The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

23. Mass Combativity

Among the moods that the masses may sometimes have is one of combativeness towards the enemy, which in practice usually means either towards scabs during strikes, or towards the police in more political situations.

"Mass Combativity Today"?

I have been told that there is an unofficial slogan within the RCP:

Mass combativity today;
Mass armed combat tomorrow.[1]

This is a slogan that cries out for clarification!

The thing that troubles me about the slogan in the present situation is not the "mass armed combat tomorrow" part. We have always known that we are working toward a mass insurrection. My problem is with the "mass combativity today" part. What is this saying about the present? What is it implying about our present tasks?

Is the slogan implying that at present combativity characterizes the overall mood and activity of the masses in the U.S.? If so it seems to me to be clearly mistaken (despite such occasional righteous rebellions as in Los Angeles following the Rodney King decision in 1992). That would indicate to me that the RCP leadership is out of touch with the real mood of the masses.

Or is the slogan a perspective for the Party? Is it suggesting that Party activity among the masses today is primarily that of encouraging, promoting and leading combativity? If so, how does this fit in with the Party Programme (1981) that states that agitation and propaganda are the main tasks of the Party? Does this in turn imply that agitation and propaganda are primarily for the purpose of encouraging, promoting and leading combativity among the masses?

Or what? What is the slogan really saying? What line really lies behind it?

It seems to me that the slogan is undialectical in the sense that it does not understand that there must be leaps in the consciousness and activity of the masses from the present, basically non-combative situation. Moreover, the leap from our present non-combative overall situation to generalized mass combativity is much bigger than the leap from mass combativity into mass armed combativity. This last leap is actually a rather small one which might even occur spontaneously. If combativity really characterized the masses today, revolution would probably be imminent; the biggest battle would have already been won, that of raising the general political consciousness of the basic masses to revolutionary consciousness.

Thus I suspect there is a good deal of "left" impetuosity behind the slogan, and a lack of appreciation of the actual concrete situation the revolutionary movement faces today.

In the November 1989 issue of the international Maoist magazine A World To Win someone identified only as "a correspondent" and "a supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA", but clearly very cognizant of the RCP viewpoint, states that "The Revolutionary Communist Party has attached great importance to the need to heighten the combativity of the basic masses."[2] It goes without saying that there cannot be a revolution if the masses are not combative, and that therefore it is certainly an important task of a revolutionary party to promote such combativity at the appropriate times. But that is just the issue—when are the appropriate times? Or, is it always appropriate to heighten the combativity of the masses, at all times and places, as the RCP seems to be implying both through words and actions?

I maintain that combativity is not always wise or appropriate. No form of revolutionary struggle is always appropriate in every situation. But beyond that undeniable general truth, in the U.S. today, small scale physical combat between the masses and the authorities is not generally appropriate or desirable. (Genuine mass upsurges such as around the Rodney King decision are a wholely different matter; they are to be lauded and gloried in!) Fights with the police do not usually help get us closer to revolution, but often actually tend to impede our progress toward that goal. At present, physical confrontations are something which we should usually try to avoid, rather than try to bring about. At present, our agitation and propaganda should not normally focus on bringing about physical confrontations between the people and the police, but rather on exposing the nature of the system and need for proletarian revolution. I'm sure these opinions will enrage some people, who are bound to call them revisionist or anti-revolutionary. So let us look into the matter carefully.

Only infantile "revolutionaries" think it is always appropriate to physically attack the enemy, or to always and everywhere encourage the masses to do so. Such a policy means that the masses are led into battles which they are not prepared for, and that they are led into ambushes. This is not just foolish, it is criminal. It plays into the hands of the enemy. Lenin said that

To accept battle at a time when it is obviously advantageous to the enemy, but not to us, is criminal; political leaders of the revolutionary class are absolutely useless if they are incapable of "changing tack, or offering conciliation and compromise" in order to take evasive action in a patently disadvantageous battle.[3]

Some people act like they are completely unaware of this principle. Or if they are aware of Lenin's opinion, perhaps they consider themselves more "revolutionary" than him, "more Catholic than the pope".

Agents Provocateurs

Consider for the moment those sterling representatives of the police, the agents provocateurs. These are individuals employed by the police for the purpose of provoking people into physical confrontations with the police so that the police in turn will have an excuse to attack the masses, beat and arrest them, and sometimes kill them. If combativity were always desirable then we would have to say that an agent provocateur was really helping bring about the revolution, no matter what his or her intent. I suppose there might be a few people who actually believe this.

In just about any militant demonstration there will be individuals present who seek "to raise the level of combativity". Sometimes, indeed, this is appropriate—when it does not play into the hands of the police. But even when it does play into the hands of the enemy, these people are not always agents provocateurs. Usually, in fact, they are just misguided anarchists or other individualist militants who happen to be functioning as if they were agents provocateurs; people who believe "that taunting the police and creating mayhem in the streets are what defines revolutionary commitment."[4] In other words, people who do not know any better, people who do not have good sense.

