“The Nature, Role, and Work of the Communist Party” first appeared on CPUSA.org on April 10, 2014. Read it on CPUSA.org.
Submitted for discussion by the National Board of the Communist Party
The two old bards of the socialist movement wrote in the Communist Manifesto,
“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.“
Sounds good and seems easy enough to do. Right?
Not only is it a difficult needle to thread, but it also is something that, once done, isn’t necessarily good for all time. In fact, the thread has to be re-threaded as conditions of struggle change, and as we know only too well, conditions change constantly, sometimes in qualitative (big) ways.
Complicating things further, representing and taking care of the future in the movement of the present is as much an art as a science. It takes a Marxism that combines political insights, dialectics and a feel for popular discontents and shifting moods.
I wish I could say that we have mastered this art and science, but that would be a stretch. To be honest, we can (and must) do better. But before I suggest how, let me make a few things clear so that no one spends any time in a polemic against straw men.
I am not suggesting that we mothball the struggle against right wing extremism — our current strategic task – in our zeal to address more radical and fundamental tasks. The decisive defeat of the right is not yet finished and remains the gateway through which today’s movement has to pass if it hopes to eventually reshape the political, economic, and cultural landscape in a progressive, radical, and, eventually, socialist direction.
Nor am I thinking that we should scale down our efforts (along with others) to assemble the core social forces and movements — the working class, people of color, women, and youth and their respective organizations — into a labor/working class led people’s coalition in favor of some narrower formation. While it is tempting to look for some other change agent that possess a radical disposition and flare and that will get us to our destination in short order, no one should doubt that only a broadly based people’s coalition anchored in and led by these very forces will usher the American people to a progressive and socialist future.
Nor am I saying that the immediate issues that draw people into the vortex of practical struggle are no longer the main point of departure of any politics that has transformational aspirations. To think otherwise is a sure fire recipe for languishing on the margins of U.S. politics — a ground that the left of which we are a part has occupied for far too long.
In short, what I am talking about is not a radical makeover of our policies and approach, but some adjusting and fine tuning – not a change of policy, as the former Communist Party chair Henry Winston would say, but a change in policy.
So here are my thoughts — and I make no attempt to be comprehensive — as to what we (and the broader left) should do in the movement of the present to represent and take care of the future of that movement.
A Surge in People’s Struggles
First of all, there is no pathway to a future in which freedom, economic security, substantive equality, democracy, and peace, are the main markers of our society that isn’t sunk in the present wave of struggles and people’s victories that have dotted the political landscape over the past year.
Admittedly, this surge hasn’t morphed into a movement that has the ideological and practical/power capacity to resolve the current crisis of capitalism in a consistently democratic, anti-corporate, and working class manner.
But it is the only ground on which a movement with transformative power — that is, the power to roll back right wing extremism, radically curb corporate power and neoliberalism, and explore new avenues for systemic change — will materialize.
If the Party or the left or progressives or movements that arise with great splash and fanfare, like Occupy in recent years or the anti-globalization movement a decade or so earlier, could do it alone or together, one of us or all of us would have done it a long time ago.
But the fact of the matter is that none of us — alone or taken together — have that capacity. Thus, we can represent and take care of the future in the movement of the present only to the degree that we are a part of this developing surge.
Of course, I should add that our participation in this surge isn’t the sum and substance of communist politics; there are other critical dimensions. But it is the ground floor. And if we aren’t on that ground — and maybe this sounds too strong, but I don’t think it is — we are nowhere! Indeed, our politics and our ideas acquire transformative power and resonate with a larger audience only to the extent that we are an active part of today’s struggles and surge. Our experience, both now and in past decades, proves that point.
Assisting Labor’s Growth Revitalization is an Overriding Strategic Task
To make the journey from a present that is thick with unrelenting exploitation, deeply structured inequality and oppression, unending war, and existential threats to the planetary web of life to a future in which justice, equality, sustainability, and peace “roll down like a mighty stream” is idle talk if it doesn’t include a greatly scaled up, reenergized, and class conscious labor movement.
Social change, and especially deep going social change in a progressive, left and socialist direction just doesn’t happen. It requires, first of all, material, active, and politically far seeing social movements on the ground.
And labor – again reenergized, growing, membership driven, and forward looking – is an essential cornerstone of those material social movements.
Not everyone in the left and progressive community is of this mind. Some assign the labor movement no part in the process of change; some a bit part; still others include labor in long list of other political actors.
More than a few greet the new initiatives of (and new openings in) the labor movement with faint praise or, worse still, cynicism. Contrast the reception on the left to Occupy as compared to the recent convention of the AFL-CIO! It was gaga in one case and ho hum in the other.
And the big business press goes to great lengths to pronounce labor “dead.”
This obviously isn’t our attitude; in our view, labor in particular and the multi-racial, female-male, young and old working class, native born and immigrant, gay and straight, and disabled working class in general are essential change agents. When organized, united, and equipped with a class and democratic vision, the working class and its organized sector possess transformative power.
Of course, this isn’t the case today; labor membership is at its lowest level since WW II; it’s on the defensive and fractured, the left in labor, while growing, is still small in size; and the internal and external barriers to reconstitute a revitalized and growing labor movement are formidable.
