Sophia Burns’ Politics is a Case Study in the Right-Opportunist Conception of the Mass Line Method of Communist Leadership
“The necessity of systematically imbuing the masses with this and precisely this view of violent revolution lies at the root of the entire theory of Marx and Engels. The betrayal of their theory by the now prevailing social-chauvinist and Kautskyite trends expresses itself strikingly in both these trends ignoring such propaganda and agitation” — Lenin in State and Revolution
As Maoists, we define our position in relation to the masses, the rest of the Left, and the world in general through struggle. This means criticism of every position, including our own.
As we exist in the imperialist metropole, one of our main struggles must be against a kind of default right-opportunism, an opportunism produced through the strength of the superstructural forces of the bourgeoisie and through the bribery, relatively large or small depending on certain factors, of large swaths of the masses in the metropole through admission into the labor aristocracy, etc. These factors which impact the masses also impact the Left, making tailism and economism very attractive (this is by far not the last word on this default opportunism — see the “Further Reading” section for more on this).
This struggle against right-opportunism often manifests itself as a struggle against a rightist deviation from the mass line method of communist leadership, the method through which communists scientifically unite with and lead the masses, as well as the method through which we identify the social body called the masses which, led by the proletariat, are capable of making revolution.
The Communist Labor Party activist and theorist Sophia Burns is a leading US theorist of the right opportunist deviation from the mass line. We have prepared this initial criticism of Burns’ positions to help clarify in folks’ minds the stakes and forces at play in the defense of the correct application of the mass line. We hope this will be useful for Maoist activists, activist folks tangential to or interested in Maoism and the mass line, and also folks relatively new to organizing and activism.
Sophia Burns has positioned herself as a leading theorist of a resurgent left-communism in the US (which, contextually, manifests as refoundationalism) made concrete in the loose coalition of social-democratic, left-com, and big-tent groups called Marxist Center, all united around a right-opportunist conception of the mass line method of communist leadership.
Here we look mostly at a few of Burns’ theoretical pieces, “Don’t Run for Office” with some discussion of “You Have to Deliver” and “Front Groups Kill the Revolution”. All of these are individually penned and not explicitly related to Burns’ political organizations or trends, but at some point an intellectual and their writing becomes a representative of a group, tendency, etc; it is the easiest thing in the world to wave off criticisms by claiming that they’ve missed the mark, especially around big-tent projects which pride themselves on their unity around indecision, but it is clear that Burns represents at the very least a significant trend in contemporary refoundationalism.
What we find in Burns’ writing is an affect of seriousness, of getting down to business and being done with all the sentimental nonsense such as 1917, the Party, our ideologies, etc, that has hampered the Left. But this affect functions as a repression, and as with all repression it is simultaneously the return of the repressed — she circles around to sentimentality and virtue posturing just at the moment of the radical break from past false consciousness and opportunism. This is precisely the gesture of the centrist (to be done with X or Y nonsense or “shibboleth”, a favorite scare-term of Burns), which always eventually overdetermines into rightism.
For instance while Maoists say that election work in the long-run disarms the proletariat and the masses, Burns argues in “Don’t Run for Office” against engaging in election work as this work tends to lead to the full co-option of left groups. This is a tight and logical, and thus comforting, argument for the left line on elections, and seems clearer and more actionable than the more poetic Maoist line.
However, there is no shift from quantity to quality with Burns, no formation of the universal which can guide politics, thus we are left only with things tending towards their already chosen destinations (this is the role of a tendency towards X). Election work will derail and eventually overcome community work, very well, but what of the question of power at the very base of this distinction between election-work and base-building work? Who is being co-opted? Left groups or the community itself? What separates the two? Where does the question of the gun come in? Nowhere.
It in fact becomes very clear that Burns has no conception or doesn’t want to have a conception of the armament or disarmament of the masses or even of proletarian politics as opposed to merely “community” politics. The only operative distinction for Burns is between self-organization and organizing co-opted by the state apparatuses.
But the question of the gun is central to politics, for it is the question of the seizure of power, which itself structures and encapsulates all these other questions.
We cannot push the question of the seizure of power into some unspecified time in the future, and for the same reason we cannot push aside the question of leadership and organization until another unspecified time in the future. To be a refoundationalist and thus to linger on the current “undecidability” of matters is akin to setting out to expand the field of biology while remaining undecided on the universality of Darwinian evolution. One will necessarily get nowhere.
