Martin Glaberman, Theory and Practice

Facing Reality Publishing Committee, Detroit, 1969. With an introduction by CLR James

Submitted by Mike Harman on March 1, 2020


Every revolutionary movement has to face conditions that are unique, unique and unprecedented, because that is precisely what a revolution is, the creation of something new and hitherto unknown to the world. Those who foresee what is coming and devote themselves to advancing the cause are naturally affected by the uniqueness of the situation. Most often they are intellectuals, motivated above all by a sense of historical development; and while this pushes them away from the crimes and catastrophes associated with the breakdown of a social order, they run the extreme danger of being caught in the organizational structure and ideas of a previous age.

To be more concrete, over a hundred years ago Marx and Engels were able to put forward their ideas and programs in conflict with other organizations similar to theirs in size and potentiality. By 1914 Lenin and the revolutionaries had to deal not only with governments, but with the tremendous power of the Second International. By 1939 the revolutionary elements had to deal with the Second International, the Third International, and a powerful state claiming to be the representative of the revolutionary movement. Today the tendency which has been very “obvious during the later part of the 19th and during the 20th century has reached its climax. A revolutionary movement is now faced not only with two world political organizations which claim to represent the interests of workers, but also with two states, centered in Moscow and Peking, which are actively organizing all over the world what each claims to be the center of the movements that reflect the urgent necessity felt by most of the world for fundamental change in a decaying order.

From the days of Marx and Engels, most probably before that, the problems of those who saw the necessity of total change was always the relation between the general ideas which understood and expressed the decay and breakup of the existing social order, and the translation of this into terms of programs and policies which the great mass of the population, or that section of it which was prepared to take action, could understand and accept. The difficulty is perhaps best expressed by Oliver Cromwell in his statement that he knew what he was against, although he couldn't say exactly what he was for. The problem of a revolutionary in the middle of our disturbed century might appear at first sight to be, and in some respects is, of a difficulty far beyond that of a revolutionary in any previous age. The Marxist today has got to analyze the actual situation and clarify his ideas not only against the ideas of bourgeois society, but against the doctrines claiming to be Marxist of Moscow and Peking. So that before the task of translating ideas, analysis, and theory into concrete programs and policies, the task of theoretical clarifications and understanding faces obstacles which can be and have repeatedly proved, as we have unfortunately seen, ultimately insuperable. The task is not made any less onerous by the fact that any theory or continuation of a historical development with perspectives for the future can only take place in constant communication with the actual movement of the masses, not necessarily to lead it but at any rate absorbing the constantly new experiences which are the basis for the explosions of the future.

This task I was fortunate enough to see in all its profundities and difficult ramifications many years ago, and on the whole have been able to move with the times, maintain the historical development and yet be a part of a total movement which not only never lost touch but was always guided and impelled in particular directions by its contact with the concrete mass movement. The documents and experiences of Facing Reality are, I believe, as good an example as can be found of the strenuous effort needed for a Marxist movement in the middle of the 20th century to maintain its relation with fundamentals and yet to move, as any movement must, or perish. In this critical situation the history and development of our movement over nearly 30 years is the best evidence of the vigorous and quite successful struggles with what might appear to be an insoluble problem.

I am confident that today more than ever we have survived the perils and are well established and moving in the right direction. The proofs that I here submit are two. The first is this document, Theory and Practice, an address by Martin Glaberman, where, as never before the relation between the basic principles and ideas of Marxism and the concrete activity of a small organization are stated with an easy confidence and precision which express what we have learned through 30 years of study and struggle.

The second proof is that whereas one can easily be overwhelmed by the size and furious activity of the large organizations which compete for the support of the great masses of the population, the substantial fact is that they no longer occupy any position of influence or authority among the great mass of the people trying to find their way out of the social and political morass in which they live. Therefore, as never before, the road to the masses is wide open for the small organization which has known how to preserve itself in theory and practice during the years previous to the present crisis. The only program, policy, perspective is the recognition that those with ideas will not lead the mass. As we have once more seen in France, the mass movement, as it has done for hundreds of years, will register its rejection of the social order in decay. And today more than ever the road is open between the mass movement and those who have ideas corresponding to the needs of the day.

NOVEMBER 23, 1968

Theory and Practice [1]

The Conference starts under somewhat unusual circumstances. It was organized in great haste. A lot of what is ordinarily done for a conference will have to be done at the Conference itself. The usual kinds of proposals in mimeographed form that people read and study for a few weeks before a conference just aren't available. It is also unusual in another respect. It is one of the characteristics of Facing Reality to be as objective and candid about ourselves “as we can, it is a conference that was called by the organization in opposition to the Chairman. I thought that we had no special reason to run with such haste into a conference. Everybody else thought otherwise and, on the basis of why the Conference was called, I suspect everyone else was right. Without being able to put your finger on any particular thing, things were happening with such rapidity in the world, in the United States in particular and in the world in general, that everybody felt that there was some need for all of us to get together to examine what is happening in the world and to see to what extent Facing Reality could meet the responsibilities of an organization, a revolutionary organization, in these times.

