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|Progressive Labor Party|
|Leader||Central Committee and leaders of local collectives|
|Headquarters||Brooklyn, New York|
|International affiliation||USA; various countries in central and South America; Greece; Pakistan; West Bank; others (?)|
|Progressive Labor Party|
|Leader||Central Committee and leaders of local collectives|
|Headquarters||Brooklyn, New York|
|International affiliation||USA; various countries in central and South America; Greece; Pakistan; West Bank; others (?)|
The Progressive Labor Party (originally the Progressive Labor Movement and often referred to as PL) is a transnational communist party based primarily in the United States. It was formed in the fall of 1961 by members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) who felt that the Soviet Union had betrayed communism and become revisionist and state capitalist. Founders also felt that the CPUSA was adopting unforgivably reformist positions, such as peaceful coexistence, turning to electoral politics and hiding communist politics behind a veneer of reform-oriented causes.
The party advocates a "fight directly for communism" political stance that includes limited aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat but virulently rejects the standard conception of the socialist economic transition-stage as a mistake of the 'old movement'. Its revolution would be followed immediately by a working class-ruled, moneyless society, with policy to be administered by hundreds of millions of workers through Party locals worldwide, coordinated through several tiers of membership meetings and forums. It hopes to recruit these numbers "before the revolution", a phrasing they use to provide contrast to what they say was the habit of past communist parties to recruit the mass of its members during and after their revolutions, the latter of which they consider a failed strategy. The party has also stated numerous times and in numerous contexts, mostly in regards to lesser evil, how "workers must never again share power with class enemies" the way they did during the original movement.
Accordingly, PLP's greatest point of pride is how much it considers itself to have evolved in a positive direction away from the old communist movement. It constantly criticizes many aspects of the history of communism, and also criticizes itself in relation to how closely current policies may resemble past failed ones, which it calls "right opportunism." While still taking cues from the past revolutionaries it admires, the party sees itself as being at the forefront of a new type of working class communist liberation that will truly carry the revolution through to fruition for the first time. It also espouses a unique approach to the issue of the Communist International, saying that instead of separate communist parties in each country, the revolutionary organization should be one monolithic, multiracial, cross-cultural PLP, with branches and collectives all over the globe.
To accomplish its goal of communism, the party feels it first must recapture the power and influence that the 1930s-era CPUSA once had — i.e., being the largest and most politically influential communist party in the country — and to combine that influence with its mix of New Left-tinged communist thinking, thereby making a new "mass party of the working class" that can gain momentum across the entire world.
In spite of this revolutionary fervor however, PLP's most recent self-assessment of its political line is noticeably reflective, and even somewhat sober, stating that "[t]he most significant error our Party made was to underestimate the significance of the old movement’s collapse." The party praises its own 1980s analysis as what enabled them to be 'advanced' enough to survive the dissolution of the Soviet Union, alleging that "these advances were vital ideological contributions to the arsenal of revolutionary communism." But while "we correctly identified the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and China" (see Chinese economic reform and peaceful coexistence for what is meant here), the party says that through the years its own ranks "failed...to understand the devastating consequences that this development would have on the revolutionary process world wide and the new life it would breathe into U.S. imperialism. In the decade and a half since the Soviet Union’s voluntary break-up, U.S. rulers have received a blank check to wreak murder and mayhem in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. The end of socialism, and the...removal of the USSR as a key rival imperialist superpower, also enabled the U.S. rulers to dodge many of capitalism’s inevitable contradictions. Even more critical," the party writes, "it has had a chilling effect on class struggle all over the world." It is perhaps clear via this document that the extent of PL's "long-range view" for communist revolution is much longer now than at any time in the past.
As it broke away from the CPUSA amidst the Sino-Soviet Split, PL made it clear that it wanted to advocate communist revolution openly and aggressively among the working class. Recruitment increased as the Civil Rights Movement intensified: though it started as several score based on the East Coast early on, the group then became inspired enough by the Cuban Revolution to end up with many of its student-aged members going to Havana to break the travel ban. Defiance of the ban resulted in a congressional investigation before the House Un-American Activities Committee at which the students banged on desks and heckled HUAC, shouting pro-communist slogans and generally causing too much disruption for the proceedings to continue. These actions prompted protests from other groups that would ultimately destroy HUAC's ability to hold hearings at all.
