Provisional Organizing Committee

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Provisional Organizing Committee was , a super-secret organization founded by Gino Perente with a cell structure and even a “Military Fraction” that made the news for hoarding a stockpile of weapons in its Brooklyn headquarters. Its clandestine operations eased only slightly with the ascendancy of Margaret Ribar to chairmanship, because the Provisional Communist Party operates primarily through front organizations—like the Physicians Organizing Committee, California Homemakers Association and the National Labor Federation—which never acknowledge the existence, let alone the leadership of the CPUSA (Provisional Wing).[1]

Communist Party and the POC

When the Communist Party USA, entered its period of crisis following the Khrushchev report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on the crimes of Stalin, there arose within the Party in the U.S. at least four different factions. The first of these was the right wing, led by Daily Worker editor John Gates, Fred Fine, and others. The second was the center grouping, led by Eugene Dennis, the Party’s general secretary. The third was the “left,” led by William Z. Foster, Bob Thompson, and Benjamin Davis. The fourth was the so-called “ultra-Left,” which called itself the Marxist-Leninist Caucus. It was this grouping, out of which grew the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, with which Ignatin was associated.

Noel Ignatin joined the CP in Philadelphia in January 1958 (he was seventeen) after about a year of working with Party people in youth activities. At the time, he considered himself in sympathy with Foster’s “left” faction. .

Immediately after he joined the Party, there was a realignment of factional forces on the national level. The center-right alliance, which had been in command of the Party for over a year, broke up and in its place there arose a center-left coalition. The rights began to leave the Party, and the new shift was hailed as a victory by the official “left.”

The “ultra-left” refused to join in the grand realignment. Thus, in place of the four groupings which existed earlier, there were now two: the merged center-“left,” and the extreme left. The extreme left caucus in Philadelphia counted in its ranks virtually the entire South Philadelphia section (mainly white working class) and a number of people from the North Philadelphia (black) section, mostly those who had been part of the black caucus which had formed a few years earlier and maintained a precarious existence in a weakened party. The strength of the caucus in Philadelphia (20-25 people) was roughly equal to that of the dominant group, particularly if only activists were counted and not every card-carrying member.

There were several events which won Ignatin over from the legal “left” to the ultra-left caucus. The first was a forum on the Negro question, at which James Jackson of the center-“left” faction spoke. The caucus had earlier sponsored a talk by Harry Haywood and Jackson was the official leadership’s response. When he spoke, it was obvious that he had an integrationist, gradualist approach in contrast to Haywood’s revolutionary defense of the right of self-determination. The second event was the crisis that broke out in the summer of 1958 after the Iraqi revolution, in which U.S. marines were sent to Lebanon. The Party as a whole reacted lethargically. The “ultra-left” caucus came forward with an energetic program which called for leaflets and statements in the Party’s own name (a rarity at the time) as well as the usual resolutions in union meetings, churches, etc. The district leadership called a special meeting of Party activists. At that meeting, the caucus proposals carried. There was one hitch, however: for some months, the South Philadelphia section had been withholding its dues from the Party. A proposal was made that, in view of this situation, a special fund be established to carry out the agreed upon activities. This, of course, was unacceptable to the leadership and so the program of energetic struggle was undermined.

The third event was the official reaction to a proposal Ignatin made to the youth branch, of which he was a member. His proposal, very modest in terms, recommended that we do more in our own name instead of functioning simply as conscientious members of the Union, the NAACP, or whatever. It was met with extreme hostility, led by the branch secretary, Daniel Rubin (who is today the National Organizational Secretary of the Party).

These three events propelled Ignatin into the “ultra-left” caucus, and to its national convention, held on August 16-17, 1958, in a dingy hall on the lower east side of Manhattan. There were sixty-three delegates at the conference, comprising the caucus hard-core membership minus a few who for one reason or another could not be there. They came from the two sections in Philadelphia, from the waterfront and Lower Harlem sections of New York (both largely Puerto Rican in composition), from Cleveland’s Cedar Central district, from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a steel town, and from the South Side of Chicago. Most of the delegates were working class; a high proportion were black or Puerto Rican. The most prominent individuals present were Harry Haywood; Ted Allen, author of one of the main caucus documents, Two Roads; Joe Dougher, coal miner and Spanish Civil War veteran; Lucille Bethencourt, Smith Act defendant; A. Marino, former maritime activist and New York state committee member; Admiral Kilpatrick, Spanish War veteran; and Armando Roman, Puerto Rican section leader and New York state committee member.