And things didn't stop happening because we called the Conference, and I think the only place to begin in discussing what the world is like today at a political conference is to begin with France. We can't end with France because France is a continuing revolutionary situation. In some respects, what happened was startling and surprising. To most people it was startling and surprising. Even for us to some extent. About a week ago I received a letter from C. L. R. James, who said that he was surprised by the events in France. I understand that within a certain framework. We have lived with the understanding and expectation of events of this kind for almost all of our political lives and the political life of the organization. And what was meant specifically was that, while things would inevitably break out in France, it seemed more “likely that they would break out on the death of deGaulle or the retirement of deGaulle. But apparently the French working class and the French students decided not to wait.

What is happening is almost a classic demonstration of what a revolution is in modern times. You have the wave of student demonstrations, posing issues which are originally limited to the university, but even in that limitation already indicate a conception of the society as a whole, its weaknesses and its limitations, and the alienation which people suffer under it. And then the rulers, again inevitably, spur the thing on with what Lenin called "the whip of the counter-revolution" the excessive brutality in getting the students out of the Sorbonne brought the majority of the students over to the rebels, and very quickly all of French higher education and a good part of French lower education was in the hands of the students with the support of much of the faculty. And then, again in almost classic form, although the concreteness is specifically French every revolution is specifically the revolution of that country-the thing is transformed into a fundamental social movement by the participation of the working class against its own organizations.

It begins to their surprise with what leaders of the trade union movement keep calling "the people we last expected" the women in the aviation plant in Nantes, the young people who never joined the union until after the strikes began, whole plants that were unorganized, unavailable to either the Communist or the Catholic or the Social Democratic unions, sit down and then march over in a body to the union halls and say they want to become members. The fact is that all the organizations of the working class and in France that means, above all else, the Communist Party and the Communist-controlled C.G.T. (General Confederation of Labor)are not only to the rear of the students and the workers, but what is much more pertinent to our times and to an understanding of the situation, opposed to the workers.

The opposition is reflected in the fact that it takes them about two days to catch up with where the workers are. But it's a kind of catching up which attempts to impose limitations and restrictions on the movement. First they say the workers are sitting in for a whole series of economic demands: increased wages, increased social security benefits (which were cut by the Gaullist regime), and so forth. Everybody seems satisfied with those demands. And then they win the demands in negotiation and the two top leaders of the C.G.T, the Secretary-General and the President, both of whom are top leaders of the CP (the president of the union is a member of the Political Committee of the Communist Party) are publicly repudiated in person by the workers in Citroen and Renault in Paris, and the whole damn thing falls apart.

The attempt to keep it in the limited framework of economic demands and a political shuffling of the government, replacing [Prime Minister] Pompidou with a Socialist-Communist government of one kind or another, obviously has no relation to what is happening. And what is also obvious is that the working class itself is developing during this period. What seems perfectly reasonable to the workers on one day a 35% increase in the minimum wage or a 10% increase in wages across the board all across France, for example becomes very unreasonable the next day when it is finally granted.

And what is crucial in the whole situation; and what was terrifying everybody; and what forced deGaulle into the only position that he, as leader of French capitalism, can hold, is the fact that unlike strikes in which workers are walking the streets, unlike election campaigns where everything is within the framework of parliamentary democracy what is happening in France is based on the fact that the workers are in the factories, the students are in the schools, the clerks are in the shops and offices. This includes government offices, this includes, I believe, the naval arsenal near Marseilles. In other words, it is “not simply a matter of starving the workers out; the workers are in a position of power unparalleled in the history of France or any other country. And deGaulle, who, if anything, understands the seriousness of the situation, has decided simply not to capitulate, which means that the inevitable confrontation reaches a new stage.
The degree of violence is not determinable, not in advance. But again, I think what has to be realized in this particular situation is that the basic social power in France is today in the hands of the workers, and that the only thing that can cause them to give it up, outside of an absolute and overpowering military defeat, which at the moment doesn't look likely there's no way of predicting that either is that the French Communist Party can reassert its influence over the working class in such a way that the movement is limited, restricted, or led to some kind of defeat. There is no way to predict that.

The background for the history of France in the last ten years was presented in Facing Reality. A selection from that is reprinted in the November 20 issue of Speak Out, on France in the fifties. In a series of battles, the French working class separated itself from the French Communist Party and went over to direct industrial action, and any influence that the French Communist Party had in France was limited to the parliamentary field. Now, while that influence has been extended in the last few days, it is on a very tenuous basis. It is extended only to the extent or the degree that the Communist Party can keep running after what the working class is demanding or what it is thinking. It is perfectly obvious that at every particular point the Communist Party just does not know. They were certain that the workers would accept the favorable economic benefits negotiated between Pompidou and the trade union leaders. They were completely surprised by the fact that they were voted down and booed. And this has been happening at every stage.

