Marxist-Leninist Organizer
May, 1998

The Theory of Spontaneity
and the Need for a Marxist-Leninist Party

Talk at a forum sponsored by Marxist-Leninist Organizer in New York City in February, 1998 (edited slightly for publication)

Marxist-Leninist Organizer has already discussed some very basic points of unity that we see necessary to form a genuine communist party in the United States. We see the need to put forth the dictatorship of the proletariat as the aim of the revolution in the United States at this stage, not just some vague talk of socialism in general. We see as extremely important for developing a class point of view that in general there should be no support given to the capitalist parties, particularly the Democrats and the Republicans. We discussed the need to win the working class to Marxism-Leninism as a political outlook. In regard to these issues, we have criticized the opportunist views of the two main parties in the U.S., the Communist Party and Workers World Party. These are the main questions that we have already dealt with in our written material, so I am not going to repeat them here.(1)

What I do want to deal with here is the theory of spontaneity, which is a factor that has been crucial in keeping many people who are sympathetic to our goals and points of unity from joining with us. These people think that such a party will spontaneously develop out of the mass movement, and that political consciousness develops spontaneously from participating in the mass movement. We will also show how the two main parties, the CP and WWP, themselves tail the spontaneous movement.

We are currently seeing some elements of a revival of the spontaneous mass movement in the United States, particularly in the trade union movement. All the various parties and organizations that call themselves Marxist have dealt with that, particularly since the UPS strike last summer. However, praising this movement is not sufficient for Marxists. The trade union movement has made certain advances, but not in a sustained manner: it is not yet a broad upsurge. This is mainly due to the stifling role of the trade union bureaucrats, who want to keep it at the lowest level possible, who do not even want a mass movement on immediate demands. It is certainly also due to government attacks, such as the Clinton administration's response to the UPS strike of invalidating the election for leadership of the Teamster's Union and deciding that Ron Carey cannot even run again. This is obviously a direct response by the government to the success of the strike. The working class as a whole is not yet geared politically to respond to this.

There has also been a revival of the movement whose main strength is among the oppressed nations and national minorities. This can be seen in the struggle against police terror (which took on massive forms in New York City last summer with the response to the police attack on Abner Louima), the struggle to free political prisoners, the revival of the Black Panther Collective, etc. This movement is also in the beginnings of an upsurge, but does not yet have the sustained mass participation of the movement of the late 1960s and early '70s, though it has a great potential.

The question at hand, however, is not the mass movement as such but what is the attitude that Marxists should take towards this movement? In terms of the relation between the mass movement and politically conscious organization, Lenin pointed out, in What Is To Be Done, during a period of revival of the mass movement in Russia: "the strength of the present-day movement lies in the awakening of the masses (principally, the industrial proletariat), and… its weakness lies in the lack of consciousness and initiative among the revolutionary leaders" (p. 34).(2) What do we mean by consciousness? Lenin speaks of Social-Democratic (now Marxist-Leninist) consciousness as being "conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modem political and social system" (p. 36). He points out that such consciousness must be brought to the workers "from without" (p. 37), that "the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc." (p. 57).

The question of the fight to bring political consciousness into the mass movement was also discussed in The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), written under Stalin's direction and with his participation in the late 1930s. The History, discussing the fight against the "Economists,"(3) pointed out: "the 'Economists' were deceiving the working class when they asserted that a Socialist ideology could arise from the spontaneous movement of the working class, for in reality the Socialist ideology arises not from the spontaneous movement, but from science. By denying the necessity of imparting a Socialist consciousness to the working class, the 'Economists' were clearing the way for bourgeois ideology, facilitating its introduction and dissemination among the working class, and, consequently, they were burying the idea of union between the working-class movement and Socialism, thus helping the bourgeoisie" (p.37).

Marx and Engels recognized that socialist ideology does not arise from the spontaneous movement but from science, from the science of society, of social movements in society. The first crucial thing that they did, beginning with the Communist Manifesto, was to put socialism on a scientific basis. From that time on we speak of "scientific socialism." This theory needs to be studied and applied - it does not just come out of the mass movement.