PL also founded the university campus-based May 2 Movement (M2M), which organized the first significant general march against the Vietnam War in New York City in 1964. But once the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) came to the forefront of the U.S. leftist activist political scene in 1965, PLP dissolved M2M and entered SDS, working vigorously to attract supporters and to form party clubs on campuses. By 1965 PL had also attracted sufficient membership that it changed its designation from 'Movement' to 'Party'.
Within a few years, the nascent party had become the largest communist faction within SDS and a major player in the student movement's internal politics. Their politics were received with either disgust or admiration within SDS, but no one denied their massed presence and vigorous work in working-class neighborhoods. When a New York City Police Department policeman, Gilligan, killed an unarmed black youth in Harlem, the neighborhood erupted in intense violence, and PLP led these riots and its leaders were arrested and arraigned for this activity. Against that politically polarizing backdrop, and within the already intense worldwide movement against social injustice, various anti-PLP SDS factions took to developing their own interpretations of communist ideology and formed what it named the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), while PL, in its own right, was busy organizing its supporters into their Worker Student Alliance (WSA) from 1966 to 1969. The competing SDS factions did not get along peacefully; clashes between them were chronic and bitter, and would ultimately result in an irrevocable split of SDS into separate organizations and, shortly thereafter, the expiration of SDS itself.
By the middle of the 1960s the party was arguing that its experiences from the Harlem rebellion onward had slowly convinced them to abandon advocacy of ethnic nationalism as a politically appropriate route to workers seizing state power, but it did not set out this new conviction in official Party doctrine until 1969, when it came out openly with an organization-wide document called Revolutionaries Must Fight Nationalism. This document, immediately controversial, reached the conclusion that all nationalism, both nation-state-based nationalism and ethnic nationalism among oppressed minorities, was ultimately reactionary — that it was akin to identity politics at home, like with the Black Panther Party, and weakened any communist character of what they termed as "national-liberation struggles abroad", like with the Vietnam War.
The new position was greeted with open hostility and even rage among most of the non-PLP-supporting SDS, especially RYM, who interpreted it as anti-working class and even implicitly racist and refused to accept it. RYM thought that PL was categorically rejecting the political right of groups of everyday people to self-determination. PL's attempted explanations that it was the political, not the personal, side of nationalism that it was rejecting were also refused by their opposition. The rage on RYM's end and continued defense of the position on PL's end could not, and did not, hold SDS together for long.
In the end, the PL/WSA wing did indeed win majority support at the 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago. RYM, as it turned out, had teamed with the Black Panther Party to engage in deceptive tactics in the conference which deflated their political reputation and lessened the political impact of the split. However, the Weatherman organization still successfully usurped the SDS name and public face through 1970 despite its defeat at the conference, and retained control of the SDS National Office until it decided to dissolve it, close the headquarters, and break off to become a violently revolutionary organization on its own. PLP alone ultimately did not have the strength to lead the SDS chapters it had successfully kept going, and so its wing buckled and collapsed a few years later — although not before a new group, the Committee Against Racism (CAR), was formed to replace it. CAR was composed at first of mostly WSA student members and the black and Hispanic workers in the off-campus neighborhoods that had been recruited to WSA; over time it expanded somewhat and also founded chapters in other countries.
