The 29th CPUSA Convention was a big success and will hopefully go a long way toward improving the party’s contributions to the democratic movement. The strategic policy of uniting all the core forces and movements to defeat the ultra-right and consolidate the people’s coalition was resoundingly re-endorsed by the delegates. The quality of the discussion both before and at the convention reflected the hard work that members are involved in on the ground and a willingness to do the kind of hard thinking necessary to match it.
Recent articles in Political Affairs and People’s World show that the party’s process of confronting contemporary political challenges and looking for ways to move forward did not end when the convention adjourned in New York.
In their Political Affairs article, “Radical Ideas, Real Politics,” Joel Wendland and Peter Zerner launched a discussion of why Marxism remains an “essential, objective, and working-class-based” methodology for analyzing and meeting the tasks that lie ahead. I agree with the authors’ premises and in this article hope to draw attention to the need to think anew about organizational and communication issues. While this is of course an inwardly-focused matter, it has important ramifications for our ability to turn our “radical ideas” into “real politics.” Particularly, this has to do with the way we communicate our message to America’s working people, how we envision our approach to electoral politics, and our relationship to other organizations on the center and left.
Wendland and Zerner said, “There are no past experiences in other societies which can serve as models for today’s complexities, contradictions, and possibilities.” The party has rightly determined that any future socialism in our country will be uniquely American, in tune with the history, experience, and traditions of the U.S. people. Bringing our organization into accord with our vision of what socialism will be and how it will come to the United States means rethinking how the CPUSA presents itself.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE
For more than ten years now, the party has been taking a hard look at its ideology, organizational structure, personnel requirements, and financial accounting and made the decisions necessary to ensure the survival of the organization.
The Marxism that is now practiced in the CPUSA and learned at YCL schools is an open, innovative, and creative methodology that has – to a great extent – left behind the dogmatism and sectarianism of what passed for ‘Marxism-Leninism’ in the past.
The structures of the national office and the various departments of the party have been reorganized and reconfigured to more efficiently carry out the tasks entrusted to them. Instances of repetition of responsibilities and overlapping assignments have been remedied in many situations. This of course led in some cases to personnel consolidation and a lowering of staff requirements.
On the financial front, for too many years the party had been eating into the financial legacy left to it by previous generations, thereby jeopardizing its future survival. Thanks to the work of the finance department, our organization is now on a much firmer footing and lives within its means.
None of these were easy challenges, but to its credit the party and its leadership have been up to the task. I think that our process of renewal should continue moving forward no matter how difficult we may find it. With that said, I turn to what I feel to still be a key, but unaddressed, issue.
FACING THE FUTURE
The Communist Party USA has a 90-year history which its members can take pride in. From the struggles for industrial organization during the Depression to the defense of civil liberties against McCarthyism’s attacks, and from the fights against racism to the struggles for peace, the party has shown itself time and time again to be a steadfast fighter for the interests of the American working class and people. The pages of the party’s history are filled with such chapters. These proud traditions should never be forgotten.
However, the organization cannot live on its laurels forever. A way must be found to build on these traditions while also making the CPUSA a political organization that is suited to meet the political needs of today.
The party has to be brave enough to collectively face up to the reality that, no matter how correct it may be when it comes to theory or strategy and tactics, as long as it bears the name ‘Communist Party’, it will be cutting itself off from large numbers of progressive activists and leaders. Many on the left agree with the CPUSA’s emphasis on center-left unity, its focus on defeating the ultra-right, and its approach to political independence.
Communism, though, is equated with names such as Stalin, Ceausescu, and Mao in the popular consciousness. Unfortunately, names such as DuBois, Winston, or Flynn do not pop into the minds of most people. The communist ‘brand’ is undeniably sullied beyond reprieve for the vast majority of Americans. Pleading with people to allow us to explain what communism is really about is a pretty useless and time-wasting tactic. The struggle for a better future – a socialist future – does not have to (and should not) always result in a debate about the Soviet experiment.
In a recent letter to the editor of the Morning Star, the newspaper associated with the CP of Britain, a reader expressed clearly the same types of points when attempting to persuade his comrades it was time to change the party’s name: “We can continue to roar from inside our ghetto but no one will listen if we don’t change our language.” He continued, “Our aim should be to communicate with people on their level, not seek to maintain a spurious purity of dogma” (Morning Star letters, 16 May 2010).
As much as it may hurt for many members to admit, no organization named the Communist Party will be a part of the mainstream of American politics. The CPUSA came closest to that in the 1930s and 40s, but that success is unlikely to be repeated. Too much history has happened since then: McCarthyism, the Stalin revelations, the Cold War, fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the CP-ruled states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Communism is a brand tarnished beyond repair in the United States.
