March 22, 2013

The RCP's Anti-Gay Line: A Failed Effort At Rectification

[Lately, interest in the history of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA (RCP) and its predecessor organization the Revolutionary Union (RU) seems to have had a slight bump up, for good reasons and bad. Good: efforts to reassess and reclaim some of the important organizing work and promotion of revolutionary line done by these groups, and by the New Communist Movement more broadly in the 1970s. Bad: the watching-a-train-wreck fascination as the sorry, tattered remnants of the RCP settle deeper into the swamp of a bizarre cult of personality around its glorious leader Bob Avakian. 

One topic of discussion invariably triggered by such interest is the RCP's notorious longtime line condemning homosexuality as bourgeois decadence and LGBTQ  people as incapable of being communists. I have therefore decided to post this paper, written over a decade ago, which contains some thoughts on that line and its history, drawing on personal experience. 

It was written during a most unusual period in RCP history. In 2001, the group issued a draft for a new party programme, and accompanying programmatic documents on homosexuality and on the Chicana/o National Question (spoiler alert: there's no nation). Then they invited members and others to comment on it on a website called The ensuing discussion, though kept under close scrutiny by minders from the RCP leadership, was often lively and thoughtful, especially around gender issues. My contribution was posted there, and stirred some interest and discussion. In a little over a year, the website was

reined in and shut down by Avakian, along with the whole new programme project. Unfortunately, even the WayBack Machine has evidently not archived all of this material. I had to find my contribution on an abandoned hard drive.

However, the emergence of the Kasama Project from a core of folks who broke with the RCP in the second half of the last decade has provided a deeper look into this history than anything that has come before. Since its recent redesign, the Kasama website no longer responds to searches for Red Closet, the  heading under which they used to group these articles. However, using the site's search engine with the terms "homosexuality, Avakian" will bring up more than a dozen articles, and scores of comments, many incisive, many heart-rending.

On the whole, I think they tend to confirm and deepen the comments in this earlier contribution. 

Dennis O'Neil]

Sisters and Brothers of the Revolutionary Communist Party—

Despite some misgivings, I am writing this comment on the RCP’s recent document, On the Position on Homosexuality in the New Draft Program, at the urging of several RCP cadre. My misgivings are based on the concern that my particular history might lead folks to ignore my comments or to assume that I am bringing them forward with bad intentions. I was a founding member of the party and helped draft the RCP’s first programme, adopted in 1975. I left in the 1978 split that formed the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters. I am still a Maoist and remain active in a revolutionary socialist group, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

I trust that those RCP members with whom I have had discussions of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) question and other issues since then, especially in recent years, will speak up for my good faith.

I am writing because of my respect for the contributions to the revolutionary struggle RCP cadre have made, and my optimism that the self-criticism begun in this new document can move forward to rectify a very bad line.

That said, my comment is not even going to address the substance of the line on “homosexuality” in the new draft programme. I feel certain that others more qualified than myself will weigh in on that.

I want instead to address what I see as a serious flaw in the paper’s methodology, its failure to adhere to Marxist-Leninist standards of self-criticism. (As I wrote this I found myself slipping back into the polemical style I used to use in the 1970s. I’ve gone back and tried to clean that up, but if I haven’t completely succeeded, I apologize.)


As we all know, Mao Zedong placed a very high importance on the practice of criticism-self criticism in his writings, going so far in some ”non-canonical” works as to call it the best guarantee of the continuation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Leaving that aside, I direct interested readers to “Rectify the Party’s Style of Work,” “On Coalition Government,” and “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas In the Party,” to name a few.

In particular, I will quote briefly from the first of these articles:

The mistakes of the past must be exposed without sparing anyone's sensibilities; it is necessary to analyze and criticize what was bad in the past with a scientific attitude so that work in the future will be done more carefully and done better. This is what is meant by “learn from past mistakes to avoid future ones.”

Chairman Mao also called for fearlessness in dealing with criticism and cited it as essential in inner-party struggle.


The closing section of the document has a promising title:

Our Past Analysis of the Question of Homosexuality--what was right, what was wrong, how we came to recognize our significant errors, and what we can all learn from this.

However, it does not deliver.