In the face of this, some people throw up their hands in despair, but that can’t be our response. Labor is in a crisis; existential isn’t too strong a term.
So what should we do?
We (and I would add the entire people’s movement) should do what sections of labor are doing – acknowledging, embracing, and doing something about this crisis.
Actually, we — and anybody who hopes for a better future — would be fools to sit it out. For the people’s train won’t reach its destination if labor in its revitalized form isn’t on board and doing its thing.
Our task, therefore, is to join those sections of the labor movement that are breaking new ground – ground that lays the basis for increasing labor in size, capacity, and allied relationships, for turning labor into a powerful social/political force for economic justice, equality, peace, and solidarity.
Now I am not Pollyannaish; even in the best of circumstances, the transformation of the labor movement won’t be accomplished overnight. But the first steps are being taken to organize workers in retail and service industries, reach out to new allies and social movements, draw people of color and women into leadership positions, welcome immigrants into labor’s family, lock arms with brothers and sisters in other countries, and leave an independent imprint on the political/electoral process.
While not yet the dominant template of the labor movement, this new culture of solidarity, struggle, and innovative modes of thinking and organizing is gaining momentum and strikingly contrasts with the old culture of class adaptation, deeply embedded inertia and bureaucratic habits, and modes of thinking that are conservative, protective, and narrowly job conscious.
Labor’s allies and the left should wholeheartedly support labor’s new rhythm and beat. Indeed, anyone who has any strategic sense, anyone who has any appreciation of what the requirements for a qualitative rupture from the nightmare of right wing extremism, neoliberalism, and capitalist globalization will get into the thick of this process.
Our Party’s history has always been closely tied with the labor movement. In the 1930s, we shook off old sectarian policies, habits, modes of thinking, slogans, and images and turned our attention to the organization of the industrial sections of the working class. And out of that process, thanks to the actions and unity of millions and a growing Communist Party and left, came labor’s revitalization on a broad scale, which, in turn, became a vital power base for an emergent people’s coalition. And it was this coalition that was at the heart of the political transformation that took place in that tumultuous decade.
We should do much the same today. In other words, the entire Party at the coming convention should resolve to turn its collective attention to assisting ideologically and practically the new dynamic trends in the labor movement.
Much like the 1930s, the growth and consolidation of these trends are the engine to scale out and up the working class movement and turn the working class into, as Marx might say, a class for itself; and at the same time, they constitute the power base of a transformative people’s movement.
Of particular importance to this project is the organization of the vast pool of low wage workers in big box, fast food, retail and service industries – sometimes called non-traditional or alt-labor. These workers will bring energy, ideas, fighting spirit, and muscle into the existing labor movement much like the workers in auto, steel, mining, electrical, rubber, etc. did in the Depression years.
Admittedly, they don’t have the same structural economic power of mass production workers had in the 1930s, but strategic power doesn’t simply rest on structural location in the productive apparatus.
It helps a lot – a whole lot, but it not a sine qua non (without which nothing) condition for labor’s advance. Strategic power can be acquired in other ways and by other means. In fact, in the last instance, strategic power is politically constructed. In other words, it rests on alliances, mass and democratic struggles, broad and deep unity, new forms and levels of solidarity and independent political action, a burst of anti-capitalist thinking, and, not least, an active left and Communist Party that are theoretically creative, strategically on target, tactically flexible, and equipped with messages, symbols, and images that resonate with the American people in their tens of millions – in suburb and exurb as well as city, red state as well as blue state, and rural community as well as small town.
An immediate task is to win the traditional labor and democratic movements to the cause of these millions of non-traditional workers – many of whom, if not most, are people of color, women, immigrants, and youth.
In doing so, the struggle for a living wage and organizing rights of major sections of the working class merges with the struggle for racial, gender, and immigrant justice and equality.
It will also augment immeasurably the power of labor and its allies to mobilize and join with the vast reserve of unemployed, underemployed, insecure and precarious workers to press the fight for broad scale conversion of a fossil fuel and militarized economy to production for jobs, peace, sustainability, and renewable energy — not to mention broad scale infrastructure renewal, a guaranteed social income for all, a reduction in the work week with no cut in pay, cooperative forms of ownership of old and new enterprises, and a major expansion of educational and care giving sectors of the economy
All of which can be funded by the transfer of the trillions of dollars of unearned wealth accumulated by the 1 per cent over the past few decades into public hands, a major reordering of governmental priorities, and the transformation of the financial sector into a public utility.
Again, the revitalization of the labor movement in size, capacity, and understanding is a strategic task for any fundamental transformation of class and social relations. It isn’t the only strategic requirement for deep going change, but it is essential, and to go further perhaps the bedrock of this contested process.
In any case, the train is leaving the station, and to repeat: the challenge at the coming convention and beyond is to convince every communist and collective to get on board. We did it in the 1930s; we can do it again!
If that happens — and I think it will — it will be a win-win solution. The labor movement as well as the party will come out ahead in size, capacity, and goodwill.
The Struggle for Reforms and Socialism
Another way to represent and take care of the future of the present movement is engage, paradoxically as it sounds, in reform struggles.