This is why in the “What is to be done?” section of Burns’ piece we are left merely with the blueprint for building an unspecified dual power, i.e. without knowing whose power, what power is to be opposed to that of the bourgeois state and capital.
We should ask the Leninist question of every ideological term: X very well, but X for whom, and to do what? I.e. we should ask “Dual power very well, but for whom and to do what?”
We are left with nothing but the image of a proliferation of dual power networks and schemes: more and more community-run gardens, health clinics, etc without acknowledging, again, the need to shift from quantity to quality. In revolution this shift takes place ultimately when the gun is taken up and declared to be the primary mode of revolutionary struggle, and all struggles before that critical moment must be oriented towards it—legal and non-legal, above-ground and underground.
As an aside: this generalized right-opportunism masked through pragmatic and leftist language can also be seen through a symptomatic reading of this “What is to be done?” section. For instance, here Burns says that “the two most prominent sets of institutions [which direct social activity]… are the largest capitalist corporations and the governments”. Here we should remind ourselves that it is not governments which we should focus our analysis on, but the class character of the state, in particular. As the Communist Party of Peru reminds us in their General Political Line, focusing on governments can lead us to opportunistically tail after one or another governmental faction, which inevitably means tailing after one or another faction of the bourgeoisie (comprador against national bourgeoisie, for instance) rather than setting up independent proletarian power.
[Note: This section has been edited for clarity] This is no idle theoretical point: various Marxist Center-affiliated groups have shown legalist tendencies or worse, with Tacoma Serve the People an official non-profit, organizing with sanction from the state, and Austin Socialist Collective harboring a member who is unapologetic about having worked with the police, as RGA discusses in its piece criticizing him and ASC.
This means functionally mis-identifying the class character of the state even if they declare themselves in general against capital and its state apparatus.
Power comes from the barrel of the gun. It does not come from giving people things that they want or need better than the state and NGOs and etcetera, proving therefore through successive good deeds that revolution is the way forward.
Without a conception of the place of the gun in revolution, without a conception of protracted people’s war—the only proletarian science of warfare—and without the conception of the party there can be no talk of making revolution. There can instead only be talk of little community pet projects given a semblance of revolutionary life because against the backdrop of the general US leftist swamp of opportunism and do-nothingism, it seems very radical and forward-thinking to speak generally and vaguely of dual power.
Thus Burns leaves us with the feeling that dual power has no power at all and in fact can only exist through the good graces of the enemy. This is particularly ironic when the majority of “Don’t Run For Office” is spent arguing, correctly, against relying on the good graces of the enemy—against electoralism and reformism, as the gains from these strategies are so easily swept aside or co-opted.
But the same truth holds for “dual power institutions”: the moment one’s free breakfast program become a threat or seems to be gaining hold of the imagination of the people, it will be co-opted or destroyed. This holds doubly so for the kind of dual power Burns imagines: institutions which are not controlled or led by “outside powers” like a vanguard party, that 21st century bogeyman.
It’s revealing to Burns’ ideology (at base a clever anti-communism, or at least more clever than the DSA’s anti-communism) that the community itself is not posited as outside itself when it is constructed through the processes of capital, of the enemy, while the Party is constructed specifically to organize the people against this enemy.
Indeed, what proof is there that direct or participatory democracy and community control of institutions helps these institutions resist co-option, let alone destruction? It seems quite natural that a community organization formed to achieve certain goals for the community will self-liquidate as soon as these goals are met or as soon as the state promises to achieve these goals. In this way, Burns smuggles movementism into a conception of struggle that at first glance seems opposed to movement-hopping or tailism (i.e. following after the more backwards sections of the people rather than uniting with the advanced and bringing up the rest).
Also, and following from the above, the critical question of trade union consciousness versus class consciousness is here thrown out. At least the anarchists attempt to resolve this contradiction through positing one’s internal “desires” as the wellspring from which class consciousness, or revolutionary/insurrectionary consciousness, emerges. Thus the anarchists have something going for them as they rely on a “black box” theory of revolutionary upsurge, unscientific and idealist to be sure, but Burns doesn’t even offer this bit of minimal positive programme despite all the pretenses and flourish to really getting down to business.