Even so, the general crisis of the entire United States New Left by 1975 only accelerated the eventual failure of PLP's ability to hold on to the SDS name and orientation. As tensions increased, PLP's remaining campus members and supporters were known to engage in particularly heated shouting matches and even occasional mutually provoked fistfights with Weathermen and the Young Lords, as well as other smaller groups that would occasionally try to intimidate them, like the early grouping led by Lyndon LaRouche. Also, the party experienced internal split-offs; several significant PLP collectives left as the 1970s progressed. While not reduced to being inoperable or insignificant, it shrank and became more fractious even as it ratcheted up its work. According to this chronology, "the majority of the Boston chapter had left [PLP] in 1974" and in April 1977 "70% of the Bay Area chapter of PLP" also left the organization, "just about the only remaining one with significant mass work" (O'Brein, Five Retreats). Meanwhile, some of the party's more widely influential members drifted away as well, including Bill Epton, PLP's vice chairman and Harlem branch leader, who presumably could not reconcile his own politics to that of PLP's rejection of nationalism in 1969.
Though in the 1960s PL was widely regarded as the torch-bearer of Maoism within SDS, it had never really seen itself as a hard-line follower of Mao Zedong; indeed, even early on, PLP's political line differed sharply from Maoism on fundamental points. It was briefly the subsidized fraternal party to China, but broke that relationship in 1967 and reacted particularly harshly to the news of Mao meeting with President Richard Nixon in 1972, denouncing Mao as revisionist. Claims to Maoism in the United States thereafter passed to other groups, most notably the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. Briefly in the early 1970s, PLP continued to offer limited tacit support to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in a fraternal party relationship.
In the early 1980s the party went beyond opposing nationalism and began to more aggressively develop new political positions that were radically different from any other known version of Marxism-Leninism. Chief among these was the argument that socialism, the accepted transition-phase between capitalism and communism in Marxist theory, was the primary reason behind the reversal of workers' power in the Soviet Union and China and should be abandoned. While seeming excessively radical to some, this position in fact flowed logically from the party's prior rejection of Mao's concept of New Democracy, dismissed by the party as a reactionary "three-stage theory" of first New Democracy, then socialism, then communism. With PLP's subsequent rejection of the socialist stage as equally unnecessary and reactionary, PL's proletarian struggle was reframed as a "fight directly for communism" wherein these intermediate stages would be shunned in favor of widespread understanding and acceptance of fully communist ideology among the masses from the outset.
To PLP, such a strategy of mass participation in communist politics necessitates that current party members build true, deep, honest friendships with workers, rather than viewing such workers simply as potential recruits. In this vein, it advocates "basebuilding," meaning that members should get stable jobs that keep them in touch with the working class — teaching in public school as opposed to private, for example, or working in a welfare office instead of a day spa — and should enjoy everyday lives while gradually attempting to win their co-workers, friends and family to respect and join the party.
In terms of its organization, the party has replaced the classic "cadre" conception of a communist party with that of a "mass party", by which it means that the party should not be an elite of "professional revolutionaries" but should be composed of, by, and for the whole working class, where everyone has full knowledge and appreciation of communist principles and action so that they do not allow the party leadership structure to become corrupt. It is one of only a few US-based communist parties to both explicitly struggle towards (in speech and writing) and contain (in its membership and leadership ranks) a multiracial and even majority-nonwhite membership. PL says it believes that revolutionaries cannot claim anti-racism without putting it into explicit practice in their own ranks. Its recruitment strategies within the US typically tend to focus on impoverished and semi-impoverished working-class neighborhoods with majority black and Hispanic inhabitants. In general, very little attention is paid to recruiting members out of general conglomerations like anti-war or G20 demonstrations and the like— while it is true that PLP politically has no particular opposition to recruiting from within the activist community, many of its members and leaders seem to dislike it and to refer to it as, at best, not very fruitful, and at worst as a total waste of time much better spent on working full-time with inner-city workers and youth.
Members are cautioned not to necessarily expect revolution in their lifetimes, but to build for it anyway, so that the working class has the largest and deepest collective participation in revolutionary communist activity and ideas by the time circumstances for such a revolution are ripe. The party still sees the need for a Red Army and an armed populace to defend the new communist society they envision from attack by resurgent ruling classes, and they utilize the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" to refer to this necessity. But since it rejects the socialism stage of communist "struggle", PLP's usage of the term today differs starkly from usage by other communist groups, who generally consider the dictatorship of the proletariat to be synonymous with the classic conception of socialism.