This is, by no means, a new thought. I have said it repeatedly as have others in our Party. But here is a twist — some adjusting and fine tuning is in order. In the past, my main emphasis on the struggle for reform has centered on two things.
First, reforms are important in and of themselves. Seemingly minor reforms can bring relief to the lives of millions who live on the edge, who are the targets of discrimination, who are fodder for imperialist wars, who breathe air and drink water, who aspire to vote, and so forth.
Second, reform struggles are a school of struggle. People acquire live experience; form alliances with other political actors, gain an appreciation of the role of various class and social movements in society, obtain an understanding of the limits of capitalism, and are apt to turn a friendly ear to radical alternatives both within and beyond capitalism.
Reform struggles, in short, don’t inevitably — I would always add — become the midwife for radical change and social revolution; but at the same time there is no road to the future that “leaps” over them.
But what I didn’t say enough is that the struggle for reforms is an elastic concept.
Too often, the struggles of the present in my rendition of the story took up nearly all the oxygen in the room, to the neglect of more advanced political tasks. I would like to think I didn’t do that, but my suspicion is out of haste, or in an effort to counter sectarian thinking and habits (and they exist in the party), or just from insufficient political imagination, I failed to sufficiently throw light on the dialectical connection between the present and the future.
Or to put if differently, I should have emphasized more that the reform struggle can be deep going as well as incremental and small bore. It can make deep inroads into corporate power, profits, and privileges — much like was done in the 1930s – as well as make improvements on the margins.
And further that even if radical reforms can’t be turned into action demands because of power realities, which can’t be wished away, they can and should find their way into the conversation at the ideological and agitational level nonetheless.
Finally, I should have added that political/organizational initiatives to fight for reforms of a more radical nature are necessary and deserve our support, provided — and this is important — they are broadly framed as well as resist the temptation of counter posing more advanced demands to more immediate ones and erect no impassable walls between themselves and the main mass forms of organization and struggle of the working class and people’s movement.
A Party that represents and takes care of the future in the struggles of the present understands that categories of analysis and struggle — democracy and socialism, or democratic struggle and class struggle, or struggle against right wing extremism and struggle to curb the power of corporate capital as a whole, or race, gender, and class — are dialectically interconnected and mutually interactive. I like to say that they interpenetrate one another at a conceptual and concrete/practical level. In other words, while each has a particular genesis, autonomy, and features, they are also constituted in complex and interactive ways with each other in the context of a larger social process of capital accumulation.
Much the same could be said about the core political forces and movements — the working class, people of color, women, and youth — of social change and socialism. Each has its own origins, specific features and autonomy, but each also interpenetrates the other at the same time thus creating conditions for deep unity, broad alliances, and a whole greater than than the sum of its parts.
All this sounds abstract, and I guess it is, and it’s also exploratory and provisional, but in accenting the interpenetration or interconnectedness of these distinct categories of analysis and struggle we give ourselves a leg up, it seems to me, when it comes to understanding their development, and dynamics and arriving at strategic, tactical, and programmatic decisions that inform our policies and practical activities.
Thus if we have a choice between simplicity or complexity in our analysis we have to choose complexity that allows for new experience, interactive processes, competing tendencies, and so forth.
Lenin argued that pure forms and categories never appear in real life; reality “is always richer in content, more varied, more multiform, more lively and ingenious than is imagined by even the best parties, the most class-conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes.” (Lenin, Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder). Only at high levels of theoretical abstraction far removed the concrete and motley realities of day to day life do we find such forms and categories, and there they constitute no more than a first approximation to understanding reality and how to change it.
All of which makes me think — and here I go again — that we have to rescue Lenin from some versions of Marxism-Leninism. To be more concrete, we have to reclaim the world historic personality who thought in dialectical, historical, and strategic ways, the politician who insisted on an exact estimate of the balance of forces and utmost tactical flexibility; the astute leader who was quick to modify his thinking if new realties and experience compelled it; the realist who didn’t allow subjective desires to overwhelm and crowd out objective processes; the revolutionary who took advantage of divisions in the capitalist camp, the theorist who allowed for complexity, contingency, and contradictory processes, displayed a keen eye for new patterns of development, and was suspicious of the inevitable, the uninterrupted, the irreversible, and “lawed” outcomes; and the scientist who considered Marxist principles no more than an first step in examining reality, which, in turn, had to be followed by successive steps from the abstract to the concrete in order to comprehend and then to change reality.
It is this Lenin, not the dogmatic, unhistorical, un-dilalectical one, not the one who spells revolution with a capital R, not the one who hangs his hat on the revolutionary phrase, not the one who thinks transformational moments only take will and militancy that has informed our theoretical work and political practice for the past decade or so. And it is this Lenin along with Marx and many other thinkers of the U.S. radical tradition that should continue to do so.
I have gotten into a quarrel with some comrades over the term Marxism Leninism. As I said earlier, while it can claim some theoretical innovations in the 20 century here and elsewhere, it also evolved into a closed and completed system in many ways, which is antithetical to Lenin’s thinking in particular and to the methods of scientific investigation in general.
