxism of its revolutionary character as a guide to practical activity and instead turns it into an identity or dogma. This represents a failure to fully break from the liberal conception of politics as a list of personal opinions rather than a worldview that allows us to analyze and (more importantly) change the world. Given that, if we are honest, we do not yet have a “readymade” Marxism to simply “apply” to the United States in 2018, we feel that organizational independence around a specific tendency (in this case, Marxism-Leninism) is premature and stifles theoretical development. We believe it would be a positive development if the ML trend instead placed strategy and tactics within the larger movement at the center of its discourse.