Other than its fight directly for a communist political and economic system, perhaps the biggest change to come from its steep changes in political line is PLP's current belief in a complete and total abolition of money and the wage system immediately upon the seizure of state power by the working class. After PLP's revolution, cash and credit money and all forms of market-based and profit-based exchanges of all types would immediately cease (or if the world were already in shambles due to world war, would simply not be restarted). Members argue that wage differences based on type of work and the retention of a certain amount of competitiveness and elitism under socialism was what led it to turn back into capitalism with time. They see the immediate abolition of money, wages, and other market society elements as an approach that would more easily enable workers to adopt a sense of communist culture, ethics, and morality. Meanwhile, PL fiercely opposes the Theory of Productive Forces espoused by past communists, which it points out placed more emphasis on achieving abundance in socialist societies than it did on actually winning the working class to communist ideology and practice, particularly in the cases of the Great Leap Forward and the Five Year Plans. PLP argues that communism should have been the glue that held these societies together, rather than abundance. In part, the party states:
Who is to say what "abundance" really is? Many working-class people in the U.S. probably live at a higher standard of living than Marx might have predicted -- better health care, longer life span, shorter workday, indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, etc. All of those material things constitute "abundance" on one level, yet we know that it is not enough, because we know of the potential for a better world. We also know that most of the world doesn't even have a fraction of what many U.S. workers have. But even if the whole world lived at this relatively "abundant" level, we would still be fighting to smash the system. The "abundance" by itself does not, and cannot, eliminate selfishness and class divisions.
PLP thinks of itself as having been born out of "the struggle against revisionism" and from that mindset takes several interesting positions regarding the 20th-century communist movement. They believe that the political and economic choices of Joseph Stalin extend back to Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy and were ultimately endemic to the Soviet Union's entire history — i.e., the history of socialism and its concessions to capitalism, which in PLP's view cannot lead to communism. Therefore, they say, regardless of the leader in question, and regardless of whether or not s/he made good political advances in the country or towards the communist movement as a whole (which they believe Stalin did, especially against the Nazis), mistakes were made that were common to all of those leaders, because the faulty theory of socialism was common to all of them. PLP attacks the cult of personality and any "Great Leader" status as anti-working class, and pledges that the elimination of the socialist stage, the retention of the armed dictatorship of the working class to defend against a comeback by the ruling classes, and "confidence in the working class" from the beginning that they can fully understand and utilize openly communist ideas collectively, without having to look to a great figure (or figures) for guidance, will signal much deeper and more profound strides towards communism than socialism could ever have hoped to achieve.
Like virtually all groups descended from Maoism, however, the party supports a positive interpretation of Stalin's legacy. Most members, while allowing that "errors" were made, expressly deny the view of him by mainstream scholars as mass murderer and tyrant, claiming that his leadership helped defeat fascism, that the numbers killed by the policies in his era were far fewer than the many millions widely accepted, and that the rest resulted from a combination of the Russian Civil War, famine, and World War II. Typically, PLP also defends killings unrelated to these factors as ultimately justified to protect the Soviet Union's proletarian dictatorship against spies, Fifth column elements, counterrevolutionaries, and other class enemies. It should again be noted, though, that PLP sees the "lessons" it takes from the past (and the past itself) as only a general blueprint from which to construct a revolution in the future, not as a political safety-net in which to take refuge. In keeping with their Maoist roots, PLP emphasizes action over theory, with study of the latter being education for the former. In this way, they claim to be 'forward-thinking' in ways that other communist groups with similar roots, in their opinion, are not.
United front and popular front strategies, members say, have been proven wrong despite all valiant attempts to make them work by forces genuinely fighting for communism; they say that such forces' alliances with "lesser-evil" bosses and/or fake-left groups for short-term gains has been one of the main weaknesses of the old communist movement. They cite as evidence for this the fall of the Spanish Civil War to the fascists and the assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile, among other examples. So, rather than focus energy on participation in (or creation of) leftist coalitions, as it sees most other groups claiming Marxism doing, PL prefers to steadily strengthen its own political standing and recruitment via its basebuilding strategy.
