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Progressive Labor Party (United States)

The Progressive Labor Party (originally the Progressive Labor Movement and often referred to as PL) is a transnational communist party based in the United States. It was formed in the fall of 1961 by members of the Communist Party USA 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" 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'. It has also stated numerous times and in numerous contexts, chiefly in regards to lesser evil, how "workers must never again share power with class enemies." To accomplish its goal of communism, the party says it seeks to recapture the power and influence that the 1930s-era CPUSA once had — namely, of being the largest and most politically influential communist party in the country — and to combine that influence with the mix of New Left-tinged communist ideology that form its particular brand of revolutionary politics.

PL'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, PL 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 that end, the party has several small sections in various countries, including Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Pakistan.

Early history of the party

As it broke away from the CPUSA, 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, PL then became inspired enough by the Cuban Revolution to wind up with many of its student-aged members going to Havana and 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 campus-based May 2 Movement, which organized the first significant 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, PL dissolved M2M and entered SDS, working vigorously to attract supporters and to form party clubs on campuses.

Within a few years, PL had become the largest communist faction within SDS. Various anti-PL SDS factions took to developing their own interpretations of communist ideology and formed the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) while PL was busy organizing its supporters into the Worker Student Alliance (WSA). Clashes between the RYM and PL/WSA would soon result in an irrevocable split of SDS into separate organizations. The party's emergent criticism of ethnic nationalism bred resentment in the RYM: after supporting 'progressive nationalism' during its first few years, in 1969 PL published a document claiming that all nationalism, even 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 national-liberation struggles abroad, like with the Vietnam War. This exacerbated already-dramatic fights in SDS and hastened the split.

In the end, the PL/WSA wing won majority support at the 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago; however, it was not able to sustain SDS as a mass campus network under its leadership. The general crisis and collapse of the rest of the New Left by 1975 only accelerated as the 1970s drew to a close, and as tensions increased PL's campus members and supporters were sometimes known to engage in particularly heated shouting matches and even occasional mutually-provoked fistfights with members of rival groups like the Weathermen and the Young Lords.

The party suffered the departure of several significant collectives then. While never reduced to inoperable or insignificant, what had been a relatively cohesive organization for about a decade arguably became more fractious. 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 PL" also left the organization, "just about the only remaining one with significant mass work" (O’Brien, Five Retreats). Meanwhile, some of the party's more widely influential members drifted away as well, including Bill Epton, PL's vice chairman and Harlem branch leader, who presumably could not reconcile his own politics to that of PL's rejection of nationalism in 1969.

Though in the 1960s the party 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, PL'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 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, PL continued to offer limited tacit support to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in a fraternal party relationship.

Changes in thought, direction, and approach

In the early 1980s PL 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 Russia 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 PL'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 PL, 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 as opposed to 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.

Organizationally, the classic "cadre" conception of a communist party has been replaced by that of a "mass party" in PL's eyes, meaning 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 structure to become corrupt. Members are cautioned not to necessarily expect revolution in their lifetimes, but to build for it anyway. The party still sees the need for a Red Army and an armed populace to defend the communist society they envision from attack by resurgent ruling classes, and they utilize the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" to refer to this necessity; however, PL'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 PL'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. Members argue that differences in wages and 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. PL argues that communism should have been the glue that held these societies together, rather than abundance. In part, the party states:

The PLP believes that the primary contradiction in the world 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 E.U., 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.

The party operates on the standard Leninist principle of democratic centralism; generally, members are permitted to leave or enter the organization as best suits them, though this is obviously dependent on the type of work they are doing, the length of time they've been doing it, and how politically practical it is to stay or to leave, whether for the party collective, the individual's political base, or the individual him/herself. Regardless, no part of PL has had any known history of harassing or threatening ex-members or of trying to convince current members deeply dissatisfied with the party's direction to stay.

PL members are of the opinion that the political and economic choices of Stalin extend back to 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 PL'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. PL 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 all groups descended from Maoism, however, PL 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, PL 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.

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. PL alleges that such forces' alliances with "lesser-evil" bosses and/or fake-left groups for short-term gains—, cited by the Spanish Civil War, the assassination of Salvador Allende, and other examples, has been one of the main weaknesses of the old communist movement. Because of this, PL prefers to steadily strengthen its own political standing and recruitment via its basebuilding strategy, rather than focus energy on participation in (or creation of) leftist coalitions, as it sees most other groups claiming Marxism doing.

The party says its ideas and organizational skills were decisive in the street battle it led in Boston in 1975 that broke apart the briefly-influential mass anti-desegregation busing group Restore Our Alienated Rights. In the late 1960s and early 1970s PL's "academic" target was Arthur Jensen, and through the 1990s it continued in that vein by repeatedly and forcefully disrupting speakers and conferences promoting scientific racism, which it saw as coming back into vogue at that time with books like The Bell Curve.