From an objective point of view, it may not matter all that much at the immediate moment whether someone fomenting inappropriate combativity is an agent provocateur or just misguided. Thus there is a tendency to lump them both together, to consider foolish ultra-"leftists" as agents provocateurs along with the actual paid agents of the police.

On the other hand, there is also the tendency of revisionists and people who really oppose political action directed against the system itself—especially when any laws might be broken—to paint truly revolutionary individuals and groups as agents provocateurs. In particular, the RCP has sometimes been accused of this. This is typically an underhanded means of seeking to discredit the RCP in the eyes of the masses. Hardly anyone can really believe that the Party is working with the police, no matter how much they hate the Party and its revolutionary stand.

Generally these ridiculous charges come from opportunist sectarian groups hostile to the RCP. Sometimes they come from individuals in the social-democratic "left", or from "radical liberals", such as the following excerpt from an editorial which appeared in the San Francisco Weekly, June 20, 1990:

Flag burning, as symbolic acts go, is a rather silly one. Flag burners generally manage to alienate more people than they win over to a cause. That is why many activists have, at one time or another, wondered if those buring the flag at political demonstrations were actually agent provocateurs on the scene only to discredit the other protestors.

The RCP is not identified by name here, but there is no doubt that it is primarily the RCP who the editoral writer had in mind. Of course, contrary to the writer's opportunist perspective, flag burning is often a wonderfully provocative way to help the masses understand that their limited immediate struggle is part of a much larger, revolutionary struggle. Many things which might at first shock some individuals among the masses can have a very positive overall, and long-term, effect. To be provocative ideologically is quite different than being an agent provocateur.

But the RCP has done some things which are far more questionable than burning flags.

So am I saying that while the RCP and its members are certainly not agents provocateurs, that in practice their line is sometimes like that of foolish anarchist individuals who encourage mass combativity when it is not appropriate, when in fact it plays into the hands of the police? Yes, very reluctantly, I am saying that. Alas, in the real world there are not only foolish people, there are also foolish political lines and policies. I have personally witnessed this sort of activity by people in, or close to, the RCP on several occasions since the late 1970s.

May Day, 1981

One such example was the 1981 May Day demonstration and march in San Francisco. This demonstration, which was organized and led by the RCP, was quite small (between 110 and 120 people at the peak by my count). Judging by the T-shirts, political buttons, and familiar faces, nearly everyone there was a Party member or close supporter. There were only a few individuals from the masses present, despite extensive leafletting and postering. (According to the RW, #104, May 8, 1981), nearly 50,000 May Day leaflets were distributed in the Mission district alone.) Many of the demonstrators came prepared for action with the police, wearing thick stocking caps or helmet liners or hard hats, and carrying picket signs or red flags mounted on very sturdy wooden sticks.

Although permits are usually granted for demonstrations in San Francisco city parks, the organizers wanted this demonstration to be on Mission Street (in a Latino neighborhood), where it could be seen by lots of people. At the last minute a permit was granted by the BART police for the demonstration (on transit property), but no city permit was granted for the march. The demonstration itself, at the corner of 24th and Mission Streets consisted of a few short speeches, some revolutionary slogans, and the singing of the Internationale, and was not interfered with by the police.

One of the rally leaders then took a bullhorn and organized everyone to prepare for the march up Mission Street. I was told later that he warned people that no march permit had been obtained, though I myself didn't hear him say this. After marching about two blocks people behind me began shouting that the cops were coming up behind us. Then we began to see that the cops were also blocking off the street in front of us. The march kept going, and I did not hear any police orders to disperse. Then the cops received the order to attack and they charged toward the front of the march swinging their batons ferociously down on people's heads. The marchers turned and rushed back towards those of us in the middle. Meanwhile the cops behind were also attacking and people were rushing forward away from them. The marchers were soon dispersed to the sidewalks by this pincer assault, but the cops kept pursuing anybody with a red flag or anybody else who they thought had been in the march. When they spotted such a person they would push other by-standers out of the way, charge swinging their clubs wildly, brutalize the person, knock them to the ground and then haul them off to one of the several paddy wagons they had brought up. Lots of demonstrators were bleeding and battered. Down the street aways I saw someone in civilian clothes with a baseball bat attacking the demonstrators, with no interference from the police. (He may well have been an "undercover" pig.) Evidently some of the marchers did try to defend themselves and fight back against the cops, though I did not personally witness any of this. Everybody I saw being attacked was not putting up any resistance. I did see one cop who must have gotten a good taste of his own medicine however; he had streams of blood coming down the side of his head.

All of this action brought large numbers of people out of the stores to watch. People were really quite horrified to witness the brutality of the police attacks—but this does not mean they were on the side of the demonstrators. I heard cries of alarm, "Oh no!", and so forth, all around me as the few marchers remaining in the street were clubbed viciously to the ground. I immediately started agitating to the crowd about the real nature of "free speech", "freedom", "democracy" and the system in general in this country and about how the police attacked the march without so much as a warning. Unfortunately the bystanders were not buying this. One person claimed to have seen "the communists" attack the police first, and right in front of us was the one cop with the bleeding head. One old woman practically attacked me because I was claiming that the cops started it.

