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Progressive Labor (PL)
Formation 1961/1965
Type communist party
Purpose/focus global communist revolution followed immediately by a working class-ruled, moneyless society, with policy to be administered by hundreds of millions of workers through Party locals worldwide, coordinated through several tiers of membership meetings and forums
Location United States of America, Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, Greece
Membership unknown; in the thousands

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 its mix of New Left-tinged communist thinking.

Accordingly, 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.


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 to 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 university-campus-based May 2 Movement, which organized the first significant general 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 and a major player in the student movement's internal politics. Their politics were received with either disgust or admiration within SDS, but no one denied their massed presence and vigorous work in working class neighborhoods. When a New York City Police Department policeman, Gilligan, killed an unarmed black youth in Harlem, the neighborhood erupted in intense violence, and PLP led these riots and its leaders were arrested and arraigned for this activity.

Against that politically polarizing backdrop within the already intense worldwide movement against social injustice, various anti-PL SDS factions took to developing their own interpretations of communist ideology and formed what it named the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), while PL, in its own right, was busy organizing its supporters into their Worker Student Alliance (WSA) from 1966-69. The competing SDS factions did not get along peacefully; clashes between them were chronic and bitter, and would ultimately result in an irrevocable split of SDS into separate organizations and, shortly thereafter, the expiration of SDS itself.

By the middle of the sixties, PL was arguing that its experiences from the Harlem rebellion onward had slowly convinced them to abandon advocacy of ethnic nationalism as a politically appropriate route to workers seizing state power. In early 1969 PL came out openly with an organization-wide document called Revolutionaries Must Fight Nationalism, a document claiming that all nationalism, both nation-state-based nationalism and 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. The new position was greeted with open hostility and even rage among most of the non-PL-supporting SDS, especially RYM, who interpreted it as anti-working class and even implicitly racist and refused to accept it. RYM thought that PL was categorically rejecting the political right of groups of everyday people to self-determination. PL's attempted explanations that it was the political, not the personal, side of nationalism that it was rejecting were also refused by their opposition. The conflicts became very deeply emotional, similar to how some leftists today who support the concept of "white skin privilege" sometimes lambast those who don't with pejorative labeling. The rage on RYM's end and continued defense of the position on PL's end could not, and did not, hold the overall organization together for long.

In the end, the PL/WSA wing did indeed win majority support at the 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago. RYM, as it turned out, had teamed with the Black Panther Party to engage in deceptive tactics in the conference which deflated their political reputation and lessened the political impact of the split.[1] However, the Weatherman organization still successfully usurped the SDS name and public face through 1970 despite its defeat at the conference, and retained control of the SDS National Office until it decided to dissolve it, close the headquarters, and break off to become a violently revolutionary organization on its own. PL alone ultimately didn't have the strength to lead the SDS chapters it had successfully kept going, and so its wing buckled and collapsed a few years later — although not before a new group, the Committee Against Racism, was formed to replace it. CAR was composed at first of mostly WSA student members and the black and hispanic workers in the off-campus neighborhoods that had been recruited to WSA; over time it expanded somewhat and also founded chapters in other countries.[2][3]

Even so, the general crisis of the entire United States New Left by 1975 only accelerated the eventual failure of PL's ability to hold on to the SDS name and orientation. As tensions increased PL's remaining campus members and supporters were known to engage in particularly heated shouting matches and even occasional mutually-provoked fistfights with Weathermen and Chicano nationalists the Young Lords, as well as other smaller groups that would occasionally try to intimidate them, like the early grouping led by Lyndon LaRouche. Also, PL experienced internal split-offs — several significant PL collectives left as the seventies progressed. While not reduced to being inoperable or insignificant, it shrank and became more fractious even as it ratcheted up its work. 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. 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.

In terms of its organization, PL has replaced the classic "cadre" conception of a communist party with that of a "mass party", by which it means 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 leadership structure to become corrupt. It is one of only a few US-based communist parties to both explicitly struggle towards (in speech and writing) and contain (in its membership and leadership ranks) a multiracial and even majority-nonwhite membership. The party says it believes that revolutionaries cannot claim anti-racism without putting it into explicit practice in their own ranks. Its recruitment strategies within the US typically tend to focus on impoverished and semi-impoverished working class neighborhoods with majority black and hispanic inhabitants. In general, very little attention is paid to recruiting members out of general conglomerations like anti-war or G20 demonstrations and the like— while it is true that PL politically has no particular opposition to recruiting from within the activist community, many of its members and leaders seem to dislike it and to refer to it as, at best, not very fruitful, and at worst as a total waste of time much better spent on working full-time with inner-city workers and youth.