First, consider the overall tone of the thing. Does it forthrightly say, “We were wrong”? No. It sort of weasels around. You have proposed to change the line (which is a good thing), so clearly the line must have been more wrong than right. That should be your starting point. The part that was right was the secondary aspect of the contradiction between right and wrong on this question. The main attention in a self-criticism should be devoted to the principal aspect, in this case what was wrong.

Second, a good self-criticism, an unsparing one, should consider the damage done in practice as a result of the wrong line. While such an evaluation is a task which falls primarily to RCP members, your errors affected the broader movement as well. Therefore, I will cite three points from outside observation.

One is the longtime RCP line that LGBT revolutionaries could not be real communists, and thus not join the RCP because of their anti-working class ideology. If, and this is speculative, there continued to be LGBT members in your ranks (as there were in the RU where an early version of the same line ruled after 1972, and the early RCP), what was the effect on these dedicated fighters of forcing them for years not only to deny their identity, to stay in the closet, but also to compare themselves to prostitutes and drug addicts?

Another is the disgust and distrust that other honest revolutionaries felt at seeing the RCP cling, as years passed, and decades, to a line that was so clearly wrong and in denial of advances in struggle and understanding won by the lesbian, gay, bi and trans movement and its numerous allies. (This is different from other questions of line disagreement.  RCP members and I differ in our evaluation of the Gang of Four. This is serious, to be sure. But it is not the same as telling me that, no matter what their line, my comrades who are queer are incapable of being communists because their gender identity marks them as hopelessly bourgeois.) Without respect, unity-struggle-unity is a hard policy to implement.

Last is the nearly insurmountable barrier this line raised to the recruitment of young activists from the often very good work done in such party-led organizations as No Business As Usual and Refuse & Resist.

The fact that no mention is made of the harm that the wrong line did to the RCP and the revolutionary movement as a whole implies that the error was relatively trivial. Was it?

Third, a good self-criticism, a materialist one, will look at the roots of the error. Why did RCP fall into this error? There is a passing mention of bad lines in the history of the international communist movement, then the paper declares the RCP’s opposition to “the more degrading and abusive sexual practices engaged in by some homosexuals (which do exist), and to some misogyny towards women (including lesbians) on the part of some male homosexuals,” as if deep-seated concerns about these particular phenomena were the root cause that drove the adoption of the anti-lesbian and gay line. The bad experiences of the masses with prison rape are raised. Finally, authors cite distress over the mid-’70s turn of some activists to “identity politics,” evidently to help explain why the line was adopted.  This is pretty thin gruel.

There is no mention in the whole paper of homophobia, save in one footnote where there is no choice, because a book so entitled is cited there. There is no mention of heterosexism. Do these ugly and deeply rooted currents in U.S. capitalist society really not exist? Do they have no reflection in the RCP?

Also, there is only limited mention of patriarchy or exploration of the close links between male supremacy and heterosexism, between oppression based on gender and on gender identity. Is that because the paper’s authors think no such links exist?

Fourth, the section’s subtitle promises that it will explain “how we came to recognize our significant errors.” There is only a brief mention of criticism, including from “activists and revolutionary-minded youth.” Well, activist youth have been raising these criticisms since the ’70s. The first to do so are now middle-aged. What criticisms were raised that got heard and why? What was their content?  Going back to my second point, how did the wrong line manifest itself in practice and how did that help RCP members come to understand that the line was wrong?

Fifth, a thorough self-criticism would require reviewing the line struggle inside the RCP. I know this sounds heavy. This is not a call for naming names or revealing the internal workings of the party. Look how the Chinese Communist Party issued summations of its internal line struggles and rectification campaigns, even in the midst of the anti-Japanese war. There had to be line struggle in the RCP over this change--truth arises in the minority. What kind of struggle took place, what lines were defeated?  To portray it simply as a process of study abstracted from line struggle is surely not a fearless summation.


I would offer a different picture of what has happened in the RCP around this line. I am pretty confident it is accurate in its general approach, though I am prepared to be corrected in part or whole. I offer this both to deepen my own understanding and in the hope it can help serve you as a basis for some deeper self-criticism.

The roots of the RCP’s incorrect line go way back before its founding. The Revolutionary Union had an essentially homophobic line. This was primarily a reflection of societal homophobia, which was deeply rooted in its leadership and rank and file. We struggled against other backward and poisonous ideological currents in the general society which had, which had to have, manifestations inside even revolutionary organizations in this society--white chauvinism and male chauvinism to name two. We accepted homophobia and embraced it. This was compounded and justified by two secondary factors.