There were lots of people there and I don't know what everybody was thinking, but the only opinions I heard expressed were extremely negative toward the marchers. There was a reporter there going from person to person getting their "eye-witness" accounts of what happened. He ignored what I was saying and everyone else seemed to be telling him that the "communists started it". (It is amazing how people's preconceptions govern what they think they see.) A woman with several Revolutionary Worker newspapers in her hand walked through the crowd and one young patriotic type pulled the papers from her and threw them to the ground. There were shouts of "go back to Russia", and the like, and I thought that one punk might attack her. I went over to help her, but the punk let her go before I got there. She still had a small red flag in her hand though, which was dangerous since she was about to walk by some cops. But she stuck her flag under her shirt and was not stopped. I put my flag under my coat for the same reason, and walked by the cops.

I have described this one May Day demonstration in detail because I think it is illustrative of the kinds of political actions which the RCP has staged and seems to desire (or at least seemed to desire during the 1980s). There was certainly some "combativity" there, though it was rather one-sided; the marchers definitely got the worst of it by far. But would it have been a positive political event if the cops had taken the worst licks, while everything else was the same? No, it would have still been a political mistake. The reason is, the event did not serve to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. If anything, it worked in the opposite direction.

It could be argued that the marchers, at least, had their consciousness of the nature of this system raised. I doubt that, since most of them were already conscious revolutionaries. (For them consciousness raising is more a matter of learning how to make revolution, since they already know the necessity of it.) If there were a few individuals from the masses in the march they may well have blamed the RCP as much as the cops for getting themselves beaten and arrested. Even I felt rather suckered-in and disgusted with the Party when I found out later that they had more or less purposely provoked the attack by marching without a permit, and had probably pulled a few of the masses into something which they were not prepared for. I believe that the march leaders expected that the police would attack, and decided to march anyway. I think they even welcomed the attack. We need more "mass combativity", you see, more confrontations with the police.

As I mentioned above, the effect on the masses I saw who witnessed the march was definitely far more negative than positive. Of course, even if the marchers and those who saw the march did not have their consciousness raised, if those who heard about the event later had their consciousness raised towards revolution it might still have been a good thing. But did they? The hostile reports (lies) on TV and in the local press certainly did not have that effect. The efforts of the RCP to sum up the event positively reached very few of the masses.

And what about the May Day demonstration the next year, the real test of whether progress was being made? The RCP did not even attempt to hold a May Day demonstration in the Bay Area in 1982, choosing instead to concentrate their limited forces in L.A., Atlanta and New York. The few May Day demonstrations and/or marches in the Bay Area in the decade since then have been pitifully small and without any apparent mass support. In most recent years mass May Day demonstrations have been abandoned altogether in the Bay Area (and apparently elsewhere), in favor of a few small-scale "neighborhood actions". May Day is at present all but totally dead in the U.S. as a revolutionary mass event.

In 1991, the RCP did hold a May Day demonstration at the very same corner in San Francisco as the 1981 demonstration. Neither it, nor any other May Day demonstration in 1991 was announced in advance in the Revolutionary Worker, and little effort seemed to go into making it a mass demonstration (although leaflets were distributed in advance). By my count there were only about 30 people who showed up, all or nearly all, party members or close friends. There was no attempt to stage an illegal march up Mission Street this time. Perhaps there was an insufficient "spirit of combativity".

It is interesting to look at the report of the 1981 demonstration in the Revolutionary Worker, and see how the RCP itself summed it all up. The overall headline in the May 8, 1981 issue was "May 1st 1981: The Shape of Things to Come", and the subhead for the San Francisco report was "San Francisco: Proletarians Liberate Some Territory". The first paragraph states "For those who took part in, or saw and heard of the events that day, the possibilities for revolution, including right here in the belly of U.S. imperialism, have been drastically changed." Thus we see immediately that the Party viewed the demonstration as a great success, a real step toward revolution.

The article claims that about one-third of the marchers were political refugees from Central America. All I know is that when the Internationale was sung in Spanish just before the march, there were only a handful of people singing, even though the English and Spanish lyrics had been passed out to the crowd. The article goes on to claim that the march consisted of 250 to 300 people, plus another 100 following along on the sidewalk. This is an exaggeration of three times the actual number; I know, because I personally counted the crowd several times, head by head.

In perhaps the greatest example of wishful thinking, the article describes the reaction of the onlookers to the police attack as follows:

Blood is running from the head wounds [of the marchers]. But instead of beating this march into submission, it is dawning on the pigs that it is they who are completely surrounded and as the demonstrators see the horrified looks in the pigs' eyes it is clear that the air is charged with the formerly suppressed political energy of the masses. These pigs in blue are in enemy territory.
      Yes, enemy territory. In this district where tens of thousands of foreign-born workers and other immigrants mainly from Central America are concentrated, the RW has been a hub of political debate and activity.[5]

Is this the same demonstration and march that I was in the middle of? Hard to believe. The RW account even suggests that the negative reports of the demonstration in the mass media ended up serving a positive role. "But the counterrevolutionary public opinion campaign and their vicious gestapo tactics have continued to draw increasingly broader sections of the mases [sic], and the advanced, more sharply and deeply into political life."[6] Would that this were so! If it had been so, then the policy of combativity against the police would have indeed been correct. But all the evidence indicates that this summation was a hopeless fantasy. If the Party had been following a correct line in its mass work, increasingly broader sections of the masses would in fact be coming forward. But the results of the past decade, the loss of mass support for May Day and the RCP speaks for itself.