A few critical readers of this article will undoubtedly charge that I am guilty of “American Exceptionalism” – the old criticism hurled against CP leaders who sought a more nationally-specific path to socialism. The party is an American institution dealing with the political challenges of the modern United States. If our theories, strategy, and tactics were not uniquely American, then we would be of no use to the working class. As Wendland and Zerner said, we are trying to reach America’s working people – “our constituency.”
While history may eventually call upon a political organization to complete the historic tasks associated with a communist party by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, that period of time is not upon us. John Case made this observation when in a recent PA article he said that naming the party communist “before such time as the tasks of constructing a society reflecting the communist ideal are fully prepared, is premature.” (Reflections on the 29th Convention of the CPUSA, June 2010)
His point gets right to the heart of the matter. To simply sit satisfied in our small organization called the Communist Party and take comfort in the conviction that history will push us to the fore is to live in a fantasy world. It does a disservice not only to our own political effectiveness, but to the larger movement that needs the kind of insights into theory, strategy, and tactics that we can help develop. We have to remove this obstacle from our full participation in the democratic struggles of our time.
Many Communist Parties around the world went about transforming themselves at times of crisis, when they were no longer in tune with the broad trends of progressive politics in their countries or their bases of support were shrinking. The CPUSA, though small, does not find itself in such a condition. We are relatively united and making a positive contribution to the broad people’s coalition in our country.
We should take advantage of this situation to undergo a more thorough renewal. The crisis of socialism is now twenty years passed, and conditions have developed which make it possible for the CPUSA to become a more outwardly-oriented socialist organization.
As Sam Webb said in his report to the 29th Convention, “Our socialist vision should have a contemporary and dynamic feel…If it has an ‘old or foreign’ feel, people will reject it.” I think this insight should be expanded beyond just our vision of socialism as expressed in our statements and publications; it should include our “brand,” so to speak. If people are turned off by the name on the label, it is unlikely they will take too much time to see what is inside the package.
Just as the Soviet model of socialism always had that foreign feel for the vast majority of Americans, so too does the name Communist Party. We can argue over whether this is due more to decades of red-baiting, propaganda, and repression or to the less-than-sterling historical record of many governments run by Communist Parties. At this point in history that does not matter for purposes of what our organization should call itself. The causes of anti-communism should of course continue to be investigated by historians, but when our members are on the front-lines of the struggle against the ultra-right, do we really want the whole history of communism to be their primary hurdle?
Our chief adversaries should be the ultra-right, not the general public’s preconceived notions of what communism is or was. Let’s jump more solidly into the mainstream of political struggle. We should project our vision of a more just, equitable, and solidaristic future (i.e. socialism) without making our coalition allies instantly associate us with all that was reprehensible about Stalinism.
In discussions I have had with some people, it has been stated that it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves, we would still be red-baited. That is almost certainly true. However, it cannot be denied that red-baiting is a lot easier for the ultra-right demagogues like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh when we stubbornly stick to a name that may make us feel comfortable but does little to help us expand our influence.
An organization does not have to be called ‘Communist Party’ in order to be oriented toward socialism. A change of name does not mean a change in principles.
But changing the name is not just a pragmatic concern. It should not be seen as simply switching the sign on the storefront. While we would be re-emphasizing the positive traditions we have always stood for – peace, equality, democracy, and socialism – we would also be publicly rejecting the negative traits associated with communist parties, particularly those of the Soviet bloc. We would be declaring in the clearest way possible our rejection of the history of purges, repression, undemocratic practices, dictatorial power, and subordination that sullied the Soviet period.
Of course a change in name will not be some kind of panacea for the party’s long-standing problems of recruitment and retention. But over the years, people have overwhelmingly joined the CPUSA because of the work they see its members doing and the theoretical education that it provides. These are the key characteristics of our organization that would be preserved and hopefully expanded. Changing the name will not bring members pouring into the organization; that is not what I’m claiming. But given that the party has been a rather negligible force on the American political scene as a whole for at least the last several decades, we have to ask what benefit do we get from retaining a name from another era?
There is also the real possibility that if the name "Communist Party" is dropped, it will be picked up by some ultra-left formation or sect. We can be sure that "Communist Party" would still be a hot brand on the sectarian left as demonstrated by the never-ending list of parties with the names containing the words socialist, labor, workers, communist, liberation, Marxist-Leninist, or some combination thereof. If we surrender the title, we would be taking a risk that some grouping with politics very different from those of the CPUSA would try to lay claim to not only the name but the history and the heritage that goes along with it. While such a turn of events would perhaps not do justice to the party’s past, we have to decide whether it is more important to be loyal to a name or to our long-term goals – the real things that generations of party members have struggled for in our country.
OPENING DOORS OUTWARD
Having dealt with the name issue, I would like to briefly comment on our efforts to dive more into the mainstream of progressive and left politics in the United States. This means looking at questions of not just our name, but the type of organization we see ourselves to be. Is the CPUSA really a political party? Is it an organization or association of progressive working-class activists? What form would make us the most effective fighters for unity and social progress?