The conference adopted a Declaration which stressed several points: uncompromising defense of the Soviet Union and a rejection of the critical stance which the Party had begun to take toward the USSR at the time of Hungary; rejection of the line of peaceful transition to socialism and an affirmation of the proletarian revolution and proletarian dictatorship; defense of the revolutionary right of self-determination of black people in the deep south as the cornerstone of policy on the black question; and a commitment to transforming the Party thoroughly instead of making a few personnel changes at the top as a way to overcome the Party crisis.

National officers were chosen for the new organization: Roman as general secretary, the highest post, Haywood as chairman, and Dougher as organizational secretary. A national committee of nineteen was elected, and it was decided to publish a monthly newspaper, the Vanguard. The Provisional Organizing Committee was officially launched. The first few months following the Conference were taken up mainly with establishing an apparatus, dues structure, etc. and with defining the actual membership. There were two important defections in this period, Haywood and Marino, each charging sectarianism and each taking a small group with him.

One of the first questions the new organization faced was whether to regard itself as a faction of the existing communist movement and therefore aim its efforts at those already in that movement, or see itself as a new organization aiming to elaborate a general program and win over the working class. Typically, it was decided to do both. Thus, alongside of Conference reports and declarations of support from various Party units, there appeared in the third issue of Vanguard (November, 1958) an article about 300 Puerto Rican workers in the Bronx who went on strike against the Company and the Union.

As has been mentioned, a number of the POC leaders in New York were Puerto Rican. Shortly after the POC was founded, the Revolution came to power in Cuba, and this acted as a stimulus to the range of Latin movements which existed in NewYork. POC began having public forums together with the Movimiento Libertador de Puerto Rico, a group led by Pelegrin Garcia, one of the generation of revolutionaries spawned in the 1948 student strike in Puerto Rico.

Just at this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) decided to investigate Communist influence in the Puerto Rican movement. At the public hearings, the CP members who were called adopted a legal defense of pleading the fifth amendment. The POC members, on the other hand, used the hearings as a forum to denounce U.S. imperialism and call for independence for Puerto Rico. Although the existence of POC never came up during the hearings (all the questions concerned membership in the Party), when the hearings were published all those who had defied the Committee were identified as members of the POC, “ a hard-core, extremist group, etc.“ Those so identified included one CP member who had deviated from the Party line and acted in a militant fashion before the Committee! The willingness of HUAC to distinguish so clearly between the CP and the POC helped to expand POC’ s influence among Latin American revolutionary circles in New York.

At about the same time that the POC was splitting from the CP, largely over the issue of defense of the Soviet role in Hungary in 1956, the Marcyites were leaving the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over the same issue, to constitute themselves as the Workers World Party. They addressed a letter to the POC, suggesting talks and joint work. The response of the POC was to denounce them, in terms reminiscent of 1938, as counterrevolutionaries, wreckers, saboteurs, etc. Thus, the classic view of Trotskyism was affirmed for the POC. This attitude would be a factor later on in determining POC’s attitude toward the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, in which the SWP played a significant role.

Events themselves began to push the POC to reach out. This was especially so outside of New York, in areas where there was no large CP and former CP circle to aim at. In Philadelphia, between 1960 and 1962, the POC was involved in three areas of mass work. The first, and by far the most important, was the struggle against policy brutality in the North Philadelphia ghetto. POC members took the initiative in forming the North Philadelphia Committee for Equal Justice. Committee members would hear of an incident of police brutality, either through personal contact or through the independent black press. They would visit the family, write and pass out leaflets, hold street corner rallies and pack the courtroom, demanding acquittal for the victim and punishment for the offending cops. After a while, the Committee was able to establish a real presence in the community, to secure a church in which to hold meetings, to discover a couple of lawyers who would work with the Committee, and to develop relations with various black reporters.

POC realized correctly that the greatest well of support for the Cuban Revolution was among the Puerto Rican population rather than the liberals and intellectuals being targeted by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. In Philadelphia, the POC founded, together with a few pro-Castro Cubans who had not yet returned to the island, the North American Cuban Solidarity Committee, which immediately went onto the streets in the small barrio there, attempting to link community issues with the struggle for Puerto Rican independence and against U.S. imperialism in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution.

This work was carried on by about ten people, which was the average membership of the POC in Philadelphia during that time. It was not necessarily the same ten people, for a number of the original members dropped out. But POC demonstrated that in those years – before the rise of the New Left – it was possible to recruit black and white workers to a communist organization, by going directly to them and engaging them in struggle.

Outside of Philadelphia, similar work was going on. In Chicago, POC organized the defense of a black youth who was framed for murder of a teacher at his school. Through street rallies, regular speaking in black churches and leaflets, the Chicago Committee for Equal Justice was able to develop a significant defense campaign.