Like all political events, even those on a small scale, the 1981 May Day demonstration in San Francisco was complex, with conflicting effects and results. Some good things probably came out of it, and some bad things. Because just about every event is like this, it is always possible to make it appear that the net result is strongly one way or the other, when in fact it may be a mixed bag or even the diametrically opposite summation may be the real truth. In disputing the RCP account, I have perhaps leaned a bit too far the other way. I do not know, for example, if there were some individuals who came forward, and moved closer to the Party because of the demonstration. (I also do not know if there were some who dropped away!) But there are objective standards for judging political progress over a period of time, and the failure of the RCP to win a significant and increasing mass support certainly lends credence to my interpretation of such events.

The Strategy of "Combativity"

It's strange that anyone would think that a strategy of "combativity" is a Marxist revolutionary strategy. Engels, speaking of a small-scale ultra-"left" riot led by Henry M. Hyndman's Social Democratic federation, said:

In addition, very half-hearted [legal] proceedings have been instituted against Hyndman & Co. which, to all appearances, will be allowed to peter out, although English law provides for very stiff sentences the moment inflammatory speeches give way to overt acts. True, the gentlemen talked a lot of bunkum about social revolution which, having regard to their audience and in the absence of any organized support amongst the masses, was sheer lunacy, but I can hardly believe that the government would be so stupid as to make martyrs of them. These socialist gents are determined to conjure up overnight a movement which, here as elsewhere, necessarily calls for years of work,—though, once it has got going and has been imposed on the masses by historical events, it will admittedly advance far more rapidly here than on the Continent. But men of this type cannot wait—hence these childish pranks such as we are otherwise wont to see only among the anarchists.[7]

Note Engels' characterization of this sort of combativity: "childish pranks". In another place he called such antics "pointless rowdyism"[8]

The RCP line of stressing mass combativity, of seeking, or at least not trying to avoid physical confrontations between the Party, its supporters, and any masses it can influence (on the one hand), and the police (on the other hand), has in fact been a disaster for the Party and the revolutionary movement. It has been a major factor leading to the isolation of the Party, and the feeling on the part of many that these are dangerous people to get involved with. Not many people at present are willing to routinely risk beatings and arrests, and most of those who are so willing want to be damned sure it is for some very good purpose—that it will really accomplish something important.

In defense of the RCP, I wish to say a bit more here. I really believe that any truly revolutionary party will inevitably make some mistakes in this area. The correct tactics in a particular demonstration are not always very obvious. It is not always clear whether some particular action will turn out to be something that raises the revolutionary consciousness of the people involved or those who learn about the event, or whether it will backfire somewhat and play into the hands of the enemy. It is inevitable that if you seriously work toward the former, that sometimes you will end up doing the latter. In many cases the results may be very mixed, and the net result impossible to determine. Moreover, in many cases it does not really matter all that much. A premature insurrection could be a major calamity, but a single local May Day demonstration that is just a little bit too confrontational, and ends up with a handful of bruised noggins and a few arrests on minor charges is really not that big a deal. Advancing the revolutionary struggle is in large measure an art that must be learned through trial and error.

But limited and occasional errors are one thing, and consistent patterns of error are another. The main point is that the RCP does not seem to be focusing on the most essential goals in its political work. It seems to be far more concerned to encourage mass combativity and confrontations with the police than in working to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. It may even believe that one of the best ways to raise people's revolutionary consciousness is through an endless series of physical confrontations with the police. That is a seriously wrong idea.

It is certainly true that proletarian revolution cannot develop out of the blue. There undoubtedly will be a vastly increased level of combativeness on the part of the masses in the period leading up to insurrection. But this is not something that the proletarian party must directly foster, for the most part. On the contrary, it is a natural, and inevitable development of a rising revolutionary mass consciousness and a developing revolutionary situation, and the certain attempts by the ruling class to suppress the revolutionary trend of events. If anything, the role of the party in such circumstances is more to cool down the relative handful of impatient individuals until the broad masses are ready for action. This is the surprising (and somewhat uncomfortable) role Lenin and the Bolsheviks found themselves playing throughout much of 1917.

Of course we must not view things too narrowly here; sometimes a physical confrontation may advance the revolution by advancing the revolutionary consciousness of the masses, even if it results in a defeat for the immediate masses involved, on that one day. But this is more the exception than the rule. The point is that only if a confrontation (or combativity) promises to advance the real revolutionary consciousness of the masses in general, and thus the real long term interests of the masses, should it be encouraged. That is our criterion for judging everything (every political event or activity).

