“Democracy Matters: An Interview with Sam Webb” first appeared on PoliticalAffairs.net on December 24, 2013. Read it on PoliticalAffairs.net.

Editor’s note: Interview with Sam Webb, Chair of the Communist Party USA on the subjects of the struggle for democracy and socialism conducted by Joe Sims.

PA: A discussion of socialism seems a little remote from the struggle to defeat Bush. Isn’t it a diversion?

Webb: We see the struggle to defeat Bush and his ultra-right counterparts as the main task in the coming period. It’s going to occupy our attention as well as the attention of tens of millions from now until Election Day. Nothing will set the stage for a broader struggle for people’s needs in the post-election period than defeating Bush and his right wing counterparts in Congress. At the same time, we don’t see any reason to warehouse the subject of socialism. Whether we like it or not, world developments are bringing socialism back into the political discourse in our country and worldwide. Why? Because it’s becoming apparent that problems such as environmental degradation, the health care and unemployment crises, inequality and racism, the issue of war and peace, can’t be resolved under capitalism. Keep in mind, capitalism is a global system, and rather than solving these problems, it greatly aggravates them. In some ways, capitalism at its present stage of development threatens the future of humankind. Whole regions of the globe are being ravaged. Given these circumstances, it is necessary to take a fresh look at socialism, while understanding that it is not on the people’s action agenda.

PA: Many countries that have a socialist orientation are in the developing world: China, Vietnam, Cuba. Several have adopted a concept of socialism called market socialism. I know we have said there are no models, but is the socialist market economy the new model?

Webb: These countries are in the early stages of socialism – they are developing countries and the productive forces are at a low level – so they are employing market mechanisms to assist in their economic development. This doesn’t contradict the thinking of Marx, Engels or Lenin. Even if we were dealing with more advanced countries – take our country for example – if this were the day after, the week after, the year after, the decade after the socialist revolution, we would employ market mechanisms in the construction of the socialist economy. There was a tendency in the communist movement to expect that market relations would disappear almost overnight, in the early stages of socialism. I’m not convinced that was an accurate reading of the classical literature or a lesson that we should draw from the experience of socialist construction in the 20th century. Some socialist countries tried to make too quick a leap from one stage of socialist development, in which market relations were employed, to a more advanced stage, in which commodity-money relations were marginal, and, as a result, experienced very negative consequences.

The example that comes most readily to mind is China. At the core of Mao’s economic policies was not simply the acceleration of the pace of development, but rather leaping over whole stages. Unfortunately, China pursued that policy at a very dear price. There’s a lot of controversy now about the current economic policies of the Communist Party of China. Many people are critical, but in my short stay there (I visited about a year and a half ago), it was apparent that the opening up of the country and the employment of market mechanisms has led to the acceleration of growth. Some say there is greater inequality, and that’s true, but at the same time they are lifting tens of millions out of poverty. Simply because the Chinese are utilizing market mechanisms and inserting themselves into the global economy is not reason enough to conclude that China is moving away from socialism.

Why do I say this? First of all, no country can develop apart from the global economy? While it is no simple task for the socialist and developing countries to insert themselves into a world economy that is dominated by and structured in the interests of the most powerful capitalist countries, do these countries have any other feasible option? Secondly, market mechanisms are not by definition at war with socialist construction. Whether they are utilized and how they contribute to socialist construction of one or another country can’t be solved abstractly in the realm of high theory. It has to be answered by examining the concrete political and economic circumstances in any given country.

Finally, we should study the experience of socialism in the 20th century as well as revisit both the early literature and more recent discussions on the socialist economy before we draw hard and fast conclusions with respect to the use of market criteria and tools in a socialist society. Lenin once said (and I’m paraphrasing him here) that the economic policies of the post-civil war Soviet state had to be adjusted to the mentality of the peasants, which led to the adoption of the New Economic Policy in the early 1920s. Not only was this necessary to revive an economy that was in shambles after the civil war, but it was the glue that maintained the strategic alliance between a tiny working class and huge peasantry. This alliance, Lenin argued time and again, was the essential political requirement for the forward movement of socialism in a very backward country.

PA: How do you distinguish or emphasize what is unique about the US experience that it different from not only China but also a similar country like Great Britain or France? How do you determine what is general and what is particular or unique to our own experience?

Webb: There is a tendency to think that the Bolshevik experience constituted a model of socialist revolution. On a very general level some of the experiences of revolutionary Russia do have some application to other countries. But if we are seriously interested in finding a path to socialism in our country, we have to give more attention to its unique historical features. Marx, Engels and Lenin on many occasions stressed the need to seek out what is peculiar in the national development of a given country. That has not been deeply appreciated enough.

To put it another way, if we were to write a book on our path to socialism, a section on what is peculiar and unique in our nation’s experience should not be an addendum or an appendix to the main text, but rather it should be a main thread woven into that text. We have, for example, a long democratic tradition, as do other countries. Although many on the left say our democracy is partial and incomplete, the fact is that democratic notions and sentiments are deeply ingrained in our thinking and have drawn millions into struggle at various turning points in our nation’s history. Therefore, our vision of socialism has to have democracy at its core. Indeed, even the slightest devaluing of this concept and practice will condemn socialists and the socialist struggle to the periphery of our nation’s political life.

PA: You emphasize the importance of democratic struggles, suggesting that the path to socialism is paved with the struggle for democracy.

Webb: Yes, we can say that with complete certainty. In the past, we did not always see things like this. There was a competing notion of the transition to socialism, which held an economic collapse would be followed by the seizure of power by the working class and then a relatively short transitional period to socialism. This was very simplistic. We could have a major economic downturn tomorrow, and it wouldn’t automatically result in a sudden turn of millions to socialism. We had a depression 80 years ago. The working class did step on the stage and the class struggle intensified, but even then socialism wasn’t the main item of the working class and people’s agenda.