On the circumstances that would lead to revolution, PLP looks at the world situation believing that the primary contradiction today is—unfortunately—between various groups of competing imperialists for world domination, or "inter-imperialist rivalry," rather than between workers and bosses, or (as Maoists claim) between imperialism and national-liberation movements. It recognizes the weakness of the radical left at the present stage in history and notes that nationalism has presently replaced communism as the driving force in the worldwide popular left. But the PLP simultaneously sees an inexorable economic and political decline of the U.S. versus other capitalist powers, like China and the European Union (EU), and dwindling of necessary imperial resources around the world like oil. The party thinks that cutthroat competition over such resources will inevitably lead to a third world war. They assert that such a war, while it will bring much suffering and death for workers, will also be the catalyst for a great new communist revolution, provided enough people are won to the party's ideas before and during such a conflict.
In line with its anti-nationalist politics, while firmly denouncing the "fascist" policies of the State of Israel, the party also criticizes both the Palestinian intifada and the Iraqi insurgency because of what it sees as these movements' reactionary nature; that the most they will do is put another capitalist government in power and establish new domination by local bosses, and dependency on non-US imperialists such as the European Union.
And in response to the current worldwide economic crisis, the party has continued its overall fight against the ideas and policies of the US ruling class, organizes workers into mainstream unions from which it then tries to lead wildcat strikes, berates cops and community policing strategies, and unreservedly criticizes US President Barack Obama for being yet another example of the rulers fooling the people with an impressive-seeming figurehead, in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton (the latter of whose "workfare" policies it had mercilessly blasted as racist "slave labor").
PL upholds what some might consider a purist vision of a mass-based communism, one that it claims was the true spirit of the Cultural Revolution sabotaged by Mao's cult of personality, reactionary elements within the Communist Party of China, and Mao's own political weaknesses. It believes it "stands on the shoulders of giants" but can also learn a lot from their mistakes, "to get it right the next time."
Despite the nature and intensity of its work and the fact that it sees itself as advocating a new type of communism inspired by but still separate from the old, the party has remained small throughout its history, staying relatively stable at an estimated few thousand active members, and neither gaining nor losing significant numbers along the way. Because of internal PLP security, it is not possible to get a public declaration of whether the estimate of a few thousand members includes members in countries other than the U.S. or members in the military forces and other non-public work. Generally, there is a consensus among members that "members lists", or even a general knowledge of specific or general membership size among participants, is both unnecessary and dangerous to the party's internal security in relation to law enforcement under capitalism. It would seem recently, however, that PLP has begun to increase its international work as it continues to face what it acknowledges is a comparatively stagnant and underdeveloped working-class militancy situation in the United States, and also amidst its own continued lack of steady growth in party membership even as it passes the 50-year anniversary of the original PLM's formation.
The party makes a point of celebrating May Day with public marches every year. Historically it held its own marches, on the Saturday closest to the first day of May, to accommodate 5-day-per-week working schedules. This closest-Saturday tradition meant that PL's May Day rally sometimes, but not often, fell on 1 May itself. Today, however, PLP has largely melted itself into the more general immigrants rights-centered International Workers Day marches which claim themselves (since the first such event, in 2006) to be part of a rebirth of an International Workers Day celebration in the United States. PL often marches in these situations the same way they tend to march at rallies they organize themselves — chanting loudly for communist revolution and forming a sea of red flags. Members chiefly claim that involving themselves in the more general marches, rather than hosting their own, gives them more maneuverability, and also more visibility, amongst the larger segments of the working class. Both the historical party-run marches from the 1970s through the early 2000s (decade), and the current marches in which the party now participates as contingents, have always largely been in its most active cities for political activity and recruitment — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. However, smaller supporting May Day marches sometimes have occurred in less prominent cities and towns. Globally, PLP supporters typically take part in the rest of the world's much larger May Day events as contingents.