Even in New York, where the outward turn was most limited, POC organized a defense campaign for Salvador Agron and Luis Antonio Hernandez, two Puerto Rican youths framed on a murder charge.

During that same period, a group of lumber workers in Northern California and Oregon, led by Tom Scribner, who had dropped out of the CP in 1947 along with Harrison George and Vern Smith (that was the real original anti-revisionist group!), made contact with and decided to affiliate with the POC.

In 1962, the POC had nationally about fifty members, with branches in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and the West Coast (the group in Williamsport had dropped out). It was in the fall of 1961, at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, where Khrushchev delivered his attack on the Albanian Party of Labor, that POC learned of the international dimensions of the fight against revisionism. Up until that time, we simply refused to accept all the speculation in the bourgeois press of a split between China and the Soviet Union. Of course, POC was aware of the differences in emphasis between the two parties in their literature, and generally found the Chinese material more valuable, but it did not accept the reality of a split until Chou En-Lai walked out of the Soviet Party Congress.

Ignatin left Philadelphia in June of 1962 for an assignment in a locality where there was no POC branch. He returned at the beginning of 1963.

The beginning of 1963 was a time of great ferment in the black community in Philadelphia. There were big demonstrations against police brutality, as well as a great mass struggle to open up Girard College, which was an endowed school for white male orphans. The latter took the form of mass blocking of new construction going on at the school. POC played no role in either of these struggles, in spite of being in an excellent position to do so.

The reason for this had largely to do with a mistaken estimate of the role of black nationalism. At that time, the teachings of Malcolm X were beginning to have an impact in the black community, and some of the key figures in those Philadelphia struggles regarded themselves as revolutionary nationalists, although they did not necessarily share the perspective of the struggle being centered in the South. POC adopted a sectarian stance toward them, in spite of their efforts to involve black POC cadre in the movement.

This was truly tragic, as some of these individuals would later become some of the most important figures in the black movement of the sixties; POC could have learned a great deal from them, and perhaps it could have contributed something to their development. The episode certainly demonstrates that holding a position in favor of the right of self-determination is no guarantee against underestimating the revolutionary potential of the autonomous black movement. (This blunder did not take place without opposition; several black comrades in Philadelphia were expelled for opposing the line.)

That experience in Philadelphia, instead of being recognized as sectarianism and corrected, set the pattern for future POC work in the black movement. The organization would play no role whatsoever in the upsurge to come, and even went so far as to condemn Malcolm X and Black Power for “fostering illusions” about bourgeois democracy.

From that time on, POC degenerated in all areas. It abandoned any work of a united front character except with those in near total agreement with it. It retreated from its limited involvement in the reform movement in favor of propaganda about the evils of the system and the betrayals of the various reformists and revisionists, who included virtually every figure who came forward to articulate the demands of the fledgling movements. What then did its work consist of? It became inwardly oriented. There was a great emphasis on propaganda; leaflets were written which had to be gone over four or five times to eliminate any mistakes before they could be distributed. Major battles were fought over formulations, as if they really made a difference. The preparation of the newspaper, Vanguard, which appeared less frequently and devoted almost its entire space to analyses of revisionism on a world scale, occupied more and more of the organization’s time.

From its birth until the summer of 1962, POC went through at least five major political splits that I can recall. The first two, right after the organization’s founding, were with Haywood and Marino. The third was with Joe Dougher, in 1960. The fourth was with Ted Allen, in 1962. The fifth was with the black grouping in Philadelphia. In each case, the oppositionists were identified as anti-organization and isolated. Others, seeing the futility of opposition, simply left. [ Thus, none of the top leaders were left but the one person – Roman, the general secretary – who became the embodiment of the group.

After 1962, the process of purging POC took the form of eliminating all those who, however loyal they were to the line, were not perceived as mediocrities. I was an example of this: Ignatin was expelled in 1966, less than two months after having been “elected” to a high position.

A more important example was Nelson Peery, today the leader of the Communist Labor Party. Nelson was a loyal member who had accepted all the purges and line shifts, etc. He was expelled about a year after Ignatin, not for failing to carry out the line, but for carrying it out too well. He had been sent to Los Angeles to build a branch and, largely due to the force of his own personality, had succeeded in doing so. This was enough to make Roman regard him as a potential center of opposition, and he, too, was accused of all kinds of bad behavior when he was kicked out, his expulsion unanimously approved by those who had praised his work a short time before.

The POC “American Workers Communist Party.” It has about fifteen members, and thinks it is keeping alive the revolutionary tradition in a period when struggle is impossible.[2]

References