Now this kind of development, the fact that this is one of the fundamental tendencies of modern society, has been part of the political basis of Facing Reality almost from its foundation. Those of you who are aware of what the state of socialist politics was in 1956, for example, are aware of the fact that all of the various viewpoints that called themselves Marxist or socialist or revolutionary around the world, based themselves fundamentally on the analysis that the revolution could really not take place. It couldn't take place in the totalitarian East, because what workers need for a revolution is a certain amount of political freedom to form their own organizations, to have a press, to discuss questions, to be able to choose a leadership and on the basis of this move on to the seizure of power. And it couldn't happen in the West, because what workers need to make a revolution is poverty, is a kind of economic exploitation which drives them to resist those who are oppressing them; and in the West, because of the post-war affluence, any hope for a revolutionary development was lost.

The first part of that theory was destroyed in 1956, and it is on that destruction that Facing Reality, our book, is based. And the second part, if it hasn't been destroyed up until now, is destroyed in France today. It doesn't matter whether this revolution is successful or not. What matters is that this is what drives the modern industrial working class in all industrial societies, whether they are totalitarian, whether they are welfare-state capitalist, whether they are politically relatively free or politically relatively unfree.

I insist on the fact that we have been able to base our politics on this kind of development to indicate the kind of role that a small Marxist organization has to play in this world that we're in, the United States in particular. There are lots of people around the world, it's in the nature of revolutionary times, that when they see a revolution say, "Great, we are for it, we support it, we will do what we can." And you don't have to be a Marxist to be able to say that, to say you are with the French workers. But that is relatively temporary and limited. And it seems to me what is necessary in these times and, again, particularly in the United States, is the kind of total view, a kind of fundamental analysis which makes these huge events not surprises, except in the very immediate sense of when they break out and how they break out, but an integral part of the political philosophy and a political theory which is then applied day to day and on the basis of which people live and function in whatever manner the society makes possible.

We came to that, not by accident, not because we willed revolution, but because we felt that the only way to live in these times was not by a ritual kind of Marxism in which Marxism is equated with a political line. What is crucial to Marxism is that it is a living doctrine. It is not a political line. It is a method of analysing the society in which we live.

We spent a good many years in developing an analysis of both Capital and its application to today, a new stage of capitalist society, that is, state capitalism; and dialectics and its application to an understanding of what's happening in the world today. In 1948, under very different circumstances (because we were an opposition group within the Trotskyist movement, we had no public press, no way of discussing this freely, and this particular document couldn't be discussed because it would have meant immediate expulsion for the ideas which were so radical to the Trotskyists at that time, and today for that matter), we produced a document called Notes on Dialectics which was intended to study how a Marxist organization can apply dialectical materialism to the serious events in the world. A progression is presented and it is applied to the development of the working-class movement and certain stages are indicated. The category of the working class, the category of the organization of the working class, is taken from the days of Marx and the First International, the Second International, the revolution of 1917 and the Third International, and the conclusion is reached in abstract form necessarily because the events weren't there to make it concrete and because it was merely a theoretical projection the conclusion was reached in 1948 that the next stage was the abandonment or the destruction of the vanguard party, which was the character of all organizations up until then, and the functioning of the total working class as a political body.

The confirmation of that came eight years later in Hungary in 1956, for without a political party of any kind and with the total destruction of the only one that was in existence, the Hungarian Communist Party, the Hungarian working class formed its workers' councils. And the reports of workers' councils have already appeared in the capitalist press, the [London] Observer in particular, in relation to the events in France. Communication is extremely difficult. It is difficult because it is difficult physically, but it is even more difficult because it is difficult politically, for the average correspondent has no idea what to look for and can't recognize it when he sees it. So that years later, you find out that all these wonderful things happened. While they're going on, they seem to have a much more limited character than they really have in fact. Because to me it is inconceivable that the workers at Renault with a long union and Communist tradition would vote down a major economic victory and boo down a member of the Political [Committee] of the Communist Party and the Secretary-General of the Trade Union Confederation unless they already had functioning informally or formally on the shop floor their own independent working-class organizations or formations; the embryo or the equivalent or the beginning of the workers' councils. And that has to be true, if not everywhere, at least substantially, all across France.

What is involved fundamentally in our analysis is that capitalism is in a new stage, a stage that we have called state capitalist. There are a number of state capitalist viewpoints in the world today, but mostly they are descriptions of Russia. They say, "Well, Russia is capitalist like the West." They have reached that conclusion, which we came to in 1941. But that a conception like that means a stage in the world; that labor leaders in France, in England, in the United States have to reflect that same situation; that Reuther in the UAW can function only in the same way as a Stalinist trade union functionary functions in France, a Labor Party and trade union functionary functions in England, and a Communist Party functionary functions in Russia that is beyond most groups and organizations in the socialist movement. It requires a kind of totality of conception of the nature of the stage in which we live, which, it seems to me, only an intense concern with the events but in relation to a living continuing theory can provide.