The Attitude of the CPUSA

What is the attitude of the parties calling themselves Marxist-Leninist today? I will first deal briefly with the CPUSA, whose bankrupt outlook is becoming increasingly clear to those remaining members and supporters who sincerely want socialist revolution in the U.S. What is the aim of the CP? It still proclaims its aim to be socialism, but puts it off to so far in the future that it is irrelevant to the struggles today. This is something that it has done for the last 50 years, since World War II. They said: Of course, we want socialism, but that is for the future. Right now, we need to be involved in strikes, community work, etc. Today, they do much less of even leading these active struggles, which is one of the reasons that their bankruptcy is even more obvious.

The CPUSA has also long ago stated clearly that it is opposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which makes any talk of socialism on their part a fraud anyway. The CP openly states that it believes in "peaceful transition" to socialism, by winning a majority in parliament, through the bourgeois electoral system. At the most extreme they say that there may be a need to use legal, defensive violence if the bourgeoisie tries to violently resist this parliamentary majority. They speak of "Bill of Rights Socialism," which now includes waving the flag of US imperialism. The People's Weekly World is even printed in red, white and blue.

The practice of the CP consists in trying to limit any struggles to reforms within the bounds of capitalism, and generally to supporting the Democratic Party. This is often done by tailing the trade union bureaucrats. In the 1996 elections they backed the AFL-CIO's "Labor '96 Campaign," calling for the "defeat of the extremist Republican candidates." This of course meant supporting Clinton and the Democratic Party, who, as has been made clear in the last two years, then carried through their own program of attacks against the working class. A recent front-page headline of the PWW (1/24/98) states: "Labor Gears Up for '98 Elections," talking of "labor candidates," as if any of the bourgeois party candidates could represent the working class.

Gus Hall has recently been emphasizing the need for the CP to become a "mass party." By this he certainly does not mean a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party. The CP is signing up people at tables in communities, at rallies, strikes, etc., inviting anyone who wants to join to sign up. This is not very different from what the Democrats and Republicans do at their voter registration drives. It is an extreme version of what Lenin first criticized the Mensheviks for - allowing any university professor or any striker who expresses sympathy with their views to join their party. The CP's new "mass party," if it is built, will again be nothing but a party that tails the mass movement, carrying out a social-democratic program with a communist name. Hall said: "We have to work in the U.S. political mainstream" (PWW, 1/31/98), i.e. the CP should be a party of the political mainstream. We expect the CP soon to update Earl Browder's infamous statement by declaring that: "Communism is 21st century Americanism."(4) However, despite all the talk by Gus Hall and others of forming a mass party, the CP in practice is moving more and more in the direction of outright liquidationism, downplaying all international questions, talking only about the trade-union movement and other local activities.

The Attitude of WWP

The other main party that we have criticized, which has much more significant influence, is Workers World Party. The situation of WWP is less obvious. They are active fighters around the issues of the day: they are involved in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners, they lead in organizing rallies against US attacks on Iraq, they have organized struggles of "workfare" workers for decent wages and to join the unions, etc. The question that we are raising is not "are they militant fighters?" but how do they see their role in these struggles?

WWP sees itself basically as a party of the "fightback," that is, in practice, as militant fighters for reforms. Even though it speaks, often as an after-thought, of the need for socialism, without necessarily putting it off to never-never-land the way the CPUSA does, it gives no programmatic explanation of what socialism is, what is its character. In particular it does not talk of the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here we must say that the CP is more forthright, they openly say that they do not believe in it. WWP, by not speaking of it as the only way to achieve socialism and what socialism means, rejects it by default.

As a party of the fightback, WWP does not try to lead (or, as Lenin always put it, to divert) this spontaneous movement onto the path of socialism. It thus in practice tails this movement, even where it helps to organize it. It thinks that socialism will come by itself; spontaneously, out of these fights for reform. Obviously, say in fighting against U.S. imperialism's attacks on Iraq, you have to call rallies, hold forums, etc., and certainly they do that. But what is their role as a party within the movements that they organize? It is basically one of organizing and cheering on these movements, not giving them political or ideological leadership. I am reminded of a speech by Larry Holmes at one of the mass rallies (I only mention him because his attitude is typical of Workers World, he is obviously a good fighter for these reforms), where he said: "I see a fightback coming. It is fightback time!"

The question is not that "there is a fightback," but how are you directing that fightback politically and ideologically. WWP is an organization that does not take itself very seriously as a party. This is above and beyond the fact that its view of socialism is not Marxist-Leninist, but an eclectic mixture of Brezhnevism and Trotskyism.