In line with its anti-nationalist politics, while firmly denouncing the "fascist" policies of the State of Israel, PL 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. The party 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 CPC, 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."

Members and leaders peg the active membership of the party to be somewhere in the lower thousands, though it is not known if this estimate 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 that "members lists" or a general knowledge of specific or general membership size among participants is both unnecessary and dangerous to the party's internal security.

Present-day activities

Today, at least in the United States, the party is most widely known among the general public for its willfully confrontational and often violent stance of militant anti-fascism against groups like the Klan and the Nazi movements. The party takes open and intense pride in being the "only organization publicly known for advocating both communism and militancy." It is also active in anti-police brutality work, public health, public schools, and various types of basic industry. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 in Washington, D.C. has an open PLP member who was its president for one term and still exercises substantial influence and leadership in the Local.vRebuilding in New Orleans has also become a staple of PL's "Summer Project" work in July and August, particularly among East Coast collectives.

The party makes a point of celebrating May Day with public marches every year (on the Saturday closest to May 1), usually in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It publishes a biweekly newspaper, Challenge, and its Spanish counterpart Desafío, as well as an annual theoretical magazine, The Communist

Further reading

  • Benin, Leigh David. A Red Thread In Garment: Progressive Labor And New York City’s Industrial Heartland In The 1960s And 1970s. Ph.D. diss. New York University, 1997.
  • Benin, Leigh David. The New Labor Radicalism and New York City's Garment Industry : Progressive Labor Insurgents During the 1960s. Garland Studies in the History of American Labor Series. 330 pages. Garland Publishing. November, 1999. ISBN 0-8153-3385-4.
  • SDS: The Last Hurrah (document 4 of 5 in series) chronicles the last tumultuous days of the original Students for a Democratic Society and the rise of the Revolutionary Youth Movement and PL's Worker Student Alliance as the two principal SDS factions. Claimed to have been written by an undercover federal agent at the proceedings.
  • Sumner, D.S. and R.S. Butler (Jim Dann and Hari Dillon). The Five Retreats: A History of the Failure of the Progressive Labor Party. Reconstruction Press, 1977. ISBN (????)
  • The PLP-LP: Power to the Working Class Review of PLP album of contemporary revolutionary songs. Published on Thursday, April 13, 1972. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved October 8, 2005.
  • Waters, Mary-Alice. Maoism in the U.S.: A Critical History of the Progressive Labor Party. Young Socialist Alliance, New York, 1969.

Historic PLP Publications

  • Ault, Paul, Bill Epton, et al. eds. Progressive Labor vol. 3, no. 4, March 1964. Progressive Labor Movement. Brooklyn, NY. 1964.
  • Epton, Bill. The Black Liberation Struggle (Within The Current World Struggle). Speech at Old Westbury College, Feb. 26, 1976. 26 pages. Harlem: Black Liberation Press, 1976. Stapled paperback, cover illustrated by Tom Feelings.
  • Epton, Bill. We accuse; Bill Epton speaks to the court. Progressive Labor Party, New York. 1966.
  • Harlem Defense Council. Police Terror In Harlem. NY: Harlem Defense Council, nd [1964?]. 12 pages. Stapled paperback pamphlet. Photos.
  • [Nakashima, Wendy]. Organize! Use Wendy Nakashima's campaign for assembly (69 a.d.) to fight back!. Progressive Labor Party, New York. [1966].
  • Progressive Labor Movement. Road to revolution: the outlook of the Progressive Labor Movement. PLM, Brooklyn. 1964.
  • Progressive Labor Party. Notes on black liberation. Black Liberation Commission. Progressive Labor Party, New York. 1965.
  • Progressive Labor Party. ILWU report. Trade Union Commission of the Progressive Labor Party, Berkeley. [1965].
  • Progressive Labor Party. Smash the bosses' armed forces. A fighting program for GIs. Defeat racism and anti-Communism -- build GI-Worker Alliance -- Smash the bosses' use of the Army against workers at home and abroad. Progressive Labor Party, Brooklyn, NY. [1969?].
  • Progressive Labor Party. Nixon mines North Vietnam ports, threatens world nuclear war. Workers and students must say NO with a GENERAL STRIKE!!. Progress Labor Party, Boston. [circa 1969-71].
  • Progressive Labor Party. PL red line newsletter. vol. 1, no. 4. Campus Progressive Labor Party, [Berkeley, CA]. [1971?].
  • Progressive Labor Party. Revolution Today, USA: A look at the Progressive Labor Movement and the Progressive Labor Party. Exposition Press, New York, 1970.

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