The main purpose of agitation and propaganda today is not to encourage mass combativity (nor discourage it either), but to change the thinking of the masses so that they can see the crying need for revolution, and so that they are determined to help bring about the revolution. To the degree this is accomplished, there will inevitably be a heightened level of combativity, and this heightened level of combativity can in turn sometimes help to advance the situation. But the focus is all wrong if the main goal is not to advance the revolutionary consciousness of the masses, but rather to directly promote confrontations with the police.

The primary role of agitation and propaganda in general is not to push people into immediate precipitous action, but to raise revolutionary consciousness, and prepare them for coordinated decisive action. The overall purpose of agitation and propaganda is to educate the masses as to their interests, as to what must be done overall (revolution), and as to the preliminary steps that must be taken to prepare for revolution. These preliminary steps amount to two things, especially: 1) broadening and deepening the revolutionary consciousness of more and more of the masses, and 2) helping the masses build their own struggles and their own independent organizations (independent of the bourgeoisie) to advance their own interests.

Our task at present is to prepare the masses for revolution, not to begin fighting it immediately. Some people seem to have forgotten this basic truth, and the basic character of a revolution in an advanced capitalist country. The attitude of a party towards mass combativity in everyday situations in a non-revolutionary period can tell you a whole lot about the real revolutionary strategy of that party. The more stress is put on immediate combat with the police, the more the actual unstated strategy of that party becomes a crude form of gradually intensifying "urban guerrilla warfare", rather than mass insurrection at the appropriate time.

This is one of the ill effects of oversimplifying the question of a correct strategy for revolution, and of reducing it to the single issue of class analysis, which I discussed in chapter 18. It leads to the relative neglect of many other critically important questions of revolutionary strategy. Thus we find this very important issue of whether to focus on raising mass combativity getting scant attention in RCP theoretical organs such as Revolution. The Party simply has not thought out the issue carefully.

You thought that Bruce Franklin's program of urban guerrilla revolution in the U.S. was long dead in the RU/RCP? I'm afraid that even after all these years it has not been completely laid to rest. Errors in political line are the damnedest things to totally extirpate! They tend to keep coming back in disguised forms as long as the political problem they address is not fully resolved. Not until the working class actually seizes political power will all the various erroneous theories about how to make revolution in this country really disappear—even within the proletarian party.

The Student Movement Origins of the Strategy of Combativity

Where does this recent American "strategy of combativity" come from anyway? Its roots lie in the escalating, confrontational style of the student movement of the late 1960s and early 70s. By no means am I saying that such confrontations were always bad! But the limited success of spontaneous tactics in one situation does not make for a valid overall revolutionary strategy.

One prominent radical student leader of the 60s was Mark Rudd, who played an important role in the 1968 strike at Columbia University:

The leader of Columbia's SDS chapter was Mark Rudd, whose "action faction" believed that the student body could best be radicalized through confrontation: education would follow action. SDS demanded that the university end its support of war research and cancel its plans to expand into the adjacent black ghetto. But the issues were not as important to the action faction as action itself. By refusing ever to give ground and by upping the demands as they went along, Rudd and his comrades escalated the April 23 rally into an occupation of five of Columbia's buildings. In the seized files of Grayson Kirk the students found justification for their protests, documents proving the university's complicity with war research and the CIA.[9]

The Columbia strike was an important event of the era, and played a positive role, at least in the short-run. The interesting thing here is that the "action faction's" theories seemed to be rather successful at this point (although how much real revolutionary education of the students took place in its aftermath is open to serious doubt). But based on such limited experience, which seemed to be working (i.e., based on pragmatism), Mark Rudd and other action-faction types of people went on to the Days of Rage fiasco of 1969, and to found the Weathermen terrorist group (later renamed the Weather Underground). It was a simple equation: confrontation theory led to ever more combativity which led to urban guerrilla warfare... which led to pathetic failure. Obviously there was a serious failure of logic and common sense somewhere in this chain of development, and I think a good part of the problem comes right at the start: the notion that action by itself is revolutionary, or that action by itself leads to revolutionary consciousness. (The dialectical interaction between experience and consciousness will be explored further in the next chapter.)

Lots of people besides Rudd held that engaging in confrontational action led to revolutionary consciousness. Many even started thinking that the action of the few could spark the revolutionary consciousness of the many (which is related to the theory of "advanced actions" which will be discussed in chapter 26).

Perhaps the epitome of such thinking was the "Symbionese Liberation Army" in the 1970s. Patty Hearst recounted the SLA's philosophy as it was explained to her after her kidnapping: "The SLA's immediate program [was] to make war against the state until the government fought back by oppressing the people openly. That would bring about a change in people's attitudes. More and more of them would then join the SLA in its war against the government oppression."[10] In response to this I will quote Patty Hearst again, from her taped statement to the media upon joining the SLA and adopting the revolutionary name "Tania": "There is no victory in half-assed attempts at revolution."[11]

There are real limits to what people can learn from the actions of others, and even from their own actions, when those actions are stupid and self-destructive. The notion that the (foolish) confrontational actions of the few can generally bring about the awakening of the many is a complete perversion of the single-spark method.