It became for too many comrades a political identity that relieved them of in depth and ongoing theoretical inquiry, allowed them to ignore (or even mock) other Marxist and radical traditions and served to distinguish themselves — “the real revolutionaries” — from the Marxist and socialist wannabes — wannebes that don’t have the stomach for “hard class struggle.”
It brings to mind times long past when communists gloatingly (myself included) said that the difference between a communist and socialist is that “communists mean it.” At that time it was a tragedy; today such thinking is a farce as more and more people come to anti-capitalist thinking and Marxism.
I still can’t understand why are we so anxious to accent our differences rather than our similarities with people of similar mind. If we are so determined to distinguish ourselves from others, let’s do it by the quality of our theoretical insights, our ability to explain complex ideas in understandable ways, our strategic creativity and tactical flexibility, our skill in building broad and deep unity, our readiness to fight against racism and male supremacy, and, above all, our day to day commitment to fighting for our class and people.
At any rate, even though I think we should jettison the term Marxism-Leninism as we have other terms that don’t resonate with the American people (and we have done that without losing our revolutionary essence and identity) in favor of Marxism which has far more currency in the public mind, I don’t think we should divide the house on this question when we gather in Chicago in June, if we think that would happen. As my English brethren say, “The game isn’t worth the candle.”
Nevertheless, I have heard through the grapevine that a comrade or two who should know better are already telling others that we are going to have a big shakedown in Chicago over this (and other questions.)
Let’s hope that that doesn’t happen. And I don’t think it will; anyone who thinks otherwise only reveals little understanding of the mood and degree of unity in the Party.
In any event, I do think that National Board members should express where they stand on this matter, and not only on the tactical side of this question.
As I have said, I prefer, in fact, I only use Marxism, to identify my theoretical disposition and views.
That said, the main thing for me, which I said in my first submission to the covnention discussion, is that we should resolve at the coming convention to give a big and sustained lift to our theoretical/educational work and training. We can’t stand still in this regard if we hope to be relevant going forward in this century. To be a party that attracts new and fresh forces to our ranks as well as gives leadership to a surging movement of millions we have to distinguish ourselves on the field of theory as well as practice.
Socialism as Part of the Conversation
Representing and taking care of the future in the movement of the present compels us to do a better job of embedding the subject of socialism into our political analysis and activity. We don’t quite treat it like an orphan, but I’m sure there are moments when it feels lonely.
It is true that a mass constituency for socialism as we understand it doesn’t yet exist; millions are not ready to fight for it body and soul. To claim otherwise is laughable and reveals a separation from working class life.
But what does exist is a new curiosity about socialism among a growing band of people. And an even bigger band of people who have a gut feeling that the system doesn’t work and, in fact, is rigged for the very rich. None of this was the case only a decade or so ago.
Undoubtedly what people have in mind when they think of socialism is probably different than what we think of when we use the term. But that is beside the point.
The point is that socialism isn’t a “dirty word.” It isn’t “white hot.” It’s a conversation that many people are willing to have; indeed, it has attractive features for an expanding circle of people.
So we should join the conversation; and not as know-it-alls, but as eager listeners and thoughtful participants. And not on one venue, but many venues, ours and others.
And let’s remember, a friendly, under the radar screen conversation with a neighbor, coworker, friend, or fellow activist is no less important than a speech at a conference or an appearance on radio or television.
Of course, if we are to be taken seriously, we have to convey a vision of socialism that is modern and mindful of the major deficiencies as well as the achievements of socialism in the last century. With the implosion of the Soviet Union, socialism experienced a major defeat at the end of the 20th century that caught all of us off guard.
And, the reasons for it go beyond Gorbachev’s role and the pressures of imperialism on the Soviet Union.
A deeper analysis has to include a model of socialism that in many of its essentials took shape, became entrenched, and acquired a political constituency at the leadership and mass level in Soviet society in the tumultuous decade of the 1930s. This model didn’t pop out of some Marxist textbook. It was the result of a cumulative and interactive historical process in which a backward, peasant based economy and society, an autocratic political culture and tradition, the rise of Nazism, and the personality and policies of Josef Stalin who was at the head of the Communist Party and Soviet state during that period left their mark on the main features, structures, and dynamics of Soviet socialism.
While Soviet society was modernized, played the decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, evolved into a world power, flew a cosmonaut to the moon, registered notable achievements in the provision of jobs and public goods, and overcame many long standing nationality divisions and inequalities, the price paid was incalculable in a double sense.
First, the authoritarian, improvisational, and bloody “forced march to socialism” had millions of victims, including substantial numbers of communists. In the name of building socialism in one country and combating the “class enemy,” Stalin and his acolytes committed crimes on a vast scale. Only later was this tragic and unnecessary chapter in socialism’s history roundly condemned by the Soviet Communist Party and the world communist movement.
Second, the structures of political and economic governance — command in nature, undemocratic in substance, and deeply rooted in the material life and interests of Soviet society — proved resistant to deep going and necessary renovation in Soviet socialism in the second half of the 20th century.