One was the main current in the history of the international communist movement, which was itself homophobic. There were, however, counter-traditions to be found, as summarized by the Proletarian Unity League, a Marxist-Leninist organization in the U.S. which published, in 1981, Lesbian and Gay Exclusion: The Policy That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a polemic against the line held by the RCP and other forces in the New Communist movement of the ’70s. (The Black Panther Party, a strong influence on several founders of the RU, used a lot of blatant homophobic rhetoric, but Huey Newton was also one of the first leaders from the ‘60s to embrace the newborn gay liberation movement and hail its revolutionary potential.)

The other was the tendency to tail backward views in the industrial working class, where the RU was seeking to base itself. When this manifested itself, to use an example from one unit I recall, as instructions to cadre to take their sandwiches to work only on untoasted white bread with the crusts on, it did no harm and became a humorous reminiscence later. When it took the form of “proletarian” fag-baiting, the damage was real.

From the beginning there was line struggle around the issue.

When the national leadership of the RU was trying to unify a broad range of local collectives into a single national organization, they decided not to standardize all lines from the top down, but rather to win folks over at the base. In 1972, if memory serves, I attended an East Coast regional meeting, at which the national leaders, including those from our region, were eager to for us adopt a position against lesbians and gays being admitted to the RU (and one against smoking marijuana, as well). Out of, say, 40 people present, I think eight of us voted against gay exclusion.

I am very proud of that vote. I am not so proud of what happened next.

The internal culture of the RU and the early RCP became increasingly homophobic. Fag jokes, implications of limp-wristedness and the whole nasty package were common currency in the group, and only rarely criticized or even commented on. The tone was set from the top levels of the organization. Not surprisingly, male leaders and cadre tended to behave worse that their female counterparts. I fell into this easily enough.

Politically, gay and lesbian groups and activists, part of a vibrant and challenging new social movement, were regarded with derision or as agents of bourgeois ideology in the workers’ movement. Communists and others who allied with them were considered weak and suspect.

When I was asked to help in the drafting of a programme to be debated and adopted at the founding congress of the RCP, I did so. I recall the drafting of the section of the programme on decadence, which the RCP enshrined at that congress, formally embracing the line it has carried like an albatross for a quarter of a century. (Since the very existence of this first programme is not mentioned in the new document, I have included the 1975 section on “homosexuality” in an appendix, along with the language from the 1981 programme.) The drafters, myself included, laughed about the comparison with drug addiction and prostitution and about the declaration that “homosexuals and others who are caught up in these things will be re-educated to be productive members of society.” We knew damn well that formulation implied reeducation camps--and we thought it was funny.

When a large section of the RCP split in 1978, there was an opportunity to do some rectification. Some of the more blatantly homophobic leaders split and helped form the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters, which I was a part of. Those who remained in the RCP could have lost the line then. Instead, it was in the RWHq that the struggle took place which led to us abandon the line of homophobia and exclusion. I was won back to my original position by other comrades in the organization and outside of it, and with a great sense of relief. I knew the shit I had been running was raggedy, I had known all along, and I was glad to be able to start cleaning it out of my brain.

The RCP adopted its new programme in 1981. I don’t know if there was open struggle at that time or not--minor changes did appear between the draft and the final programme. At heart, the new programme adopted the incorrect line from the old programme wholesale, while modifying its language slightly. The comparison with prostitution and pornography was made over two paragraphs instead of in the same sentence. Instead of being re-educated under socialism, homosexuals would be reformed, and their homosexuality struggled against. And they would have a right to a job and housing while being subjected to all this.

And because this line was in the programme, RCP members were bound to defend the indefensible for the next 20 years.

The next major public step the RCP took was the 1988 Revolution article. The current summation speaks highly of it as a step forward on the line and as a model of theoretical investigation. This is a very bad evaluation. The paper did shift ground some, as the document points out: “homosexuality” is no longer likened to drug addiction but more to religion (a distinction Marx did not find so significant when he called religion the opiate of the masses). The main thing is that in the contradiction between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, it is still solidly on the wrong side.