We cannot just muck about with vaguely defined dual-power politics assuming this experience will coalesce at some point into a clear blueprint for revolutionary success. Only an organization comprising the most advanced and far thinking of the proletariat can lead the people to total victory. This much is made very clear by historical analysis.
More trickery, more weaponized truisms, are deployed by Burns in “Front Groups Kill the Revolution”, a piece that attacks Trotskyists, Marcyites, and Maoists as all attempting to fool the masses into following them.
Of course we must not lie to the masses, this too is a useful truism. And we do not lie to the masses in the Maoist movement; Maoists who work in mass organizations do not hide their politics or ideologies, though sometimes it is necessary to hide one’s membership in specific organizations due to the possibility of police or fascist repression. All of this seems like a non-issue. However, there is a greater deception that really will “kill the revolution” which, one way or another, Trotskyists, Marcyites, and Burns engage in.
In arguing that other groups through electioneering and “building the party” put off the question of power, Burns has herself put off the question of power, but this time by being silent in order to distance herself from those who speak falsehoods to the masses on this question—for instance the falsehoods that elections or a forever-delayed insurrection will lead to power. Burns’ position is thus a lie by omission, no less harmful and misleading than a direct lie.
It is a great and dangerous lie to tell the masses that we can have a revolution through the vague peaceful means of building dual power, and it is a similar deception to put off this question. Thus Burns engages in the same error, the same lie in the face of the people, that she claims the so-called “insurrectionists and vanguardists” engage in by putting off the great insurrection to the distant horizon of the future—but while these “insurrectionists” and “vanguardists” put off the question of the armed struggle, she completely erases it from existence! Burns can claim that having correct ideas is less important than building working class power, and that correct ideas don’t make correct politics, but at this point we wonder if Burns even believes that there are correct ideas.
We know that correct ideas come from struggle, and that these ideas in turn will help the struggle progress. The most advanced and correct forms of struggle coalesce and are enacted by the vanguard party and the advanced masses it leads. This means that if a force is rising up as the most capable of leading the struggle forward, it is labelled the vanguard. This is objective, not the subjective diabolical plotting of some shadowy “vanguardists” seeking to enter and corrupt the good, spontaneous, and participatory movements of the masses.
Of course, Maoists think M-L-M is the most correct and useful ideology for revolution. For instance we know that individual liberation struggles, i.e. national liberation, trans liberation, etc, can only go so far without being unified and thrust forward through proletarian leadership in the general revolution of the broad masses of society. Calling such beliefs, formed through struggle and study of history a “sociological phenomenon” as Burns does, calling groups with ideological unity “groupuscule[s] with a messiah complex” kicks her arguments from the realm of the political to the realm of petty mud-slinging. Indeed, the very same mud-slinging charges she brings against the RCP, Trotskyites, and the US Maoist movement could be brought against her and her loose “left unity” group the Marxist Center: you go to the masses with vague talk of “dual power” while engaging in the same economism and right-opportunism as the old opponents of Lenin and Mao. You think you can save the US Left because you’ve discovered the scientific formula for building power, which boils down to “people are congenial to us when they get what they want!” Here, too, the critique falls flat insofar as it relies on a political parallax.
Tangentially—though part of this left-in-form-right-in-essence rhetoric—in this same piece on front groups, Burns repeats a dangerous myth that the Maoist organization in Austin overlaps completely with the trans liberation group there, putting the trans activists at risk from the very active and dangerous fascists of Texas. This rumor-spreading is done in the service of speculation on the organizational lines, make-up, and sincerity of the Maoist movement in the US. There is only bad faith argument happening here; for instance, can we not more easily imagine that the trans activist group and the Maoist group in Austin came to a level of agreement and unity through struggle, debate, etc, than we can imagine that the Maoists set up a false trans organization in order to siphon the trans proletariat’s spontaneous anger into the Maoist “self-justifying sect”?