Thus, any analysis of the collapse of Soviet socialism that fails to include this historically derived model of socialism – its genesis, contradictions, embedded constituencies, and tenacity – at the core of its explanatory framework will come up empty. There were agents of counterrevolution in the closing years of Soviet socialism to be sure, contingent events and individuals played a role as well, and imperialism wasn’t a passive spectator either, but none of the latter alone or together give us anything close to an understanding of why Soviet socialism vanished so quickly with barely a protest or provide a reliable window into the lessons that are to be gleaned from this world historic experience.
We should study the totality of Soviet experience as we should the experiences of building a new society elsewhere in the world, but it can’t be stressed enough: our vision of socialism has to be sunk in our own national experiences, realities, traditions, and sensibilities in the first place. Our socialism will have some general features that are common to other socialist societies, but its essential characteristics and its every fiber has to have a “Made in USA” birthmark.
In fact, if our vision of socialism is simply a slightly modified version of what existed in the 20th century, people will not listen to us. I sometimes say that the Russian communists have to go forward to socialism, not backward; only by doing so will they find a majority constituency for socialism, which is an absolutely necessary political condition for its realization there. The same applies, albeit in very different circumstances, to us. A rear view mirror to construct a vision of socialism USA won’t fill the bill; it won’t meet the challenges of this new century and capture the imagination of the American people. We can and must do better.
If we’re looking for an example of a Party that is courageously and creatively re-imagining and reconstructing a new modern and sustainable socialism in the 21st century, we need look no further than Cuba and the Communist Party of Cuba for inspiration. They are challenging old assumptions and practices in order to meet the requirements of socialist renewal and the aspirations of the Cuban people.
We should be as courageous.
The Democratic Party and the Rise of Neoliberalism
Taking care of the future in the movement of the present also means new initiatives to build political independence, both within and outside of the Democratic Party.
I’m not suggesting that either we or the larger movement should no longer consider the Democratic Party as an essential player in any conceivably realistic strategy for defeating the Republican Party and right-wing extremism.
At this stage of struggle that would be a stupid mistake — strategically and tactically.
But we can’t leave matters here.
Notwithstanding the diverse people and interests found in the Democratic Party, it has a class gravity and anchorage that neither we nor the progressive forces that utilize it as a vehicle to advance their interests should lose sight of.
If it is a coalition — and I’m not convinced that is a good characterization of it – it is not one in which everyone has an equal seat at the table.
The main seats are in the hands of political representatives and power brokers who by disposition, loyalty, and worldview are committed in the last, if not the first instance to creating favorable conditions for the accumulation of capital and for the smooth reproduction of the capitalism on a national and global level.
The rise of neoliberalism, globalization, and financialization, all of which deepened inequality, introduced economic instability, undid many of the reforms of the previous century, and disempowered and disunited people wasn’t simply a creature of the Republican right. The election of Ronald Reagan and the ascendency of the right had an outsized hand in the process to be sure. We shouldn’t forget that fact; and it’s still the case today that the right is the leading edge of the ruling class offensive.
But the Democrats were not bystanders either. While they resisted some of the more extreme measures of their right wing counterparts they also embraced some of the main assumptions and practices of neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization.
The Carter administration was the first out of the gate, but it was the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council that really greased the skids for the rise of finance and speculation, globalization, and the reining in of government’s responsibility to its citizenry. And even today the president and his advisors and leading Democrats in the Senate and House are far from free of such thinking and practices.
As far as the conduct of foreign policy is concerned, the differences between the two parties are more tactical than strategic.
While such differences can be of enormous consequence to the preservation of a peaceful world and thus shouldn’t be dismissed by progressive and left minded people and organizations, it shouldn’t conceal the fact that both parties are committed to U.S. global dominance and the growth of the national security state – a world in which the U.S. has no global or regional competitors on the horizon.
To its credit, the Obama administration ended one war and is winding down another, is exploring a lessening of tensions with Iran, and some other positive measures on a global level, but it shows no desire to relinquish the U.S. role as the world’s singularly dominant and indispensable power, even in the face of one misadventure abroad after another, crying needs at home that go unattended because of commitment to an ever bigger war machine and posture, and the rise of new powers on the global level – China in the first place.
What is the upshot of all this?
It’s this: the top circles of the Democratic Party are anchored to the outlook, needs, and polices of major sections of the capitalist class, thereby making it an unreliable and inconsistent ally of the working class and people’s movement.
I say this not to please our left critics nor to suggest a retreat from the formation of an expansive coalition that includes the Democratic Party as part of an overarching political, objective/legislative, or electoral struggle.
Instead, its purpose is highlight the importance of expanding the network of progressive and liberal representatives at every level of government and further building the independent currents and formations in and outside the Democratic Party, including where circumstances make feasible the running of independent, left and communist candidates.
As for the formation of an independent people’s party on a national level, we should keep it in the conversation even if it isn’t on the immediate agenda.
In fact, in the near and medium term, the insurgent forces in and outside the Democratic Party who would be the leadership and main constituency of such a party will operate in the orbit of the Democratic Party, while increasingly challenge its direction.
Over time will come either a new direction (accenting people’s needs, equality and peace) or defeat (or a series of defeats), which in turn could well become the trigger for the formation a powerful people’s party, fully able to battle the two parties of capitalism over the country’s direction and priorities. Obviously, we will be a part of this process ideologically as well as practically.