It is unknown whether PL has played anywhere near a large enough part in the recent global left-wing Occupy movements to have an impact within that movement under the Party banner; nor is anything similar clear regarding the 2011 Wisconsin protests or the other similar protests responding to parallel initiatives by other US state governors. Their political line would necessitate an assumption on the part of the general public that PL would at least be active enough in the participant unions themselves as members to make some kind of a political impact on the individual or small group level, perhaps recruiting individual union members to participate in and perhaps join the party and/or participate in party marches and rallies; however, despite this strategy being their modus operandi in basebuilding, there is no objective evidence to support any theorized sense of accomplishment.
What is known more solidly is yet-more political theory: In late February 2011 upon the 2011 Egyptian revolution, PL published a fiercely supportive reaction and also called the mainstream media's characterisation of the revolution as nonviolent "lies", asserting instead that revolutionary violence and even a quasi-communistic or at least genuinely populist spirit saturated the entire process. It therefore seems apparent that PL does support the overall people power spirit of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen etc., even while at the same time (and in characteristic fashion) it qualifies its support somewhat with their classic worry that these revolutions will be quickly co-opted by the forces of the ruling elite and/or that full-fledged capitalism will be inevitably (re)established and popular control and collective self-determination will fade.
The party still vociferously pursues activities opposing racism, some of which are quite militant, even if not all such activities cross the line into violence (which some do). Members who work as teachers, for instance, target policies in the schools that they consider racist, single them out for being so, and sometimes try to launch campaigns involving both teachers and students to oppose those measures (such as metal detectors in schools, or increased police presence in front of or inside school buildings). In society more generally, the party claims that the best way to consistently and tangibly prove its anti-racist nature, given that it does not support ethnic nationalism, is to fight racism physically, through direct action. It led a street battle in Boston in 1975 that broke apart the briefly influential mass anti-desegregation busing group Restore Our Alienated Rights, and repeatedly targeted Arthur Jensen and similar scientific racists through the 1990s, particularly once The Bell Curve came into vogue. The PLP front group International Committee Against Racism (InCAR) at an academic conference in 1977 famously poured a pitcher of water on sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's head while chanting "Wilson, you're all wet". In the 1980s the Ku Klux Klan told the Hartford Courant that "it's because of those commies in InCAR and PLP that our boys are afraid to come out in public wearing their hoods." In 1999, when the KKK tried to hold a rally in Manhattan, a member (misidentified in the media as public school teacher Harvey Mason, but actually public school teacher Derek Pearl) made headlines by infiltrating the Klan members' protest space and using it to punch a Grand Dragon in the face. More recently PLP has also targeted the Minuteman Project and Save Our State.
Today, at least in the United States, the party continues to be most widely known among the general public for its wilfully confrontational and often violent stance of militant anti-fascism against Klan and Nazi groups. Whenever an organized opposition to a racist or fascist rally has not yet been planned, PL will often organize and lead one. The party takes open and intense pride in being the "only organization publicly known for advocating both communism and militancy" in the US. It is also active in anti-police brutality work, public health, public schools, and various types of basic industry, including Boeing. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 in Washington, D.C. had an open PLP member who was its president for one term and, though he has since retired, for many years exercised substantial leadership and influence in the Local.
PL's biweekly newspaper is Challenge and the parallel Spanish language counterpart Desafío, as well as a semi-annual theoretical magazine, The Communist. In particular, the party's 2005 document Dark Night Shall Have Its End is said to be the most up-to-date representation of overall Party political thought; prior to this, its Road To Revolution documents had acted in that manifesto-type capacity. The party has not published a new Road To Revolution document with party-wide endorsement since Road To Revolution IV in 1982, which marked the start of its pledge to "fight directly for communism" and disown the idea of socialism. There still exists a Road To Revolution 4.5 published in 1996, but support for this document has in recent years been withdrawn by the majority of leading PLP political figures and its contents have been disavowed.
Klehr, Harvey (1990) Far Left of Center: The American Radical Left. New York: Transaction Publishers. p. 88.