Before the events in France broke out we were working on a book which is called tentatively, The Gathering Forces, which is to be an analysis of the world 50 years after the Russian Revolution. [2] Everybody was celebrating the Russian Revolution last year, the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, celebrating or mourning, as the case may be. Our interest was not in either celebrating or mourning, but in taking the Russian Revolution as one of the tremendous turning points in world history, examining the world and how the Russian Revolution has shaped that world in the 50 years. And here, again, the French Revolution, or the beginning of one, continues concretely what we have begun to develop theoretically.

One of the main characteristics of the most recent period, particularly the period after World War II, is the revolution in the Third World, the winning of independence by the major nations of Asia and Africa and the Cuban Revolution. And while there have been certain things said about agricultural societies, peasant societies, by Marxists, these were rather scattered and many of them were not applicable to the times in which we live. Yet it was relevant to the development of a total theory or a total conception of the world in which we live, because one of the things that happened after World War II was the apparent domination of the industrial world by Russia and the United States and the apparent immobility of the working class. The revolutionary activity in Africa and in Asia combined to give most people [a limited] idea of a revolution in the industrialized world, above all in the United States and Russia. And those theories abound; they abound to this day, in the Negro movement, for example, in the New Left, the idea that, well, perhaps American capitalism can be overthrown, but not by the American working class. It will have to be overthrown by its colonials the equivalent of a Cuba or a Vietnam in Africa or South America will destroy American capitalism.

What is the relation of the revolution in the Third World to what we have to do in the United States in particular and the industrialized world in general? Here again, some totality of conception is necessary. It is not enough to say "We are for," or, "We are against." And it is not enough to treat the question as it is traditionally treated, as all questions are traditionally treated, as a matter of political line. You take a society; you say you are for or you are against; you like it or you don't like it; it is good or it is bad; it is revolutionary or it is counter-revolutionary; it is socialist or it is capitalist or state capitalist or something of that sort. What gets lost in the process of this kind of analysis is the fact that any analysis has to be a moving, living thing; and it loses sight of the fact that the period in which we live is a revolutionary period, which means it is not a static period consisting of so many societies of one kind and so many societies of another kind. It is a period in which societies are constantly changing, being overthrown, being modified, and unless categories with which you think are being modified to suit the real world in which we live, your thought does not reflect, cannot reflect, that world.

To take one case in particular, Cuba. It is possible to apply the principles of 1917 and the disputes between Trotsky and Stalin and say, "Workers' state or capitalist state?" Socialism in one country is impossible, and if it was impossible in a country as huge and with as many resources as the Soviet Union, it surely is impossible on as small an island as Cuba. But socialism even in 1917 was not a formal determination of which side the state was on in any narrow sense. Lenin called the Soviet Union state capitalist; he said it was under workers' control. And what is involved fundamentally in our understanding of these new emerging nations, in particular those that are attempting to achieve some kind of socialist future for themselves, is not whether ultimately that future is possible without a socialist world which includes the industrialized nations, but for now, whether the conditions under which they live are conditions under which the masses of the people in those countries are participating in the transformation of those countries or in the maintenance of some kind of direction or movement. In other words, do you have, as I believe you have in Cuba, for example, essentially a broad participation from below?

With all sorts of defects, with all sorts of limitationsif that wasn't true, Cuba wouldn't be a backward country, Cuba wouldn't have had to, a few years ago, fight the battle against illiteracy, Cuba wouldn't have the problem of any kind of industrializationbut because it is that kind of country, the kind of participation that is available to the people of that country is therefore not the kind available to the workers of Paris or the workers of Budapest. But it seems to me nevertheless to be a genuine participation. A genuine exchange exists between those who are leading Cuban society and those who make up the basis for Cuban society, and within that framework it is not a matter of saying Cuba is a socialist society or Cuba is not a socialist society. It is possible to say that Cuba is developing in a direction, to the extent that it can, of building a socialist society, but that the building of that society is possible only in the framework of the transformation of the industrialized world. That is, ultimately, if revolutions do not take place in North America and in Europe, then it is impossible, no matter what the participation, to prevent the development of bureaucracy, of planning from above, of trying to lift the nation up in spite of its citizens, so to speak, which was the old characteristic of Stalinism and to some extent is the characteristic of Mao in China.

But that is ultimately. In the same way that you can't set conditions on the Hungarians, you can't say, "Well, you should have known you were going to be invaded by the Russians and lose," you can't say to the Cubans, "You should have known you can't build socialism in one country; you've got to sit back and wait until the Americans make a revolution or the Europeans make a revolution." And, by the way, the theoretical equivalent of that is to say to the Negroes, "You should know that you can't transform American society unless the working class makes a revolution, so you should sit back and wait.'' Unless you are prepared to say that to the people in the underdeveloped countries, you can't set the kind of rigid formal test that used to be traditional in the Marxist movement and which I think is terribly out of place and inapplicable today.