In the meantime, the main strategic task of combating the right still remains the overarching framework for our work. And that can’t happen without the broader movement acting in coalition – and coalitions are contested as well as cooperative – with the President and the Democratic Party.
In fact, we have to resist pressures from some voices in left and progressive circles – even in our own party – who are ready if not to vacate, at least to dial down on the electoral and legislative struggles to defeat the program and ambitions of right wing extremism. In this view, the strategy has come up empty and the two parties are two peas in a pod.
That the efforts to defeat the right in the electoral arena haven’t resulted in a decisive setback to the right wing and its corporate sponsors is incontestable, but it can’t be a reason to bid farewell to such struggles for something that seems more fashionable.
In the first place, the emergence of a people’s coalition has stymied the right wing’s most extreme plans to restructure political, economic, and cultural relations in a deep going, permanent, and reactionary way. Karl Rove’s hope to permanently realign politics like Roosevelt did in the 1930s, but in a backward and deeply anti-democratic direction hasn’t happened. That alone is a victory of great consequence to tens of millions.
Second, victories — some of great import, some that garnered fewer headlines — have been won. And these victories made a difference in the lives of tens of millions.
Third, in the course of the struggles against right wing extremism, the movement has extended its reach, gained in depth and unity, and acquired deeper understanding. Admittedly, it doesn’t yet have transformative capacity, but it’s closer to it today than we were even a few years ago.
Fourth, there is no other way — and certainly no easy way – at this stage of struggle to get to a future that puts people and nature before profits other than to battle and defeat right wing extremism. I wish that were not the case; I wish there were an easier way, but there isn’t; I wish this stage of struggle could be skipped in favor of something sexier, but it can’t.
Frustration is understandable; who doesn’t feel it now and then, but it can’t be a substitute for informed and sober politics. The price paid for abandoning this terrain of struggle would be nearly incalculable. And it would be paid by working people, and especially low and moderate income working people, which include an overrepresentation of people of color and women.
Finally, the struggle against right wing extremist political domination isn’t a retreat from the class struggle. Someone asked me on a recent trip when we were going to get back to the “real class struggle.” And my reply was that the battle against right wing extremists is the “real class struggle.” In fact, I went on to say, it’s the leading edge of the class (and democratic) struggle. Only someone with a dogmatic cast of mind would think otherwise. Struggle, class and otherwise, as I mentioned above, never come in pure form.
As for the identity of views between the two parties, I would say again: both parties at their top levels have a class anchorage, no question about that, but they don’t hold identical views nor do they represent the same constituencies. A mature left can’t ignore these differences; its analysis should be nuanced and fine grained and its practice should reflect this fact.
We shouldn’t minimize the difficulties, not conceal the class nature of the two party system, nor give the Democrats a free pass, nor stop insisting on the urgency of more radical demands and forms to take the struggle to higher ground. But at the same time we shouldn’t convey in the slightest way that the electoral/legislative struggle in present circumstances is a fool’s errand as some progressive and left people are now suggesting. Such a position feels self-satisfying, makes life a lot easier, and has a radical ring, but in the end it’s the real fool’s errand.
In the 20th century two transformative movements uprooted deeply structured modes of political and economic governance – an unregulated, crisis ridden capitalism in the 1930s in one case and a massive, many layered, and deeply racist system, sanctioned by law, custom, and state and vigilante violence in the 1960s in other case.
Neither one of these transformative movements, however, boycotted or stood apart from the electoral and legislative process. They were engaged in a very practical way in “bourgeois politics,” but that didn’t weaken their cause, in fact it was a reason for their historic victories. A mature Party and left won’t forget either of these experiences and their contemporary meaning.
Climate Change and Planetary Sustainability
Taking care of the planet is an indispensable part of taking care of the future. Climate change constitutes an existential (life threatening) challenge for the world’s people and governments.
Never before in humankind’s history, short as it is in geological time, has such a challenge confronted the human species. No one wants to die, but as people age they take some comfort in the fact that new generations would come after them. But that is becoming a problematic assumption that as we assume the role of the modern Nero, playing the fiddle while the atmosphere heats up due to humankind’s activities.
This crisis is intensifying and we catch a glimpse of its future in the form of the terrible storm disasters that wreak havoc on far-flung parts of the world, shrinking ices sheets, ice free Arctic waters, species migration and extinctions, etc.
While this crisis is planetary in scope, the worst consequences of climate change will fall unevenly, weighing most heavily on working class, the racially oppressed and the poor, and especially on countries and peoples of the global South.
Despite this existential nature of this growing catastrophe, the response of left and broader democratic movement hasn’t been on a level commensurate with the danger. If our party were going to be graded on our performance, my guess is that we would receive a D. And the only reason we wouldn’t receive an F is due to the regular coverage of the climate and environment on the People’s World website.
We can and must do better. The clock is ticking. What are our grandchildren and great grandchildren going to think of us when they dig into our archives and find out that we sat on our hands at a crucial moment when the atmosphere and planet were heating up and the future of humankind and other living species hanged in balance?
Socialism is necessary to fully resolve the climate change crisis and the other various manifestations of the environmental crisis, but humankind can’t wait for its arrival to address climate change. And it isn’t. A movement is a foot to address this crisis .