To deal with the first question, we have to ask not only whether the CPUSA is a political party, but we have to understand what a political party really is in the United States. The question here is not as simple to answer as it is in multi-party parliamentary systems, for instance. Generally, political parties in the latter types of systems are organizations contesting for office around an agreed ideological platform and having official membership rolls. Communist parties, though of course having their own unique characteristics such as democratic centralism and a revolutionary perspective, have historically been formed with such a system in mind. The CPUSA for instance, was formed as a political party in this sense.
But the two-party system of the United States does not fit neatly into this historical understanding of what parties are and what characteristics they have. In our country, as in many two-party states, the parties are coalitions of interests that broadly correlate to a right-left division, but which include people and forces of vastly differing classes, backgrounds, and goals. Political organization, especially as illustrated by the primary system for candidate selection, is relatively loose.
What this means in practice is that the two parties have become institutions of a semi-governmental nature. In order to win the majority of offices, candidates must pursue the nomination of one of the two main parties. For those on the left, this means contesting the Democratic primary process and engaging in the local Democratic platform development process. This is the only realistic way to bring progressive principles into electoral reality – definitely at the state and national level, and sometimes the local level as well.
The reactionary right accepted this reality more than 30 years ago and committed themselves to pursuing their aims through a shift in state power. Without a doubt, they were largely successful. The domination of the ultra right over much of the political life of our nation from roughly 1980 to 2008 has exemplified their victory. The Republican Party, though always the defender of corporate interests, was not always the instrument of the Palin-Rand type of fringe elements which dominate today.
Not all elements of the progressive left have drawn the appropriate lessons from this historical development. Sam Webb points this out in his article, “A Cautionary Tale” in People’s World. As he says, the lesson is simple: “The electoral arena is of overriding importance. The notion that electoral politics has little progressive potential, that it is ‘politics lite,’ that it pales in the face of direct action (an unnecessary juxtaposition) is mistaken and harmful.”
Political independence has for quite some time, and increasingly in the recent period, been operationalized within the context of the two-party system. Webb drew our attention to this in his keynote address to the party convention. He said:
New forms of political independence have developed in recent years in important ways, but differently than most of us on the left imagined. To our surprise, they took shape within the framework of the two-party system, not outside of it, and within labor and other major social organizations, operating under the broad canopy of the Democratic Party.
I agree with Webb that if any alternative, independent third party ever emerges, these formations and organizations will be its basis. I would stress even more, though, that we should look realistically at the openings for such a third party to develop. Serious electoral reform has not been on the table for decades and is not likely to appear on the popular agenda anytime soon. Efforts to operate in the electoral arena in opposition to both the Democratic and Republican parties only results in splitting the center-left vote and helping the right wing back into office. States or localities that allow fusion votes or alternative voting systems may be able to bypass this problem, but these local specificities cannot be the basis of a generalizable strategy.
Forces on the progressive left must organize as currents within the orbit of the Democratic Party, but as elements separate from it. This is the stance taken by the organized labor movement. And, if the CPUSA is honest with itself, we would see that this is an approach which we have already taken for quite some time as well. Our members participate in the Democratic primary process at the local level, volunteer in GOTV efforts, and many take part in the platform-drafting process in their local Democratic committees. More participate in Democratic-aligned outfits such as Organize for America, Progressive Democrats of America, or the Campaign for America’s Future.
PAY ATTENTION BELOW -COMRADE "dantescritic"
However, by not formally affiliating with the Democratic Party organizationally (though many members do individually), the CPUSA and some of these other left formations are able to maintain the independence that allows them to join in the mass coalition efforts to defeat the ultra right without endorsing or accepting the corporate influence and control that prevails among too many top Democratic policy-makers.
All of this is to say, we have to consider the possibility that our current practice, which is broadly in agreement with the understanding of political independence summarized above, may not best be served by our continued adherence to a specifically party-type of organization. I would suggest that we ponder whether it may be appropriate to drop not only the “communist” half of our title, but the “party” half as well.
It is my belief that we could be more effectual operating as a socialist and working-class political organization which does not present itself as a “party” as such. By doing so, we could eliminate the ambiguities and confusion which sometimes arises when CPUSA members run as Democratic or independent candidates. Our members can freely participate in the Democratic Party process, with the Working Families Party or other independent political formations, etc. as appropriate to the circumstances and in accordance with collective judgment of the situation. The details of what such an organization would look like would of course have to be discussed in greater detail by the party as a whole, but it is a transformation worth considering.
So as should be clear, this article is both a call for change as well as a suggestion for the codification of existing practice. The CPUSA has done much to renew itself and join the 21st century. It is now time to move forward with this process and remove any obstacles that still stand in the way of fully participating in the broad democratic upsurge of our times. We are living in an era of change and must do everything to make sure we stay in tune with the movement of history.
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