Hopefully, The Gathering Forces, when it appears, will put the revolution in the Third World and the attempt to create some kind of socialism or tentative socialism in the Third World in a Marxist framework. Not everywhere. In a lot of places there isn't even any attempt. In other places there is the apparent attempt which is not in fact an attempt to create socialism. But where it is, I think we have to accept it and incorporate it as part of our thinking about a stage in society which is revolutionary, in which all kinds of transformations are taking place, in which people are experimenting with new forms and new possibilities.

The kind of relation that exists between some of the problems of the Third World and some of the problems of the industrialized world is reflected here in the United States. One reason the Negro question in the United States and the struggle for black liberation in the United States has the attraction all over the world that it does is that it tends to combine within itself some of the problems of the Third World and some of the problems of the industrialized world. It is clearly a national question and not simply a class question. And yet, clearly, questions of class are involved. Now, again, what is true of the French revolution is true of the struggle for black liberation. You don't have to be a Marxist to know which side you are on. You don't have to be a Marxist to understand how to function in the day to day struggle. However, one of the things that happens after a period of struggle is that the struggle itself, while important, is not everything. People want some kind of conception into which to fit what they are doing, so that they can understand the struggle that they are participating in in relation to other things. And it is here that some kind of total theoretical and political conception can contribute.

And it can contribute more directly. We were talking in the car coming up, pointing out the scenery of Detroit, which is essentially a scenery of plants, ghettos, riot areas and former ghettos that have been urban renewed and now have high-rise, high-cost housing. One of the characteristics of the explosion in the United States and the explosion in Detroit last summer, which was not just typical, but reached a kind of peak, was the total surprise by which it took the Negro nationalists, all the black militants. They weren't even in town; they were off in Newark holding some kind of convention discussing how to liberate the cities. I don't say this, by the way, in the sense of criticism because this thing happens all the time, you are really taken by surprise. But their first reaction was very ambiguous: "Well, we were thinking of revolution, but is this really a revolution, people rioting and looting and so forth?" I know some SNCC [Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee] kids; it took them about two days to realize that this had better be the revolution and they had better be in it or they would be really out of it.

The reason it surprised everybody is that in Detroit, above all other cities, the Negro ghetto reflects the society and the misconceptions that people have about that society. There are substantial numbers of Negroes in Detroit in auto. That is, they are not what people thought you have on 12th Street and you do have to some extent in Harlem and Watts, the most miserably oppressed, unemployed, transient, marginal people in the society. These are people who are making the best industrial wages in the country. Right now, with the new contracts, it's over $3.25 an hour. There are people with 10 or 20 years seniority and they have been making that kind of money for long enough to have bought houses and cars and sent some of their kids to college. It is a community in which there is a substantial middle class. And one of the consequences of the other Civil Rights movement, the political Civil Rights movement, was that a lot of Negroes were in the last three or four years introduced into other occupations from which they had been excluded, sales people downtown, bank clerks and things of that sort, and up into the lower executive echelons. Plus you have the so-called sophisticated liberal Democrat Cavanaugh as mayor of Detroit. You have the most massive outpouring into the anti-poverty program anywhere in the country and this town blows and it blows because there was a misconception to begin with on what causes revolution.

It is not oppression, poverty and despair that causes revolutions; it is the possibility of a new society, a possibility of ending alienation; nobody could be bought off from that by the fact that he has his own house, in the city or in the suburb, it really doesn't matter. Marx wrote about it a long time ago, but people don't really believe that that's what Marx said. People believe that Marx said that everybody gets paid too little. If anybody is interested, in the summary, I can read you quote after quote from Capital where Marx said the exact opposite. He says this society will die the term he uses is under penalty of death unless it transforms work and the detailed labor which makes of everybody a fragment of a man to the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labors, and where his social functions not merely industrial functions, all the social functions become merely different ways of expressing his natural and acquired characteristics. Not a word there about low wages; not a word there about unemployment; although obviously those are factors. That kind of conception applies to the black liberation struggle as it applies to the French revolution, as it applies to Hungary.

But there are certain specific problems that relate to the relation of a small Marxist organization to various movements of this kind and to the socialist revolution itself. I said that we, in our analysis a number of years ago, reached the conclusion that the age of the vanguard party was over (not that the vanguard party was over, the vanguard party was confronted by the French workers in France today). It has to be pushed out of the way, destroyed to make any progress at all. That means, specifically, that because we have all these very fine ideas, etc., it does not thereby become our function to lead all these masses, that without this leadership they are lost, they don't even understand what they are doing. That's a lot of nonsense and anybody who thinks that there's any truth in that is in real difficulty. And the basic reason that the Old Left in the United States is in such constant difficulty is that they have no other conception of how to function.