It is fighting for a range of a range of reforms. Some of the most important include steps to curb the power of the energy complex; massive public investment in renewable and sustainable energy sources and green jobs, a full blooded mass transportation system, retrofitting of buildings – residential and business – along green lines, international treaties, assistance to the Global South, and so on.
We should join that movement heart and soul. We should bring our energy and whole tool kit, including our socialist perspective, to this struggle.
Do we really have any other choice?
New Racist Order
Another aspect of taking care of the future in the struggles of the present is to ramp up the struggle for equality and substantive democracy. Not for a long time has there been such a sustained, many layered, and coordinated attack on what are proclaimed as pillars of our society and state.
For the purposes of these remarks, I will address only one aspect of this struggle: the struggle for racial equality and against racism.
To begin, the breaking up of the New Deal coalition on the shoals of racist divisions in the 1960s and beyond, the onset of a new phase economic crisis and the concurrent launching of a counteroffensive by the corporate class in the next decade, the ascendency of right wing extremism signaled by the election of Reagan in 1980, and the turn to neoliberalism over the next two decades by the major player of both parties recast the ground on which the struggle for equality and fight against racism took place.
So much so that by the turn of the century a new racist order had taken definite shape, making, I would argue, the struggle for equality and against racism more, not less, difficult in this new century.
During this same time, notable victories in the struggle for equality were registered for sure, perhaps none more stunning than the election of President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Furthermore, racial attitudes in sections of the white community changed for the better. Of particular significance, sections of labor and other social movements engaged in organized anti-racist struggles and took important steps to make their leadership reflective of their membership. And young people were less likely to embrace some of the old racist stereotypes of older generations.
Both the victories won and the shift in attitudes is cause for confidence that racism, whose misdeeds are nearly incalculable and whose roots are deep in our socio-economic life and national/collective psyche, can be reined in and eventually eliminated.
And yet, neither victories nor changing sentiments nor new levels in anti-racist struggles should obscure the new realities, which in my opinion give racist exploitation, oppression, and discrimination a new depth and durability.
To elaborate, the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector across the country in general and major centers where African Americans and other people of color live in particular, the relentless campaign to privatize the public sector and public services; harsh impact of austerity policies on communities of color; the gentrification of urban space to the benefit of upper income and wealthy families; the shifting economic geography of jobs and massive expansion of low wage jobs leaving people tens of millions of workers and their families in poverty; the explosive growth of new zones of racial hyper-segregation in urban neighborhoods, the precipitous decline of affordable and available public housing along with the rise of homelessness, the re-segregation, defunding, and privatization of public schools; the systematic attack on immigrant workers who flooded across our borders in the wake of U.S. imperialist inspired neoliberal and free trade policies that economically devastated their national economies; police harassment, brutality, and racial profiling, mass incarceration on an unprecedented scale and stand your ground laws that encourage white racist vigilante violence against young people of color — all this and more are the material ground of this new racist order, and in turn present new and formidable barriers and challenges to the struggle for full racial equality.
Legitimizing its rise and consolidation is an ideological structure that combines old, crude racist notions that, while never dormant, exploded into public space with the election of President Obama with new racist notions that turn on the false claim that our nation has entered into a post-racial, post-civil rights, color blind era.
Each in their own way shapes the thinking of white people in a negative ways. Each reinforces and seamlessly co-mingles with other racist ideas that blame people of color and “a culture of irresponsibility and dependency” for their unequal status and the conditions in which they forced to live. Each makes invisible the structures and institutions that are at the core of racist exploitation and oppression – not to mention the top layers of the capitalist class which are the main beneficiaries of this awful system. Each delegitimizes the political and moral claims for full racial equality as well as undercuts the anti-racist struggle. Each relieves the federal government and both parties of assuming their necessary (and overarching) role in overcoming inequality. Each gives ideological ammo to right wing extremists in the Republican Party and elsewhere in their singular mission to create — or should I say return to — a society in which people of color have “no rights that white people have to respect.”
Worst of all, this potent ideological admixture can turn sections of white people, as it has, into an active and angry shock force on the side of the most reactionary sections of corporate capital.
No one who hopes our country will move in a democratic direction in the period ahead, let alone a future in which people and nature trump corporate profits, can afford to sit out the struggle to dismantle these new structural and ideological barriers and decisively defeat the political forces them. If left unchallenged, this new racist order could throw the country back to days long thought gone by or into a future that we long thought could “never happen here.”
A point of departure in this struggle is to rebuff the fierce racist assault and ideological offensive in its new “color blind” as well in its crude and older forms.
The other point of departure is to join the struggle for racial equality — for jobs, housing, adequate funding of schools and education, for an end to racial profiling, stop and frisk, and the “war on drugs,” for an overhaul of the criminal justice and mass incarceration system, for political representation, and, not least, for the defeat of the right in the coming elections.
Racism strikes people of color the hardest and in sustained ways. About this there is no question and tons of evidence is readily available in the present as well as in the past for anyone who think otherwise. But at the end of the day working people of all colors are morally and materially scarred in one way or another. It is an ideology and practice that denies equality and dignity to people of color in the first place, but it also heightens exploitation of all who labor, corrodes real democracy, underwrites military aggression and imperialist policies, makes progressive change and socialism a pipe dream, and strengthens the hand of the most reactionary political groupings in our society.