Conditions have to be created for socialism – both objective and subjective – and that takes place over time. It’s only in the course of the struggle for democracy – understood in the broadest sense – that people come to see the necessity of a new society that puts people before profits. And this is a more protracted and complex process, stretching out over time and going through different phases and stages leading up to a socialist transition and continuing in the transition itself. In other words, the approach to socialism is not direct and straightforward struggle.

On a related matter, at one time we believed that as we approached socialism, its support base would narrow and some forces would peel away. Perhaps there is an element of truth in this notion, but if taken too far could gravely weaken the revolutionary process to socialism. In fact, I would argue that as we approach socialism in our country the task of the left forces is to win more millions to the socialist struggle. Socialism has to be a mass social upheaval in which all the discontented in society participates, including those who hold backward notions. Socialism is not just a project of the left; it has to be a mass project of millions and of diverse social forces. Without such a concept and practice, there’s no possibility of bringing about a transition to a new society. Lenin argued with great passion and insistence to the early communist movement that ts task was to win the absolute majority of the working class and oppressed peoples to socialism. This advice is still timely and even more necessary today.

PA: How do you involve millions given the form of government we have now? Or to put it differently, when you close your eyes what’s your dream of new society look like?

Webb: I don’t think that the political structures that currently exist will be dismantled. Nor do I think that a socialist movement will sideline the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence or a system of checks and balances on concentrated political power. It may want to extend, deepen or modify them based on both experience and the needs of socialist construction. The main thing is not the institutional forms but the transformation of their class content. At the same time, I suspect that new popular institutions will emerge. Today millions of people feel alienated from the institutions and structures of government. People see government as disconnected from their day-to-day life, even an obstacle to their aspirations and to a decent life. Nearly one-half of the people don’t go to the polls on Election Day. And the ultra-right has demagogically preyed on this political alienation.

To overcome this, socialism will probably have to find new institutional forms that draw millions into political and economic life, that turn politically discontented people into active citizens. Or to put it differently, socialism has to be a liberatory and emancipatory project for tens of millions. It must empower people; it must bring them into the center of political and economic life. For socialism to fulfill its promise, the people themselves have to be its real authors and architects. For many reasons, that is not the image that the US people have of socialism. Instead, its representation in the popular mind is of a regimented, undemocratic and economically challenged society. This we have to change.

PA: The Communist Party has called its concept Bill of Rights socialism. Is that still valid?

Webb: Gus Hall, our former national chairman, introduced that phrase and it still resonates for a lot of reasons. Of course, it is of little value if we keep it to ourselves. Communists and other partisans of socialism have to engage others in this discussion, and especially in light of what happened in the socialist countries between 1989 and 1991. That was an earthshaking upheaval and moment. In examining this experience, and we should do it carefully and thoughtfully, we may find that some of the notions that we embraced over the last 50 or 60 years are no longer adequate. Some may have to be modified, refurbished and refit to new circumstances; others jettisoned. Marxism, its main theoreticians tell us, has to be developed in all directions and applied in a creative manner.

PA: What kinds of notions from the 20th century experience need to be re-examined?

Webb: To take one example that I mentioned earlier, we have to think about the path to socialism differently, given the economic and political circumstances of our country. In some ways we were prisoners of the experience of Russia in 1917. It was a world-historic event to be sure. And it will continue to reverberate for decades to come. Nevertheless, while that experience fit Russia in 1917, it doesn’t fit the US in 2003. Perhaps we can learn as much from Allende’s Chile as we can Lenin’s Russia. We have to draw lessons from the whole experience of the working class for the last 90 years – but not mechanically, but rather we have to have an eye to adapting and modifying them to what is new and peculiar to our country and to this century.

PA: What about the form of rule? Some people feel that Communists take one position before we get to power and another after we get it? How do you deal with that?

Webb: Both in the transition to socialism and in its construction, I don’t foresee Communists being the sole decision makers. We will be one political force within a much larger coalition. We are getting away from the notion that the Communists are the ‘top dog’ in the struggle for socialism while other political forces will either merge or come in behind us. In our view, we will be one component of a very diverse coalition, at the center of which is the working class, the racially and nationally oppressed, and women. Of course, in such a varied coalition, there will be competing views and we will forthrightly express ours, but our emphasis will be on cooperation, on finding common ground, on unity.

Our emphasis will be on deepening and extending democracy as a condition for the creation of a humane socialist society. There may be situations in the early stages of the socialist struggle where it may seem expedient to cut down and restrict democratic rights, but a political coalition leading such a transition should resist choosing that option. The fight for democracy at every stage of socialist construction, including the early stages, is imperative. If people violate laws they should be subject to whatever the legal penalties are. But the notion that democratic rights should (or worse still will automatically) be restricted rather than enlarged in the aftermath of a socialist revolution is very problematic. One of the reasons that democracy lacked a necessary vibrancy in the former socialist countries is that the ruling parties didn’t have enough confidence in creative abilities and wisdom of ordinary people. And once that mindset took over (and it was feed by the extreme and unrelenting hostility of the capitalist states over eight decades), it almost inevitably followed that the people in these countries were not entrusted with the problems and difficulties of socialist construction, nor was power and decision making devolved to them. And as a consequence, their democratic life had a formal character. The Cuban experience strikes me as being different, despite the constant threats, subversive activities, and blockade of US imperialism. The Party there seems to entrust the people and goes to great lengths to make the people active participants in socialist construction, something that the political forces that lead a socialist transition in our country must do as well.