To try to make my point as clear as possible, let us take the example of the rise in the trade union movement. Lenin, again in What Is To Be Done, speaking of the situation in the German working class movement,(5) said: "A fierce struggle against spontaneity was necessary, and only after such a struggle, extending over many years, was it possible, for instance, to convert the working population of Berlin from a bulwark of the Progressive Party [a party of liberal democrats] into one of the finest strongholds of Social-Democracy. This fight is by no means finished even now... Even now the German working class is, so to speak, broken up among a number of ideologies. A section of the workers is organized in Catholic and monarchist labor unions; another section is organized in… unions, founded by the bourgeois worshippers of English trade unionism, while a third section is organized in Social-Democratic trade unions. The last is immeasurably more numerous than all the rest, but the Social-Democratic ideology was able to achieve this superiority, and will be able to maintain it, only by unswervingly fighting against all other ideologies" (p. 50).

Compare the situation in Germany that Lenin was talking about with the situation in the U.S. today. Almost all the unions here are under the control of purely bourgeois bureaucrats; some, a minority at this point, are under outright reactionaries of the Lane Kirkland type, while most now, and the AFL-CIO as a whole, are under the leadership of more "militant" but still outright bourgeois liberals of the Sweeney or Carey type. They are directly tied to the bourgeois parties, particularly the Democratic Party. There are a handful of unions under the leadership of our opportunist socialists (though they generally act more as militant trade unionists, not as any kind of socialists, as one expects of opportunists). How many are under Marxist-Leninist leadership? Practically none! We are certainly not blaming the workers for this, nor are we blaming those who are genuinely trying to carry out their tasks as Marxist-Leninists for not having won over the workers (we certainly have not done that either); we are raising this to deal with the question of what are our tasks as Marxist-Leninists within the working class movement?

In these circumstances, what is the sense of just praising the new trade union militancy? It is certainly important that there is a revival of militancy in the trade union movement But just to cheer that on is not enough, especially in a country like the U.S., where the socialist movement is only beginning to revive after a period of dormancy. Lenin reminded the Marxists of his day: "the younger the socialist movement is in any given country, the more vigorously must it fight against all attempts to entrench non-socialist ideology" (p.51). In regard to the spontaneous movement, Lenin said: "It is unfortunate gentlemen, that the spontaneously awakening trade-unionist political consciousness does not 'bring home' to you an understanding of your Social-Democratic tasks!" (p. 90, fn.). Again, he says: "the spontaneity of the masses demands a mass of consciousness from us Social-Democrats" (p.64).

There is one difference between the economists of Lenin's time and parties such as Workers World. WWP does not make a theory of tailing the spontaneous movement, as did the earlier economists, who spoke openly of leaving the political struggle to the liberal bourgeoisie and carrying on only the economic struggle among the working class. But this is only because WWP and others downplay theoretical questions in general, a symptom of the general empiricism and disdain for theory in the U.S. In practice, by making their work primarily one of cheering on the spontaneous movement, they leave the working class mired in trade-unionism. We repeat once again what Lenin said of trade-unionism: "the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its be coming subordinated to the bourgeois ideology,… for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade unionism,... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy" (p.49). That can't be done in the United States by just praising the new role of Sweeney and Co. in the trade unions, because that means precisely leaving the working class movement ideologically under the Sweeneys, the Careys, under bourgeois ideology, and particularly under the Democratic Party.

The criticisms we have made here of the opportunist parties that tail the spontaneous movement we must raise as well towards those "non-party" friends who want to place their emphasis on "building the mass movement." Of course, Marxist-Leninists must work in the mass movement, especially in the working class movement. But again, what is the character of that work? We must work as Marxist-Leninists, not just as the most militant fighters for reforms. Marx and Engels expressed this 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, when they said: "The Communists... have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement" (Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1968, p.47-48). Comrades, let us try to acts as communists in the mass movement. This is what we are trying to do. Unfortunately at this time, the only others that we see trying to do this in the U.S. are the comrades from Labor's Champion.

An Appeal for Assistance

To conclude: We are clearly a very small organization We need help from all those who are in agreement with our basic principles. We can use partial help from those who are in partial agreement - for example, we know that there are those who agree with our agitational material, but do not agree with the need for "polemics within the left." In that case, we request your help in carrying out agitation. We need agitators, those who can speak at mass activities. We need to be an organized force in strikes, demonstrations, rallies, putting forth a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist line in the mass movement. We need writers - there is a crying need now for a regularly-appearing Marxist-Leninist newspaper, but even before that is possible we need written material in other forms. We need those who can take these ideas and organize around them, particularly among the working class, but also in the national movements. Many people here have contacts in the working class, but without organized effort along the lines we are putting forth we will still be tailing the spontaneous movement.