Methodologically, the problem is that the whole project represented the philosophical error of a priorism. The programme was correct, by definition, and was not at that time subject to redrafting. Thus, the task of the group who produced it was not to seek truth from facts, but to produce an elaborate rationalization for an incorrect line that was under fire from without and at least being questioned from within. The product reflects the un-Marxist method used. It is virtually unreadable, full of abstruse spacey speculation and the shallowest imaginable characterizations of gay culture, all negative. It is also pretty much devoid of discussion of the actual oppression suffered by, and the many fierce struggles waged by, LGBT people on a daily basis. (So, for that matter, is the current paper).

A priorism is not Marxism. It is an idealist deviation. It proceeds not from the concrete analysis of concrete conditions, but from a set of a priori assumptions about how things are. I hope you will not take the 1988 article as a model for how to do theoretical work.

The rest of the story is quickly told--partly because from the outside, it can only be seen through a glass darkly. The RCP tried to rectify its practice without changing its line, deepening a trend that goes back to the mid-’80s. The party spoke up on and sometimes took part in struggles around AIDS, anti-gay and lesbian violence and state sponsored homophobia. It would seem an internal struggle was underway, whether open or indirect. It may well have contributed to the long overdue decision to revise the RCP programme.


Now, with the programme and its associated documents under discussion, you have the opportunity to deepen the self-criticism you have begun. I am not alone in hoping that you take the opportunity to do so. I am sure there will be many, “homosexual” and straight alike, making comments on the new line. Much of it will be critical.

Please don’t become all defensive about criticism of the new position, especially since it is still just a draft. The paper has a tendency to portray the new position as the result of a rigorous, methodical and women-centered Marxist evaluation that is superior to other thinking on the subject. Please consider that this might not be so, and look at various comments on it in a welcoming spirit.

The fact is, you’ve been out of the loop on this for almost 30 years. You have relatively little social practice to sum up in this area. It would be idealism to think that you could get everything right on the first try. But there are a lot of people who hope you continue in the effort, and hope you accept  contributions like this one in the spirit in which they are offered.

In Struggle,

Dennis O’Neil

August 27, 2001


From Programme And Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA (1975)

Socialist society will wipe out the decadence of capitalism in all spheres. Prostitution, drug addiction, homosexuality and other practices which bourgeois society breeds and the bourgeoisie promotes to degrade and enslave the masses of people, will be abolished. The prostitutes, drug addicts and others who are caught in these things will be re-educated to become productive members of society, with working class consciousness. The shame connected with these practices will be taken from the shoulders of these victims and the guilt will be placed where it belongs—on the bourgeoisie.
 (page 43)

From New Programme And New Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA  (Draft for Discussion) (1980)

The twisted outgrowths of this society, such as pornography and prostitution, will be forcibly abolished right off the bat and their re-emergence will not be tolerated. As for the prostitutes and others victimized by this capitalist degeneracy, they will be given productive work, politically educated and freed from the immediate source of their oppression, while education will also be carried out broadly in society to expose capitalism as the source of this degradation and to remove the tendency to blame or look down on the victims.

As for homosexuality, this too, is a product of the decay of capitalism, especially of the increased ripping apart of the family, which is inevitably taking place under capitalist conditions, especially as it sinks into deeper crisis. In particular it stems from the distorted, oppressive man-woman relations capitalism produces. Once the proletariat is in power, no one will be discriminated against in jobs, housing and the like merely on the basis of being a homosexual. But at the same time education will be conducted throughout society on the ideology behind homosexuality and its material roots in capitalist society, and struggle will be waged to eliminate it and reform homosexuals.
(page 67)    

From New Programme And New Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (1981)

The twisted outgrowths of this society, such as pornography and prostitution, will be forcibly abolished right off the bat and their re-emergence not tolerated. As for the prostitutes and others victimized by this capitalist degeneracy, they will be given productive work, politically educated and freed from the immediate source of their oppression, while education will also be carried out broadly in society to expose capitalism as the source of this degradation and to remove the tendency to blame or look down on the victims.

As for homosexuality, this too, is perpetuated and fostered by the decay of capitalism, especially as it sinks into deeper crisis. This is particularly the case because of the distorted, oppressive man-woman relations capitalism promotes. Once the proletariat is in power, no one will be discriminated against in jobs, housing and the like merely on the basis of being a homosexual. But at the same time education will be conducted throughout society on the ideology behind homosexuality and its material roots in exploiting society, and struggle will be waged to eliminate it and reform homosexuals.
(page 77)

[A final note from 2013: The writing team referred to as drafting the 1975 "Programme" consisted of precisely two people, Bob Avakian and myself.]


magitator said...

