Who's Who on the Far Left?

Sectarian groups have always been part of the ecology of the American Left, especially here in New York, where virtually all the major sects have their headquarters. Stalinists are at the top of the food chain, then Trotskyists, Maoists, ever tinier Trot groups, and finally--so small you can hardly find them--anarchists rejecting the entire habitat.The sectarian left feeds principally on the imagined grass of a socialism that exists somewhere else. Now it can't even be imagined--Cuba and North Korea notwithstanding. So the sects are nearing extinction. You wonder, if they were to disappear, would a higher life form move into their niche? The world does need changing. In America, wages have been falling for more than 20 years.The needy no longer have a right to public aid. Six million Americans are either in jail, prison, probation, or on parole. Each year in New York, 50,000 tenants are evicted. U.S. elections are basically just auctions. Of the total increase in American wealth in the '80s, two-thirds went to the top 1 percent.Marx's analysis of falling wages, pauperization, and increasing concentration of wealth hardly seems outdated. And reform seems just as much a long shot as revolution. So how could the original rags-to-Marxist-royalty saga not continue to inspire some? Call it the un-American dream: Anyone, no matter how weird, can grow up to overthrow the president. A few determined zealots, drilled in a close reading of Marxist texts, can close down the stock exchange, jail all their enemies, and rule mighty lands. It's happened. Many times. It was never even a close call in the U.S, but when the the system broke down in the '30s, Marxist-Leninist influence did peak. The Trots helped start the mass sit-down strike movement that led to passage of the Wagner Act, which allowed workers to organize unions. Throughout the '30s and '40s, the Communist Party U.S.A. served as a political school--especially for blacks. Former mayors Coleman Young of Detroit, Harold Washington of Chicago, and Gus Newport of Berkeley were all ex-CPers. Harlem CPer Ben Davis sat on the New York City Council till the McCarthy period. That was then and this is now. Groups adopting the vanguard model have as much effect on the U.S. power structure as a swarm of flies attacking a cannonball. The sects do serve one purpose: As long as they remain the system's primary opponents, David Rockefeller and his descendants can sleep soundly. The problem is that Communist vanguards have only been able to overthrow capitalism in closed societies. To combat such a system, you need layers of secrecy, centralized leadership, followers who speak with one voice, firm control of front groups, a military wing with lots of heavy weapons. America, however, is not a closed society. In the face of such futility, sectarianism has taken two predictable forms. One is implosion. Unable to transform the world, the leaders opt for exercising greater influence over a dwindling band of followers. The party becomes a sect, and sometimes from there, a mind-controlling cult. Machine guns and bullets, however, are usually ceremonial, like the wine and the wafer in the Eucharist. The other response to failure is disintegration. Instead of tightening the boundary between the party and the world, the leaders relax it. They get absorbed into the front groups originally created to recruit cadre. In the final stage, they enter the Democratic Party, the roach motel of American leftism: They go in but they don't come out.Here with a brief guide to the top 10 far-left American sects.1. CPUSA With nearly half its membership in New York, the CPUSA is the oldest and most illustrious of the Marxist-Leninist groups. Somehow, it's managed to combine both forms of sectarian decline. On the one hand, octogenarian chairman Gus Hall supported Clinton's reelection. On the other, a raging bunker mentality reigns in the ranks: "We're very wary," observed party spokesperson Carol Marks. "If you mention us in the context of that crazy group in Brooklyn, we'll sue you." Membership has shrunk from 65,000 to somewhere around 15,000.2. Committees of CorrespondenceThis group split from the CPUSA in the '90s, but cochair Charlene Mitchell emphasizes that not all its 1600 members come from the Marxist left. "We also have new people." Mitchell emphasizes COC's un-Leninist "pluralism." Feminism, Marxism, and liberation theology must all be able to flourish. Mitchell applauds AFL-CIO president John Sweeney's "new direction." But she concedes that the group is not growing. One reason may be the name of the organization.3. Revolutionary Communist Party"Mao More Than Ever" is