Members are cautioned not to necessarily expect revolution in their lifetimes, but to build for it anyway, so that the working class has the most effective leadership and collective participation possible by the time the time for revolution is ripe. The party still sees the need for a Red Army and an armed populace to defend the new 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, since it rejects socialism, 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. After PL's revolution, cash and credit money and all forms of market-based and profit-based exchanges of all types would immediately cease (or if the world were already in shambles due to world war, would simply not be restarted). Members argue that wage differences based on type of work and the 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:

Who is to say what "abundance" really is? Many working-class people in the U.S. probably live at a higher standard of living than Marx might have predicted -- better health care, longer life span, shorter workday, indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, etc. All of those material things constitute "abundance" on one level, yet we know that it is not enough, because we know of the potential for a better world. We also know that most of the world doesn't even have a fraction of what many U.S. workers have. But even if the whole world lived at this relatively "abundant" level, we would still be fighting to smash the system. The "abundance" by itself does not, and cannot, eliminate selfishness and class divisions.

Communist Economics, Communist Power (1982)

PL thinks of itself as having been born out of "the struggle against revisionism" and from that mindset takes several interesting positions regarding the 20th-century communist movement. They believe 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 virtually 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. It should again be noted, though, that PL sees the "lessons" it takes from the past (and the past itself) as only a general blueprint from which to construct a revolution in the future, not as a political safety-net in which to take refuge. In keeping with their Maoist roots, PL emphasizes action over theory, with study of the the latter being education for the former. In this way, they claim to be 'forward-thinking' in ways that other communist groups with similar roots, in their opinion, are not.

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.

On the circumstances of revolution, PL is quite steadfast. It 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 EU, 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.

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.

And in response to the current worldwide economic crisis, the PLP has continued its overall fight against the ideas and policies of the US ruling class, organizes workers into mainstream unions from which it then tries to lead wildcat strikes, berates cops and community policing strategies, and unreservedly criticizes Barack Obama for being yet another example of the rulers fooling the people with an impressive-seeming figurehead, in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton (the latter of whose "workfare" policies it had mercilessly blasted as racist "slave labor").

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 Communist Party of China, 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

May Day 2006

The party says the most overt way for it to prove that it is anti-racist given that it doesn't support ethnic nationalism is to fight racism physically, through direct action. It led a street battle in Boston in 1975 that broke apart the briefly-influential mass anti-desegregation busing group Restore Our Alienated Rights, and repeatedly targeted Arthur Jensen and similar scientific racists through the 1990s, particularly once The Bell Curve came into vogue. The PLP front group International Committee Against Racism (InCAR) at an academic conference in 1977 famously poured a pitcher of water on sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's head while chanting "Wilson, you're all wet".[4] In the 1980s the Ku Klux Klan told the Hartford Courant that "it's because of those commies in InCAR and PLP that our boys are afraid to come out in public wearing their hoods." In 1999, when the KKK tried to hold a rally in Manhattan, a member (misidentified in the media as public school teacher Harvey Mason, but actually public school teacher Derek Pearl) made headlines by infiltrating the Klan members' protest space and using it to punch a Grand Dragon in the face. More recently PL has also targeted the Minuteman Project and Save Our State.

Today, at least in the United States, the party continues to be most widely known among the general public for its wilfully confrontational and often violent stance of militant anti-fascism against Klan and Nazi groups. Whenever an organized opposition to a racist or fascist rally has not yet been planned, PL will often organize and lead one. The party takes open and intense pride in being the "only organization publicly known for advocating both communism and militancy" in the US. It is also active in anti-police brutality work, public health, public schools, and various types of basic industry, including Boeing. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 in Washington, D.C. has an open PL member who was its president for one term and still exercises substantial influence and leadership in the Local.

Rebuilding in New Orleans has also become a staple of PL's yearly "Summer Project" work in the months of July and August, particularly among US East Coast collectives.

Recently, PL has made tentative, low-key moves to examine the possibility of a relationship with the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany.

The party makes a point of celebrating May Day with public marches every year, on the Saturday closest to the first day of May, to accommodate 5-day-per-week working schedules. This closest-Saturday tradition means that PL's May Day rally sometimes, but not often, falls on 1 May itself. The three major centers for the march are always in the party's most active cities, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, though smaller supporting marches sometimes occur in less prominent cities and towns. Internationally, PL supporters typically take part in larger May Day events as contingents.

Its biweekly newspaper is Challenge and its Spanish counterpart Desafío, as well as an annual theoretical magazine, The Communist.


Klehr, Harvey (1990) Far Left of Center: The American Radical Left. New York: Transaction Publishers. p.88.

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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