One of those initially influenced by the "action-faction" logic was Abbie Hoffman.[12] His biographer, Marty Jezer, remarks however that

On his campus speaking tours Abbie had noted the chilling effect the Weathermen were having on student activism. Many student activists believed that Weather tactics were the only moral and practical response to the death and destruction the United States was causing in Vietnam, Unwilling, however, to make so total and dangerous a commitment to revolutionary struggle, they simply withdrew from political action.[13]

This is interesting because it brings out
      1) The fully justified moral outrage of the students;
      2) The valid recognition that the campaign of death and destruction on the part of the U.S. imperialists morally justified a response in kind (as waged by the Weather Underground, for example);
      3) The invalid deduction that in the situation that the movement faced at that time, it was correct, and even the "only morally correct thing to do," to engage in bombings and other forms of urban guerrilla warfare;
      4) The invalid conclusion that only the tactics/strategy of groups like the Weather Underground was "truly revolutionary";
      5) The timidity and shrinking back by many of the students from what they honestly believed was the appropriate path; and
      6) The failure to think things through and see that though virtually any means necessary to stop U.S. imperialism and make revolution were in fact morally justified, still, the best means at the time towards these ends were not to immediately pick up the gun, but instead to continue to build the mass movement.

All of this, the positive and the negative, is typical of a radicalized petty-bourgeois student movement.

Jezer notes that most 60's activists, at least until the advent of the Weathermen, had a much more sensible approach:

The vast majority of activists in the antiwar movement were not pacifists. But they adhered to the discipline of tactical nonviolence, because the alternative seemed self-defeating and dangerous. The government had a monopoly on the weapons of violence and a legal framework to use them against the movement. Violence played to the government's strength. Nonviolence, at the least, confronted the government on a playing field on which it had no experience. Pitting its life-affirming faith in people's basic goodness against the authorities' cynical reliance on weapons gave the movement an advantage it lost when politics became a contest of physical force. Weapons might coerce bodies, but symbols could win hearts and minds.[14]

We should not overstress or glorify the principle of tactical non-violence, because we do not want to even unintentionally lead the masses in the direction of pacificism, or towards any unwillingness to fight for their own interests in whatever way is appropriate under the circumstances. But still, in the present period, it is in fact generally true that a policy of tactical non-violence is correct in most situations.

The main point in this section, though, is that the tendency to glorify and unduly promote combativity shows that the American revolutionary movement has still not totally matured and escaped its pragmatic and romantic roots in the student movement of the 1960s.

The Glorification of Combativity by Fascists

We have no formulas. We only hope that our party will go back to its ancient methods of struggle, that it will attack, with implacable combativeness, constituted power, without ever descending... to pacts and bargains.
      —Benito Mussolini, in Aug. 1902, when he still considered himself to be a revolutionary socialist.[15]

A few words must also be said here about the historical tendency of fascist organizations to base their so-called "revolutionary" strategy on the promotion of street violence. (In no way am I implying that the RCP or other revolutionaries who glorify combativity are fascist; I am only pointing out one discomforting analogy in political strategy.) This was a feature not only of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler to power, but also regularly appears in fascist movements in all countries including the LaRoucheians in the U.S. Even revisionists, who after all usually turn out to be not much more than fascists-in-disguise when they come to power, use such techniques when they do not have the police and army at their disposal.[16]

It is true that in the beginning, fascist combativity is directed mostly against communists and other staunch opponents of fascism, and against scapegoats. But where fascist parties begin to gather strength, they also focus some of the misguided mass combativity they control against the police and other authorities as a step towards achieving total power. But, you may ask, if fascists have been able to use street violence to come to power, why can't we revolutionaries do the same? There are several good reasons:

But, alas, some infantile revolutionaries do not know it!

Sometimes it is argued that fascists promote street violence because this will attract angry youth (especially males) to their banner. An article about Ingo Hasselbach, a leader of the Neo-Nazi youth movement in Germany (who later turned against the movement), summarizes this view:

An ex-street fighter himself, Hasselbach convincingly describes the heat, the rush, the elixir of violence... For most in the movement, he argues, violence is not a means to an end; it is the end.[18]

I don't doubt that this is the motive for some teen-age punks, and maybe even a central attraction of Neo-Naziism for many who are drawn to it. But this theory of "mindless violence" is incorrect when it comes to the leaders of such groups. In fact, it shows the typical liberal superficiality when explanations of this type are advanced for fascism. As we saw above, there are very good, rational reasons for street violence from the perspective of the fascist leaders!

Laura Fermi says of Mussolini that "He was to be called 'the man of the barricades,' but to the barricades he was to send others more often than go himself, and in his whole life there is hardly an act that can be ascribed to genuine courage."[19] No doubt Mussolini was a coward personally. But again, this misses the point. Encouraging mass violence, even more or less mindless mass violence, is a far from mindless thing for fascist leaders to do! On the contrary it is essential to their program. But for genuine revolutionaries, it is generally counter-productive and a serious mistake.