To expand on this question, one of the questions The History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks) discusses in the early period of the Russian movement was that there was a development along two parallel lines. On the one hand, there were mass workers' organizations, which even had a spontaneous (not scientific) socialist outlook, in the sense that they understood that the workers needed to run society. On the other hand, the Marxist movement at that time consisted mostly of small circles of intellectuals, led by Plekhanov and others. But the two movements were separated from each other. Lenin and the History point out that this was to the detriment of both. The workers' movement, even with this vague socialist outlook, could not really develop further independent of the Marxist movement, and the Marxist intellectuals could not develop further until they could penetrate the working class movement. It was Lenin's League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class that began to break down that division.(6)

We need people who can help do that, who can help take genuine Marxism-Leninism into the working class movement. Even if there are not the same kind of organizations that existed at the beginning of the labor movement in Russia, there are spontaneous groupings within the working class here. There are caucuses m some of the main unions, led by forces with all sorts of political complexions, such as one in the TWU, etc. There are other kinds of workers' groups, such as Black Workers for Justice in the South, and so on. People have various ties with some of these groups, but they do little to advance a Marxist-Leninist line there, and that is what is needed. It is not enough to cheer on the mass activities of these groups, but to try to bring leadership in terms of Marxist-Leninist ideology and consciousness into those genuine workers' organizations that exist.

Also, we need financial help - not just to contribute $10 or $20 now, but people we can call on to contribute money for a leaflet, or to make a regular contribution to a newspaper, etc.

Finally, we need collective study - not study separated from practice, but to guide our practice. Marxism-Leninism is not something learned from just reading the "left" press, nor from once reading the Communist Manifesto or even State and Revolution. It comes from continuous study and application. There must be a common theory that guides common practice. Many people here have spent years in revisionist and opportunist organizations. These organizations have generally put forth a disdain for all theory, as something too hard for ordinary people, something to be left to the "leaders." They will take that theory and turn it into articles in their newspaper, and all you have to do is read their newspaper, instead of reading and applying the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism collectively. Or sometimes they put forth a totally eclectic theory: a little Lenin, a little Trotsky. This is like giving people a little food and a little poison. We need to develop a basic grounding in Marxism-Leninism.

We conclude with a short quote from Stalin, in a speech addressed to the CPUSA in 1929: "I think, comrades, that the American Communist Party is one of those few Communist Parties in the world upon which history has laid tasks of a decisive character from the point of view of the world revolutionary movement.... I think that the moment is not far off when a revolutionary crisis will develop in America. And when a revolutionary crisis develops in America, that will be the beginning of the end of world capitalism as a whole. It is essential that the American Communist Party should be capable of meeting that historical moment fully prepared and of assuming the leadership of the impending class struggle in America" (Stalin's Speeches on the American Communist Party, Proletarian Publishers, San Francisco, p. 19-20). At that time, there was a genuine Communist Party in the United States. Our task now is to do our part for the creation of such a party, which has not existed here for some 50 years. We ask everyone who is in agreement with us to join in this task.


1) See Marxist-Leninist Organizer, Vol.2, No. 1, "Build a Genuine Communist Party in the United States, Part I," and Vol.2, No.2, "The Trade Unions Must be Won to Marxism-Leninism."

2) All page numbers are from the Foreign Languages Press edition, Peking, 1973.

3) The economists were a group in Russia that, in the early part of the century, put forth rather crudely that the working class should only fight for trade-union demands, and should not concern itself with political questions, in particular the overthrow of tsarism. This could be left to the bourgeois liberals. People are not raising this in that kind of crude formulation now, but the whole question of the need to introduce political consciousness into the working class movement from without is extremely relevant today.

4) Browder was the revisionist leader of the CP in the late 1930s through World War II who said: "Communism is 20th century Americanism."

5) This was at the beginning of the century, when the differences within the German Social-Democratic Party between the openly revisionist and reformist forces led by Bernstein and later Kautsky and others, and the revolutionary forces later led by Liebknecht and Luxemburg, had not yet come to the fore.

6) For more discussion of this period, see The History of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks), Chapter One, Sections 1-3, and A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social-Democracy, especially the beginning of the text.

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