Some may say we are being un-generous or too hasty in the charge of opportunism along these lines, that arguing from a negative or missing piece of Burns’ theories (the missing theorization of revolutionary violence) towards a positive assessment (that of the presence of opportunism) is a stretch. Indeed, perhaps Burns merely discusses violence elsewhere, or only with the masses she encounters in her activist work, or via a pseudonym to avoid persecution, etc. Perhaps. But there are public intellectuals elsewhere who candidly discuss violence (Badiou and Bonanno for instance) and there are ways to discuss violence intellectually without contributing to future conspiracy cases the state will levy against us. Which is to say, we cannot always hide. This is the same form of mistake that Engels criticizes the German Social-Democrats for in using the vague and nice-sounding phrase “free people’s republic” in order to blur revolutionary ideology and appease the Prussian state.
When the question of violence does come up for Burns, as in her piece “Catharsis is Counter-Revolutionary”, it is pushed aside as a question for another time. She says the “cathartic” left just smashes stuff to feel good, or conversely just organizes self-help circles. Very well, but what of the violence which follows the mass line method for building actual dual power? What of the violence which charges first into the trench while waving to the advanced masses to follow, thus teaching the people the invaluable lesson of the necessity of revolutionary violence? Conspicuous silence, ringing in our ears like the after-effect of a nearby explosion.
Indeed, Burns says of “combat catharsis” that it “…does not engage positively with anyone who doesn’t already share its values. The defining image is an individual activist trying to be heroic. It rarely leads to the growth of roots in working-class communities or further collective action.”
What can we say about this? Other than the banal argument that street fighting often doesn’t connect with the masses, there is, again, something ominous lurking in the background: a moment before, Burns says without explanation, as if it is self-evident, violence must only be used “when it strategically makes sense — and it often doesn’t”. Thus revolutionary violence is usually not useful, and furthermore it is, for Burns, a way of reinforcing a gendered division of labor into activism, making women do reproductive activist labor while men fight the good fight in the streets.
Both these objections are, characteristically, opportunist contortions of correct positions on violence’s connection to the masses and to the women’s liberation struggle. First, the masses are itching to confront the enemy. In the workplace, in the home, in the streets. There are of course subjective and objective conditions which must be met in order for this confrontation to be successful in building revolution, but it is precisely the voice of opportunism which claims that only a small group of activists (and macho ones at that!) wishes to fight in the streets, while the masses are alienated and confused by such actions (the ISO piece on the Berkeley anti-Spencer action, for instance).
See Red Guards Pittsburgh’s piece on anti-fascist mass based action “Fight, Bleed, Win Alongside the Masses” for more on the willingness of the masses to fight, and the opportunist maneuvers to separate the masses from their weapons for liberation.
This goes as well for the supposed gendered and patriarchal division in activist circles that street fighting breeds. The macho men want to fight the fascists and the police, while the women are relegated to behind-the-scenes, banal reproductive labor. If this is the case, the issue is not with street-fighting, but with the methods of organizing these fights. Women’s liberation requires revolutionary violence, thus women must be steeled as revolutionary leaders, and part of this steeling, as with steeling the masses for battle and developing revolutionary leadership from among the masses, is through engaging in actual battles. How does one learn to fight without fighting? We must break the frankly sexist and patriarchal view that guns and boxing gloves are for men. If a group operates like this then they must be struggled with, and not through taking away their guns, but through placing the guns in the hands of women.
It is telling, engaging in symptomatic reading again, that in the piece in question Burns says combat is “radical chic”, a term coined by the reactionary writer Tom Wolfe in his anti-Black Panthers pieces, used to reduce the Panthers and their (white) supporters to sex objects.
All of this should be fairly uncontroversial for revolutionaries, as the revolution is not a dinner party. But again and again, Burns has made the revolution into a dinner party. Whether or not this dinner party takes place in a community-run garden is of no consequence.
What we find, then, is that at the centre of Burns’ project is a left-communist mis-diagnosis of the issues with the general US Left: not enough participatory democracy, too much lying to the masses, too much sectarianism and narrow orthodoxy, etc.
This spectral non-critique becomes all the more clear in Burns’ piece “You Have to Deliver” which argues that the weakness of the US Left is due in no small part to an internal contradiction and not merely external repression and the difficult conditions caused by organizing in the imperialist metropole. Very well, that much is clear for much of the left today. But Burns’ characterization of this contradiction is where things become odd: she draws a distinction between ideas and practice, the latter being the delivery mentioned in the title, and says the left has focused too much on propagating ideas and not enough on putting them into practice. Of course the masses will take up radical ideas more readily if they are shown to work in practice. This is a no-brainer.