I want to give you a specific example of what is involved, a very peculiar dialectical relation between what a Marxist organization can contribute and what concrete organizations of struggle are about. We have the experience in our own organization. We attend some of the meetings, black liberation meetings, and we are confronted by a demonstration of hostility to whites. And you think to yourself, because you know the Negro struggle is independently valid, that it is making all kinds of changes in the society, but for this society to be really overthrown it has to be overthrown by a total revolution which means fundamentally the American working class. And where we differ from a lot of other peopleI don't want to go into that unless somebody wants to raise itis that we have a conception of the American working class which considers it, not non-racist, not that it is going to be won over to the black liberation struggle, but that it is inherently revolutionary on its own because it has to struggle against capitalists and capitalism in any way that it can; and ultimately it will have to explode the way the French have exploded and the way the Hungarians have exploded.

It is very easy, therefore, to think to yourself, "Don't these people realize that? If they don't, we've got to tell them that." Not quite. Not quite. Because in the fact of the liberation struggle the militants are trying to establish their independence, trying to shake off their backs the years of liberal white, radical white and let's not play around with the words; the radicals were as bad as or worse than the liberals domination of the various organs of black liberation, the NAACP, the Urban League, CORE for a number of years, and a lot of others, the marches on Washington, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and so forth. There is always, through money or direct political intervention, the influence of whites. It you are attempting to form a viable organ of struggle against this society in the ghetto, you can't possibly end every speech with, "We're going to do this; we're going to arm; we're going to fight the cops; we're going to do the other things; and, when all is said and done, you've got to know that the white workers are going to overthrow American capitalism." Because that last sentence completely vitiates everything you have said before. Well, okay, we can sit back and wait. It is a practical political matter; it is impossible for that to be part of the functioning background of the black liberation movement. Not that they are wrong and we are right; they have a different function from a Marxist organizaton.

But that doctrine has to be available to the black liberation movement for people to see and understand there are a lot of people in the movement particularly in Detroit who know that, because they know the Negro industrial workers and they know the white industrial workers and they know their revolutionary capacity. But it can't be part of the black liberation struggle directly, it has to be part of what a Marxist organization contributes to that struggle in terms of its press which is available, in terms of the people in that struggle who become members of the Marxist organization, not to capture the liberation struggle, not at all. They are willing to participate where they can in the struggle for socialism in the United States where it is. And unless you understand there can be that contradiction between the needs of an independent mass struggle and the needs and purposes and functions of a Marxist organizationnot opposition because the two supplement each other, but at the very least a contradiction between the twoyou begin to think of the Marxist party as the party that has to organize everybody and win everybody over, because unless you know what we know, you're wrong, which is nonsense. Or, on the other hand, you say "What do you need a Marxist organization for?" Then you begin to lose the grasp of the totality, of the conception of the total society as it really is.

One of the reasons France can explode in one day, and Hungary can explode in one day, and it took just about a week or two for the Revolution to cross Russia, is not just modern technology but because the ideas which in 1917 were limited to a handful of people, Lenin and the Bolsheviks and so forth, are today part of the world. You don't have to be a Marxist to know that the state has to decide all sorts of things which can't be left to private business anymore. That wasn't understood in 1917; everybody understands that today. So you get this peculiar and specific kind of relationship for our period between a Marxist organization and a liberation struggle.

And that contradiction applies in other ways. There was a report or a series of articles they appeared in the New Republic a couple of years ago before the battles had reached the ghettos. There were some people in the South who participated in the liberation movement there and were already reaching the mature ages of their late twenties and were looking back on their radical youth and determining what made them function the way they did. One of the kids said, one of the black kids from Mississippi, that his father, whom he had always respected, who he had known had taken part in black liberation struggles years before, when he came to him in the later fifties to discuss what could be done, everything he had to propose his father had gone through. And his father gave him the wisdom of his years. The wisdom of his years was, and it was the literal truth and his father would have been less than honest if he had said otherwise: "It wouldn't work. You want to picket? We picketed; we got our heads beat in. You want to do this? You want to do that? You want to do the other thing? We have a tremendous experience that shows that you can't do it.

And that has been essentially the role of the Old Left, not just the old militants in the black liberation struggle. And one of the basic reasons why in this world today, not in 1917, when there was a lot of reason for a vanguard party, but today, there again has to be that separation, that supplementation one of the other, is that only by being in a specific organ of struggle not burdened by years of doctrine and theory, a lot of which is right and some of which is wrong, are you free to experiment, to make all kinds of mistakes and to find out that things which were impossible 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago are now possible. To find out that racist sheriffs who were all-powerful in 1940 are not quite as powerful in 1960. To find out that the Democratic Party in the South which was a solid racist organization can be broken up.

That's in the struggle for black liberation. It applies to SDS and the student movement. It applies to the anti-war movement. Every Marxist can give you a thousand reasons why an anti-war movement as such is doomed to failure. Why? Because war is inevitable under capitalism and unless you overthrow the capitalist system, you can't prevent war. True, absolutely true. But also absolutely useless to anybody who is participating in an anti-war movement. That Marxist theory and doctrine has to be present, has to be available to illuminate, to clarify, to combine in a totality, to be able to relate the antiwar movement, the black liberation movement, the working-class movement and the movement of the Third World and the movement abroad. But you can't replace the concrete struggles which can only live by experimentation, by making mistakes, by what Hegel calls risking your life, without which you cannot be free. The Marxists tend to have too much doctrine at stake to risk their lives, and I say this as a Marxist, as someone who believes in the absolute necessity for a Marxist organization in our world.