the slogan of self-exiled chairman Bob Avakian. The son of an Alameda County judge, he runs this group from Paris. A former Berkeley high school teammate of future Black Panthers David Hilliard and Bobby Seale, Avakian appeared regularly in the pages of the Black Panther paper (accompanied by a portrait of him holding a gun). RCP influence peaked 20 years ago. Spokesperson Carl Dix insists the party is preparing for revolution, but how can Marxists make a revolution without organizing the workers? How many members? "As Malcolm once said," Dix advises, "Those who know don't tell. Those who tell don't know."4. Socialist Workers PartyIn the 1930s, Jimmy Hoffa went to Minneapolis to learn from Trotskyist Farrell Dobbs how to organize teamsters. In the 1990s, the SWP, like the RCP, no longer even seems to send its members into the unions. Its main activity seems to be selling the party paper, The Militant. This year's drive hopes to add 135 new subs; as of this month, though, only 53 have been sold.5. Spartacist LeaguePerhaps the edgiest members of the Trotskyist family, the most cerebral, and the most prone to factionalism. Since James Robertson created the Sparts in 1963, by splitting from the SWP, the group has split many more times. Most recently, they expelled the editor of the paper, Jan Norden, and his mishpocheh. The burning issue? How to assess the practice of Trotskyist trade unionists in a province of Brazil. "There are more than 50" Sparts in New York, a spokesperson insists.6. Workers WorldAlso known as the Marcyites, they split from the SWP about the same time as the Sparts. Ever since the '60s, they've been about as successful. Last October, they did make news in New Jersey, when Gloria La Riva, the party's presidential candidate, managed to provoke Clinton to yell, "That's a lie!" With the election over, however, members of Workers World have returned to their main project: raising money to put the complete works of 85-year-old chairman Sam Marcy on the World Wide Web. Next project: translating Marcy's paleo-Leninist banalities into more languages.7. New Alliance PartyFred Newman and Lenora Fulani serve as leaders of the Psychiatric Left. They practice "social therapy." Gayness, the party once explained, is caused by capitalism. Now Newman insists the gay community keeps you from being authentically gay. Since the Party first surfaced as the International Workers Party, they've moved from alliances with neofascist Lyndon Larouche in the '70s, Louis Farrakhan in the '80s, and now Ross Perot. Along the way, they've gathered millions in federal matching funds. The Nation estimates NAP has a few hundred hardcore members and 23 business and psychotherapeutic fronts. "The more you give, the more you grow," Fulani advises. "Take it out of your rent."8. International Socialist OrganizationA few years ago, it looked as if the Trotskyist ISO might become America's leading Marxist party. With the slogan "Neither Washington nor Moscow," it didn't go into wrenching crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's been able to recruit heavily from Ivy League schools. The problem is that, after all those bright people join up, there's nothing for them to do. Young recruits aren't interested in factory organizing. "Our problem has been, there's a change in consciousness, but not in confidence," said a veteran member of ISO. So they emphasize anti-death-penalty campaigns. In New York, a spokesperson estimated there are five ISO chapters with about 20 to 25 members in each.9. Love and RageThis anarchist group stresses antifascist work. Slogan: "Beat their asses." Most recent activity: 17 members and sympathizers went to CBGB to beat up a neo-Nazi band. The band didn't show. Spokesperson Wayne Price, a former Trot, has an un-Trotlike view of how the group will grow: "We don't think we have all the answers. But we can learn from working with other people. Teach and learn." Price estimates a national membership of 200, 25 locally.10. Asian Americans for EqualityIn 1979, the multiracial Communist Workers Party went to Greensboro, North Carolina, to fight the Klan. The Klan opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing five. CWP dissolved. New York members turned to social service work in Chinatown, joining AAFE. They started by developing real estate for low-income tenants, but eventually got involved in higher-end realty. In the last hurrah of American Maoism, AAFE ran Margaret Chin for the Lower Manhattan City Council seat. Raising serious money from Chinatown business groups, she outspent opponent Kathryn Freed by 3 to 1. Freed won anyhow.

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