So what is the essence of the critique at work here, then? Lasting institutions which give to the people must be built, says Burns, which can put ideas into practice and thus prove them and improve upon them in turn. This is a basic re-hashing of the Marxist theory of knowledge, but with a key bit of deception, for history shows that the best and longest-lasting revolutionary institution is the communist party (though even the Party must be challenged and eventually “withered away” through a series of cultural revolutions which attack bourgeois restorationist elements within the party and society at large). Not so for Burns. For Burns, the Party cannot serve the people; it can only trick and alienate the people. For Burns, it seems, only spontaneous and results-driven (i.e. economism-driven) institutions can avoid co-option or destruction by the state and its NGOs, etc.
There’s nothing new at work here, just the same old revisionism and dead-end opportunism that resurfaces like a corpse time and time again. For instance, let’s look quickly at a section of Harry Haywood’s study of the opportunism of the anti-Stalin revisionists in the CPUSA (a link is in the “Further Reading” section below). It is not only important in general to learn from past struggles against opportunism and revisionism, but will also help us end this analysis of Burns’ rightism without the mistaken sense that Burns, Marxist Center, and their affiliated refoundationalist groups are anything new or exciting. Forgive the relatively long quote, but we hope it will sound with a familiar peal:
“The tactics of the open liquidators, the center and the “left” conciliators were very similar. They kept trying to forestall any kind of meaningful discussion. Given Foster’s original scheme at the 16th Party Convention, the revisionists continued their effort to separate a program for mass work from any basic, fundamental discussion of line. Ben Davis and others ushered in the slogan of “let’s get to work.” “The rank and file,” Davis said in the Party Voice, “are sick and tired of internal strife, of arguing over meaningless abstractions.” I made a speech at the reconvened convention in Harlem, fighting for restoration of our revolutionary position on the Negro question and an end to tailing after the leadership of the NAACP. Davis immediately attacked me — “Left to Harry here, he and me would be left along to fighting it down to the ropes. We can’t afford that, we gotta get to work!”
We see here another related trick of the opportunists which involves the prescriptive closing-off of when theory, or line formation, is acceptable. For example, we do not need to ignore historical analysis when it comes to electioneering or attempting to work within the Democratic Party – we do not need to re-confirm today what we found out quite convincingly yesterday, that the Democratic Party is a graveyard which we should not leap into again and again. But at a certain point, theory becomes an unacceptable hindrance to the kind of “work” one wants to do. Perhaps this should give pause to consider what kind of work this is — what kind of work finds theoretical analysis useful when drawing a line of demarcation with election work or protest-oriented work, but will then consign holding lines related to the Party, to building the People’s Army, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and cultural revolution, to national liberation vs. assimilation, as going too far, as engaging in “too many study groups,” or as synonymous with “sectarianism”.
Indeed, opportunism draws the lines convenient for its kind of work but there is no coherency, no thorough principle, behind this except for finding sloppy justifications for what one already wants to do. Again, the really radical rightists will go so far as to invoke Mao on the circuit of knowledge: practice-theory-practice, as if this means that instead of basing ourselves on the accumulation of generations of practice which have clarified the battlefield, we should instead limit ourselves to starting from the “practical” point of what happens when we step outside our doors in the morning.
Where do we stand, finally?
In criticizing Burns’ conception of the mass line method of leadership, we have posed the question of what is to be done. The solution is protracted people’s war, led by the communist party as the most advanced formation of the proletariat, at the head of the broad masses. This much is clear from revolutionary history: nothing less can win us power. Not the un-scientific fooling around of the anarchists with “anti-authoritarianism”, not electoralism and reformism, and not the Burns-ian talk of the eventual creation of parallel social structures which then vaguely transform into dual power and then overcome capitalism as we somehow grow to no longer need capitalism.
While Burns has correctly diagnosed the majority of the US left as sinking and drowning in the metropole, she has proposed in drowning’s stead to merely tread water. We must instead rise up out of this left-activist cesspool by uniting with and thus leading the masses through the revolutionary struggle, upwards to ever higher stages and intensities of struggle until communism.