Unless we live by that understanding of the kind of dialectical relationship between the specific function of a Marxist organization to develop and apply theory as a living thing to continually understand the world in which we live, to make it available to the broadest possible number of people, people who are functioning in all sorts of ways in the concrete struggle for liberation, we don't have the conception of the purpose and nature of a Marxist organization. Nor do we see the nature and fantastic strength of all these organizations that have been set up, some permanent, some temporary, some not as good as others, but still all of them set up to carry on specific struggles in all sorts of fieldsthe field of black liberation, anti-war, the student movement, women, almost anything you can name; because there isn't a section in this society in which there isn't disaffection, alienation, and an attempt to achieve some kind of change.

But it is never a matter of theory versus practice, because if it is, the theory will in the shortest possible time, come to an end as rigid doctrine and dogma. It will be fit for libraries and nothing else. Unless the theory is integrally related to practice, it is no theory at all. It has to be a theory that is applied constantly to what is going on in the world today. And that means that the Marxist organization, although it is not a vanguard party of the past, although it does not try to encompass the whole of what is going on in the world or all the people that are functioning in the world, it has to have within itself, and base itself on, representative sections of the society and participants in all the concrete struggles. Not, as in the old days, front organizations. You had fractions the Communist fraction of this union and the Trotskyist fraction in this Negro organization. Your ultimate objective was to take over the organization and impose your line. So, if you have left that behind, then it becomes absolutely necessary that, for your organization to live as a Marxist organization, and to make its contribution to the totality of the struggle, you have to have as members and participants in the constant revision of your theory and your ideas, people who are taking part in the concrete struggles as participants, contributing what they have. If they have qualities of leadership, they become leaders. If they have qualities of mimeograph machine operators, they become mimeograph machine operators. If they have qualities of carriers of picket signs or walkers of picket lines, fine!

The point is there is no imposition; there is a free exchange of personnel and experience and then the organization is able to learn from the movement. And unless it learns from the movement, it cannot develop its own theory and thereby contribute in turn to the movement. And it can't learn from a movement in terms of reporters for a press. I don't know how many times this has happened with the best will in the world if you are a reporter and you come up to somebody who just got out of jail, or just got off a picket line, they'll tell you and they'll try to tell you as honestly as they can and you'll try to write it down as honestly as you can, but between the experience and the telling and the writing there will be two sets of transformations, and it won't be the same. It will be a formality. It will be an abstraction. It will be an approximate reflection, which is already wrong, of what has really happened in that particular struggle or that prison or whatever. And unless the organization lives in the struggle itself and doesn't merely sit byI'm not against sending out reporters; if you're not somewhere and something happens, you send to the factory gate and say to the workers, "What happened? Why are you on strike?" And so forth but hopefully a Marxist organization can build itself up to the strength, the capacity, not only to carry out its own specific functions, but so that it can be a participant in all the significant movements and organizations that are existing in the society in which we live.

We have lived for many years on the conception of the revolutionary capacity of the working class, the American working class above all, because we are an American organization, not because the American working class is the greatest working class in the world, the industrialized working class. But even there, the working class has certain limitations. I don't know if anybody has participated in a wildcat strike. Working-class democracy, working-class-action, is a very unique and distinctive thing. It takes several forms. One of the forms which is very frequent, and the kind that short wildcats usually take, is that you're working on a machine or on a line and you see some people coming down the aisle heading toward the time clock. And you look up, and it isn't lunch time and it isn't quitting time and there are too many people to be going to the tool crib. So you know they're leaving the plant. So what you do, literally, is shut your machine. If you've got tools, you put them in your tool box; you lock your box and you wipe your hands and you walk out; you punch out. You have no idea what's happening, none whatsoever. All you know is that the plant's being struck; and the sight, visually, is fantastic. You see a factory melting away, until the last man is out the door. Then you go outside and say, "What the hell's going on?" "Oh, such and such happened." And then you might say, "Well, great; it's about time. We've been taking this shit for too long." Or you might say, "What kind of nonsense is that? You mean you walked out for that?"

The point I'm getting at is when you get outside you might find that you support the strike or you oppose the strike, but the basic characteristic of the working class is that first you strike. Unless everybody strikes there's no meaningful action. You can get ten college professors and you have four for the war and four against the war and two who don't know where they stand. And so the four who are against the war will organize an anti-war movement; the four who are for the war will organize a pro-war group and the other two get argued at by these first eight. But the working class can't function that way. Everybody strikes. You don't wait until you get 51% of the vote. Unless you have an awareness, by the way, that 90% really support you, you don't even bother. Five guys just don't walk out to strike. Well, once in a while, some kind of issue will happen and somebody will get up a picket line all by himself in front of the plant. That is very rare. That isn't the natural way that the working class functions.