It remains, as we have said for decades, the most dangerous and formidable barrier to progress. It has to be contested daily wherever people gather. And while communists join others in the struggle for any measures that ameliorate the impacts of racism and inequality, we also have to make plain and understandable to millions that reforms of a radical nature and socialism are needed if the scope, depth, and intractability of the crisis are to be fundamentally addressed.
The securing of such radical reforms requires many things, but it pivots on the building of a multi-racial movement with transformative capacity and power as well as a conviction that significant sections of white people can be won and are necessary to seeing this struggle through to victory. The goal can’t be to win a sliver, or slightly more than a sliver, of white people to anti-racism and the fight for full racial equality; it is to win the majority.
Nothing less, including the positive effects of long-term demographic trends, will even approach, never mind secure substantive equality for people of color and open up new possibilities of freedom, equality, peace and economic security for all people. There is no other road to a society that measures up to the poetry, vision, and ideals that the great revolutionary democrat Martin Luther King articulated so beautifully and gave his life for at such a young age.
Building the Party
I’m sure everyone would agree that taking care of the future in the struggles of the present includes the building of the party in size and capacity. In other words, party building has a qualitative as well as a quantitative dimension.
So what is to be done? What will it take to address both sides of this question? What will it take to build a transformative Party.
To begin, it will take a conviction and confidence that the audience for our ideas and our Party is growing under the impact of the changing conditions of day-to-day life.
It will take systematic attention at every level of the party to building the party.
It will take not only building the party in size, but also greatly enlarging the pool of a new generation of leaders. Currently the breadth and depth of leadership is too thin in the face of the challenges that we face.
It will take a party of action and penetrating ideas that give people a way to understand the present and move into the future with some confidence of success.
It will take far more public presence.
It will take a sound strategic policy and tactics that accent unity and flexibility.
It will take a party that fights for equality in all its forms and vigorously opposes racism, male supremacy, nativism, homophobia, and reactionary nationalism.
It will take a party that fights for peace and practices internationalism.
It will take a more robust utilization of social media, and especially the People’s World. We’ve made headway in this area, but not enough, and I have to admit I am simply amazed that some comrades still consider the utilization of new technologies and social media as a lower-order tool for organizing, reaching, and influencing people.
It will take building new clubs and improving the political and practical functioning of our current clubs, understanding that there is no universal model.
It will take new forms that provide new members and leaders in the broader movements a way to comfortably participate in the party.
It will take a special approach to people of color, women, youth, and immigrants.
It will take a systematic effort to build the party among trade union activists and leaders who bring their experience, connections, and stability to our collectives.
It will take a range of forms, including the Young Communist League, to attract youth to our circles.
It will take more systematic fieldwork in places where the party is in its infancy and in general.
It will take a more full-blooded and modern educational program that is equipped to reach new and old members alike. This is an overarching challenge.
It will take a fresh look at how we are structured and our priorities at the national, district and club level.
It will take a party that dares to renovate, that is thoroughly modern and mature, that is, sunk in the 21st century with its unique sensibilities and challenges.
It will take more democracy and transparency in how we function.
It will take new attention to fund raising, including the exploration of new forms such as the internet.
And it will take a deeper organizing culture. Now we aren’t steeped enough in the notion and practice of organizing and influencing the thinking of others.
Many people join and remain in the Party because they agree with our views; not because they see the party as a place to organize other people practically and ideologically, both of which are necessary components of a communist organizing culture, or if they lack such skills to learn them in the party.
I’m afraid that the late Comrade Frank Lumpkin’s simple, but profound advice, “Always bring a crowd,” isn’t, as a practical matter, built into our day to day style of work, our DNA to the degree that it should be.
Yes, we are part of the mix. We take part in mass organizations, activities and movements. We fight the good fight. But in too many cases we are only participants, not movers and shakers, not organizers and change agents; we aren’t the people who make things happen and change the way people think. We are in the trenches, but we aren’t organizing others to do battle as well as to join us there and see the world anew.
In short, we don’t “bring a crowd,”
So growing the party in size and capacity is a tall task. Realistically speaking, it won’t happen overnight; but no one should think that it can’t be done. Actually, the process — and it is a process — has already begun, and the challenge is to extend it and deepen it, to involve every member and leader in this undertaking.
If we are successful, and I’m convinced we will, everyone will come out a winner — our party as well as the larger working class and democratic movement. Anybody who doesn’t think that the country doesn’t need a bigger and mature left should have their head examined.
At any rate, there’s no question in my mind that we have the understanding, experience, skills, tools, and desire to build a transformative party, a party far bigger in size and capacity, a party connected by a thousand links to the developing labor and people’s movement.
While the struggle for progress — let alone socialism — is hard in the most powerful capitalism in the world, we optimists about our future and the future of this great country that we share with millions of others.
Moreover, we are confidant that our Party will grow and assist in unique ways the tens of millions navigating the journey from this stage of struggle to subsequent stages — not least the struggle for socialism.