It might be tempting to try to focus some of the growing youthful rage in the U.S. today into street violence directed against the police—even if it is rather mindless. But mindless violence is seldom revolutionary (in the proper sense of the word); it is instead generally counter-revolutionary and plays into the hands of the enemy. We must ask ourselves: Are we focusing on raising the consciousness of the masses so that when they justifiably become combative it is in order to advance the revolution? Or are we focusing on just the combativity itself, under the assumption that combativity is automatically and necessarily revolutionary?

The Tasks of Tomorrow Versus the Tasks of Today

Did you ever hear of "Abram's Advice"? This contemporary proverb goes, "When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time."[20] Even more acutely to the point is the Malagasy proverb which condemns "those who are distracted by the tasks that are far away, and do not see the tasks that are before their very eyes"—and which are prerequisites for accomplishing the major tasks which come later. Big, complex tasks require breaking things down into a sequence of steps which must in fact be taken in pretty much a specific order. If you don't see that, you just can't accomplish the task.

The RCP's impatience and impetuosity leads it to focus on the tasks of tomorrow rather than the tasks of today. This is why it is obsessed with promoting the combativity of the masses in a situation where such combativity is generally premature and counter-productive.

An even more extreme example of the RCP's tendency to focus on the tasks of tomorrow is its occasional discussions in the Revolutionary Worker of the guiding principles necessary for founding and building "the Revolutionary Army of the Proletariat".[21] I'm not saying that the party should not give some thought to this ahead of time, but the impression given is that this is an important task to take on in the very near future.

I cannot resist a facetious comment here: One wonders if the RCP Central Committee has already appointed a Military Revolutionary Committee to coordinate the imminent insurrection, and if it has already appointed revolutionary field generals for the various fronts in the inevitable revolutionary civil war. Has it already printed the leaflets calling for the insurrection??

It is certainly true that if you do not take into account the needs of the future in your political work today, you thereby become an opportunist. If your work today does not (either directly or indirectly) actually help prepare the masses for revolution, including insurrection and civil war, then you cease to be a revolutionary, whatever you may call yourself. But the point is that the tasks of today, while they must lead to the tasks of tomorrow, are not in general the same as the tasks of tomorrow.

If you try to perform the tasks of tomorrow in place of the tasks of today, you are sabotaging the revolutionary process whether you mean to or not. You may even become more of an obstacle to revolution, than a builder of it. A sad and ironic fate indeed for someone who longs for revolution with all their heart!

That is why we revolutionaries must not succumb to our impatience, and must develop and stick to a plan for getting from where we are at today, to where we need to be tomorrow. We must learn how to reason, and not give in to wild fantasies and uncontrolled emotions. We must not delude ourselves about the current situation, and we must not let our fully justified outrage at the present system push us into premature action. Although it is genuinely difficult to do so, we must force ourselves to proceed step by step toward the revolutionary goal.

As one aspect of this, we must not imagine that our own mood and consciousness is shared by the broad masses when in fact it is not. Although our goal is to change the mood and consciousness of the masses, we must start in our work from where the masses are today. This seems to be one of the very most difficult things for revolutionaries to come to understand.

Lenin gave one example of this, in connection with the issue of parliamentarism:

Parliamentarism is of course "politically obsolete" to the Communists in Germany; but—and that is the whole point—we must not regard what is obsolete to us as something obsolete to a class, to the masses. Here again we find that the "Lefts" do not know how to reason, do not know how to act as the party of a class, as a party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You are in duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are—prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its communist vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements).[22]

The general principle here is also well-stated by Mao:

To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will turn out to be a mere formality and will fail.... There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them.[23]

And again:

Our comrades of the commune party committees must constantly concern themselves with the interests of the masses. They must always bear in mind that their own policies and measures must be in accord with the current level of consciousness of the masses and with their immediate and pressing needs. Anything that goes counter to these two conditions will not do and will invariably fail.[24]

I feel I must flatly assert that the RCP no longer truly agrees with the general principles enunciated by Mao and Lenin in the above passages. It seems to me that they view these principles as a form of opportunism, despite their respect for Mao and Lenin.

Imagine! Lenin says we must engage in the forms of struggle that the broad masses wish to engage in—even when we see that such forms cannot be ultimately successful. Mao says that we must do what the masses wish! And that our policies and measures must be in accord with the current level of consciousness of the masses and with their immediate and pressing needs! Isn't this tailing after the masses? Isn't this bourgeois populism?![25]

It would be bourgeois populism if the mass line and continued Marxist agitation and propaganda were not being employed. But that is just the point. The RCP does not understand when, where and how to use the mass line. Nor does it understand why Marxist agitation/propaganda is not in conflict with our participation in the actual struggles of the masses, whatever they may be (i.e., reformist or not), but actually can only be truly effective when it is done in the midst of such participation.