But there's a peculiar element in that. To shut your machine down in full confidence that everybody else is, is not an instinct that you're born with. When you get out of the womb, you don't know how to run a wildcat strike. It comes from a long experience in a particular plant, a knowledge of the particular form of production, of your particular workmates on the whole and what you can expect of them and what they can expect of you. Not just in general but in particular. Who is a good speaker? Who is a good negotiator? Who is an intransigent bargainer? Who is a hard-nosed goon who will beat up scabs? You've got to know all of these things. And it takes a long time to develop, because it's not developed in terms of formal discussion; it's developed in terms of living experience.

And so what is characteristic of the working class in its struggles is three things basically. One, it is not public because it is not vocal; workers don't read or speak, and workers don't write. So you don't read about it in the press or hear about it at mass meetings. It just happens in the factories, and unless you're there, you don't know what's going on. Two, it takes time; it's not a moral question which suddenly excites everybody. It's a slow developing kind of thing, and as capitalist production changes, which it does constantly, it requires the workers to change. The period of the fifties, for example, in Detroit was a period of wholesale automation; plants shut down, new plants built, workers transferred. Which means that all sorts of new relations have to be determined and built up and new experiences made. But it also means that when the explosion finally takes place, it takes place with immense powerFrance, ten million people across the country in one day. You don't have to slowly build up an anti-war committee; it's a different kind of thing, but it's also a slowly maturing thing with a sudden explosion at the end. And it's because of that that there are years where even in a Marxist organization, people who are not in the factories (and it becomes true of the organization as a whole if it does not have immediate contact with people who are in factories) begin to develop a ritualistic but more and more meaningless attachment to the idea that the working class is revolutionary.

That was true, by the way, over a long period of years, of Trotskyists and the Communists; they're the ones who insist all the time on the proletarian revolution they will lead it, but the proletariat will make it. It has become a ritualistic thing with no conception of the proletariat. The fact that you're not as ritualistic to start with this is the real world in which we live and it's not a world of abstractions you can't maintain that fidelity to theory and to fundamental ideas unless it is in living relation to the reality, unless you have people who are workers in your organization to constantly check you, to say, "Hell, no, you're wrong," or, "Don't write us off," or something of that kind.

What I'm trying to say in other words is that we begin with a certain conception of the world, a revolutionary conception. Our primary concern is not that all facts are equal or all events are equal. Our primary concern is an attachment to those events, those facts, those people who are revolutionary in this world. It's that that we base our politics on. Then we have beyond that, a specific relation to particular revolutionary movements and developments, and then beyond that, those revolutionary developments and those particular classes and sections of society involved in it have to be part of our organization, not because we have to run it all, but precisely because unless we do have these people in our organization, we might be tempted to run it all; we might be tempted to neglect or forget our theories, and say the working class really seems to be backward so we've got to try to achieve leadership over it or educate it or bring it into our organization or do all sorts of things which aren't very strange because organizations are doing it all the time. That's why Marxism has such a bad reputation in the world, because Marxist organizations are always trying to do that kind of thing. That's why even the term Marxism is such an ambiguous term these days; we say we're Marxist; so does the CP; so does the SP; there must be a dozen organizations in France alone that say they're Marxist. What I'm saying is this: that to be a living doctrine, that is applicable to the world, that makes the world intelligible, it has to be also a living organization; it has to be an organization which lives in this world and has people who participate in the revolutionary struggles in this world.

The purpose of this conference, the following points on the agenda, is first to find out what is really happening in terms of the concrete reports of people who are participants in particular struggles, and then, to the extent that it is possible in this kind of political framework, make our decisions on what we have to do, what we have to publish, the kinds of organizational steps we have to take, all sorts of decisions, some of which are routine for any organization, some of which are very specific to us, in terms of a press. The kind of political orientation that I described implies above all else the fact of as intimate a connection in terms of a press with the society as is possible, where you are reporting what is taking place in the building of socialism in the United States and everywhere in the world, through which you are participating in those struggles to the extent that you are participating in those struggles, and in which you are making your specific contribution; where you can say what Johnny Watson, [3] for example, can't say: that the American working class is revolutionary. Provided you don't say, therefore wait and depend on it. Where you can say, this is what the anti-war movement has accomplished and these are the conclusions we can draw for social movements in general, for this society in general, for the world in general, for theory, Marxist or any other kind. And it is to work out the concrete conclusions from that kind of an attitude that the rest of the agenda is set up. That concludes the introductory report, and the floor is open for discussion.

MAY 31, 1968


1. Opening speech to a conference of the Facing Reality Publishing Committee, May 30, 1968.

2. The book was never published because differences about China and some other matters could not be resolved. A draft in mimeographed form was circulated among members and friends.

3. John Watson was one of the leaders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. He was for two years the editor of The South End, the Wayne State University student newspaper, which was used as an organ of revolutionary black militants.