In some ways I miss the smarmy ideological arguments. Of the late 60's-70's. It was easier to putdown others in different groups than to organize for revolution.I was pretty good at being sectarian. I was at the aforementioned East Coast meeting. My partner and I were 2 of the votes who agreed with you. Following the codification of the anti gay position and closely tied to the RU's opposition to passage of the ERA, my partner and I went on a tour to visit people we had worked with in the south. Most of the people we visited were in the October League (our main competitor for the Maoist crowd) They laughed at us. We tried to defend our line but...we knew we were wrong.

An Old Head said...

Interesting, this reminds me of an anecdote worth sharing…

Some time back in 1974 I was honored to have a sit-down with Chairman Bob, and he told me a story about an early "recruitment" trip to the Bronx. He was in NY to meet an existing collective that might join the RU. But the key info he wanted to share was that when he knocked on the apartment door, it was opened by a guy wearing a dress.

Now please understand that I (like nearly everyone in the RU at the time) was a major Chairman Bob fanboy, but even I listened and thought to myself, "caftan, Chairman, caftan!" I'd guessed the identity of the comrade who'd opened the door, a fella who I thought of at the time as an unreformed hippie, and envisioned him wearing something from Morocco. What kind of small-town idiot, uncertain of his own manhood (I dared wonder to myself), doesn't know that men wear caftans?

Okay, maybe regular folks in the US from outside the major metropolitan-areas, who aren't familiar with the "hasidic hat" community don't realize men wear robe-like
tunics, but what kind of internationalist has such a narrow view?

Mike Ely said...

Its true that there are two different (and competing) sources of interest in the RCP....

One is that an emerging communist generation wants to understand better what happened to the earlier 1970s communist movement (which tried party-building and mass implantation). And the RU is an important experience to start with.

And the other is the morbid fascination in the extreme and bizarre degeneration of a once-respected political group. (Whether people agreed with the RCP or not.... and I agreed with it.... there was generally a sense that they were serious, radical, thoughtful etc.) And now, they have made themselves a joke (or more precisely, Bob's delusions about himself have made them a joke.)

I have felt for a while that they are in their end-game for various reasons -- the bleeding of membership, the disappearance of periphery, the aging of the numb-looking remaining core, etc.

For much of their arc, the RCP could (when they chose, with great effort) mobilize about 8-10 thousand people for some event (a Mao Memorial, a major demonstration, anything really). That was about the size of their reach -- and it remained rather steady for years (over the 1970s, 80s, into the Mumia campaign or NION of the 1990s). And a large part of that rested on C. Clark Kissinger's ability to form alliances and networks.

Now we are watching the end-result of a cultification -- where people attracted by the overt talk of revolution and change run into a kind of "ewwww" factor when they realize the mindless "whateverism" they are asked to adopt.

In the latest round of Avakian "film premiers" the RCP now announced they were able to draw about 600 people nationwide (after singleminded effort). These 600 were (I assume) the audience attendance at the start of Avakian's 6 hour filmed talk. They don't say how many were still in the room when the lights went up. (And we can only imagine.)

That is about a tenth of the RCP's reach for most of their existence. That is their new normal.

In 2008, almost exactly five years ago, their similarly-promoted coming out talks on Avakian's New Synthesis drew 800 people, in three main city events.

Now (after five more years of their attempt to concentrate shrinking cadre forces in NYC) they were able to draw (again by their count) 220 people in that city.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In many ways, there is an awful cost to the cultification, the obvious morbidity and the terrible history of homophobia.... There is nothing controversial (these days) about treating the fading RCP like a joke -- they did that to themselves. The controversial thing is to try to excavate the layers of experience (positive, negative and ambivalent) that can be lessons for revolutionaries today.

Anonymous said...

I had very pro gay sentiments and united w the RCP at the time on many levels. Saying they were anti gay is reductionist. They stood firm and deep with the real anti gay laws and horrors they suffered. The line was complex, but an error overall, but not to the extent this blog implies. A lot of this had to do with confronting male property rights and the role of women within it. The new synthesis is profoundly more scientific in dealing with contridictons between the people and the system, and BAs new talk (on DVD) embraces GBLT/o and what humanity is capable of on a much higher scale than anything else I've seen. Rafael