Mao said that Lenin had not only "given his heart to the masses", but that "he was in tune with the mood of the masses".[26] Truly being in tune with the masses means not only knowing their ultimate interests, but also their immediate interests. It means not only knowing their revolutionary moods when they arise, but also understanding their moods at other times. It means recognizing their actual political consciousness at any given time, and recognizing what the masses understand and are willing to do that will advance the overall situation toward revolution. It is basically a question of the mass line.

The whole problem in a nutshell is that the RCP has little idea of how to get "from here to there". It has forgotten the basic Marxist-Leninist-Maoist method for turning a non-revolutionary situation into a revolutionary situation. That's why for more than a quarter century now the Party has been floundering.


[1] Private conversation with a member of the RCP in the San Francisco Bay Area in January 1990. The slogan as originally conveyed to me was slightly different: "Mass combativity today; Mass armed combativity tomorrow." Another Party member confirmed that this was still a slogan in the RCP in a conversation in March 1997. But he said the second part of the slogan is actually "Mass armed combat tomorrow."

[2] "The Flag-Buring Battle in the USA", A World To Win, #14, November 1989, p. 77.

[3] Lenin, "'Left-Wing' Communism—An Infantile Disorder" (May 1920), LCW 31:77.

[4] As Marty Jezer put it in his book Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel (Rutgers University Press, 1992), pp. 181-2.

[5] Revolutionary Worker, #104, May 8, 1981, pp. 22-23.

[6] Ibid., p. 23.

[7] Engels, Letter to August Bebel (Feb. 14, 1886), MECW 47:408.

[8] Engels, Letter to Wilhelm Liebknecht (May 12, 1886), MECW 47:446.

[9] Marty Jezer, Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel (Rutgers University Press, 1992), pp. 142.

[10] Patty Hearst, Patty Hearst: her Own Story (originally entitled Every Secret Thing), (NY: Avon Books, 1988 (1982)), p. 92.

[11] Ibid., p. 131.

[12] Marty Jezer, op. cit., see especially p. 143.

[13] Ibid., p. 250.

[14] Ibid., pp. 108-9.

[15] Benito Mussolini, quoted in Laura Fermi, Mussolini (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 31.

[16] Now that revisionism has become unfashionable in eastern Europe, many of these ex-revisionists who still have various degrees of power are being more openly fascist. One horendous example is in the current genocidal battleground that was once Yugoslavia. Another recent example is that of former revisionist Ion Iliescu who became head of Romania after the overthrow of Ceausescu. Since he had not fully consolidated his rule, he began using goon tactics by miners to suppress all opposition—much in the same way as Nixon used Teamsters to attack the anti-Vietnam War movement. One of his comments about this is very interesting: "Union leaders who think only of their personal welfare and do not let workers manifest combativeness must be sacked." [Quoted in Image magazine, San Francisco Examiner, July 15, 1990, p. 4.]

[17] See for example William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi German, 30th Anniversary ed., (NY: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1990 (1959)), p. 215ff.

[18] Christine Schoefer, in a review of Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi, by Ingo Hasselbach with Tom Reiss, (Random House, 1995). The review appeared in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, Jan. 28, 1996.

[19] Laura Fermi, op. cit., p. 31.

[20] I've seen this quoted on the Internet. I don't know who "Abram", the presumed author, is.

[21] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, "Basic Principles for the Future Revolutionary Army of the Proletariat", Revolutionary Worker, #306, May 20, 1985, where it was introduced as "a major statement" from the RCP. This article has been reprinted in the RW at least once, in issue #564, July 15, 1990.

[22] Lenin, "'Left-Wing' Communism—An Infantile Disorder" (May 1920), LCW 31:58.

[23] Mao, Quotations, pp. 124-5; from "The United Front in Cultural Work" (Oct. 30, 1944), SW 3:236-7. (The translation in the Quotations is slightly edited.)

[24] Mao, "Letter to First Secretaries of Provincial, Municipal, and Special District Party Committees" (March 17, 1959), MMTT, p. 169.

[25] Here is another example along the same lines which revolutionaries should think about deeply, until they see why this is not an example of opportunism on Lenin's part:
At the outbreak of the war we Bolsheviks only had one slogan—a civil war and a relentless war at that. We branded as a traitor anyone who spoke against a civil war. But in March 1917, when we returned to Russia, we changed our position completely. When we returned to Russia and spoke with the peasants and workers, we saw that all of them stood for the defense of the Motherland, naturally, in a quite different way than the Mensheviks, and we could not call all these ordinary workers and peasants rascals and traitors. We characterized them as "conscientious defensists".... The stand that we adopted at the beginning of the war was correct, for at that time it was important to set up a certain, determined nucleus. Our subsequent stand was likewise correct. It stemmed from the need to win over the masses. [Lenin, "Speeches at a Conference of Members of the German, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and Italian Delegations to the Third Congress of the Comintern: July 11, 1921", Against Dogmatism and Sectarianism in the Working-Class Movement (Moscow: 1968), pp. 185-6.]

[26] Mao, "Talk at the Chengtu Conference: Talk of March 20, 1958", CMTTP, p. 105.

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