I presented this paper to a staff seminar of the Communist Party roughly 8 years ago. At the time, I was the National Chair of the Communist Party. The reception to the paper was mixed; some reacting to it very negatively. I should have realized then that the limits to critiquing and changing the party were narrowly circumscribed. It took two more years for me to come to that conclusion. It was one reason I stepped down, although, to be fair, at 69 and after 14 years in my position, I had planned to move on. When I was first elected as chair in 2000, I told myself that I wouldn’t repeat the experience of my predecessor.
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” — Martin Luther King Jr.
“The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of the complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going for, body and soul. But … long, persistent work is required.
“In France, whose soil has for more than a hundred years absorbed revolution upon revolution … and where the conditions for an insurrectional coup de main are far more favorable than in Germany – even in France socialists increasingly understand that no lasting victory is possible for them, without first winning over the great majority of the people … The long work of propaganda and parliamentary activity are also recognized here as the first task of the party.” — Frederick Engels
These are trying and changing times. No one knows what the morrow will bring. What will it take for the Communist Party and the left in general to become more effective fighters for social justice and socialism?
Before attempting to answer that question, an autobiographical note is in order. I write from the standpoint of someone who has been a part of the communist movement for four decades. During that time, I felt very comfortable politically and ideologically. I didn’t have “big differences.” For most of that time, I was in one or another leadership position. I took sides in an internal struggle in 1991, although I see that experience differently now.
So a dissident I wasn’t. But when the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989 and the first land of socialism went belly up two years later, it raised some doubts and questions in my mind – enough to take a fresh look our conventional wisdom and practice.
I re-read Marx, Engels (especially his introduction to Class Struggles in France and his last letters), Lenin (especially Two Tactics of Social Democracy, Left Wing Communism, Tax in Kind, his speeches to the Communist International, and his final articles), Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (I was reading Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks for the first time), Georgi Dimitrov (United Front against War and Fascism), Rosa Luxemburg, Palmiro Togliatti, and others. Meanwhile, I was reading many more contemporary authors (too numerous to mention) writing mainly, but not exclusively, in the Marxist tradition.
In doing so, I began to see our theory, methodology, politics, practice, history, and future in new hues and colors.
If I were asked to sum up what conclusions I reached it would be this: our theoretical structure – Marxism-Leninism – was too rigid and formulaic, our analysis too loaded with questionable assumptions, our methodology too undialectical, our structure too centralized, and our politics drifting from political realities.
Not for a minute did I lose sight of the wonderful comrades who graced our party at one time or another, nor the many, sometimes singular, contributions to theory and practice that communists have left in the footprint of the 20th century.
The Scottsboro Boys, the Great Sit-Down Strike, the Little Steel strike, the formation of the CIO, the Lincoln Brigade, the fight against Hitler fascism, the resistance to McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement in the 1960s, and the fight against right-wing extremism, stretching from Reagan’s election in 1980 to the present – in all these and other struggles communists made contributions, sometimes history-making.
No other organization on the left can claim the same consistency of outlook and effort, accomplished in many instances in the face of fierce repression and irrational anti-communism, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King.
But I also realized that the future of our party isn’t in the past, but in the world of the 21st century, which presents its own unique challenges to humankind’s future.
Thus, standing still wasn’t a viable option. And to our credit, a decade ago we chose change. In the article that follows I continue this process of inquiry and adjustment.
Much of I write is exploratory. In other words, this is a work in progress, an unfinished manuscript. Readers will surely note inconsistencies, contradictions, silences and unfinished ideas.
These limitations might discourage me from publishing this paper, but I am mindful of two things that mitigate my hesitations. First, no one has a full answer to the daunting challenges of the present and future. Second, each of us has something to contribute to the renewal of the left of which the Communist Party is an integral part.
It is against this background that I offer my thoughts.
1. A party of socialism in the 21st century elaborates its theory and practice in a world defined by the following:
• a social system in which the reproduction of the conditions for exploitation of labor and nature appears to be reaching its limits;
• a hegemonic shift in power in a crowded and highly competitive world, albeit in its early stages, that could easily throw the world into fierce inter-state rivalries, generalized war, and chaos;
• a series of processes (global warming, nuclear proliferation and war, global poverty, pandemic diseases, population pressures, and the exhaustion of natural resources) are unfolding that could have catastrophic consequences, threatening the existence of most living species;
• the irruption and diffusion of new (communication especially) technologies that are reshaping the economic, occupational, class, racial, and gender structures, production methods, consumption habits, class and democratic politics, forms of social interaction and leisure time, the power of instruments of mass destruction and the nature of war, and conceptions of time and space.
Realistically speaking, a resolution of these challenges must begin well before the arrival of socialism on a global level. If we wait till then, both socialism and humanity are doomed. There is a “fierce urgency of now” that can be ignored only at a perilous price.
But here is the paradox: the “fierce urgency of now” is not yet matched by popular movements at the state and global level that possess the vision and capacity to resolve these daunting and interconnected challenges.
2. A party of socialism in the 21st century embraces Marxism, understood as a broad theoretical tradition that reaches beyond the communist movement. At the same time, it critically assimilates the American radical/democratic inheritance and the insights of other intellectual and political traditions.
As for “Marxism-Leninism,” the term should be retired in favor of simply “Marxism.” For one thing, it has a negative connotation among ordinary Americans, even in left and progressive circles. Depending on whom you ask, it either sounds foreign or dogmatic or undemocratic or all of these together.
For another thing, Marxism-Leninism isn’t identical to classical Marxism. The ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and other earlier Marxists retain incredible analytical power, if studied and creatively applied to current realities.
But the same cannot be said about Marxism-Leninism. It took formal shape during the Stalin period during which Soviet scholars, under Stalin’s guidance, systematized and simplified earlier Marxist writings – not to mention adapted ideology to the needs of the Soviet state and party.
This simplification of Marxism, coupled with the enshrinement of a single party to the status of “official interpreter” of Marxism, came with a price tag. Theoretically and practically, it hemmed in and negatively impacted our party’s work.
To what extent will be debated for years to come. But one thing is clear: Marxism, if it is going to be a robust theory of socialist transformation, has to be historical, ecological, dialectical, comprehensive and independently elaborated – without shortcuts, simplifications or official boundaries. It can’t be the sole franchise of one party or school or tradition.
Its point of departure is the real needs, struggles and interests of the working class and people – the real movement. Its focus is on social (especially class) processes, relations, contradictions, dislocations, negations, and ruptures, not neat definitions and tidy formulas.
Marxism never confuses slogans and militancy (both of which are needed) for analysis. It employs principles, generalities and abstractions (the state is nothing but the political instrument of the ruling class, the two main parties are parties of capitalism, etc.), but it also insists on a concrete presentation of every question. And it is understandably wary of the inevitable (socialism), the uninterrupted (constant radicalization of the working class and intensification of crises), and the irreversible (the world revolutionary process).
Marxism is revolutionary in theory and practice, but it doesn’t consider “gradual” and “reform” to be dirty words nor does it believe that every political moment at the level of concrete reality is actually or potentially radical and revolutionary. The status quo is a stubborn and reoccurring phenomenon that too needs explanation. Nor does it buy the notion that social change rests solely on political will (“any fortress can be stormed”) or adheres to someone’s timetable.
In short, Marxism is a scientifically grounded mode of analysis, compass of struggle, and legitimate (and necessary) current within the working class and people’s movement.
If I had to grade our party’s analytical efforts over the decades, I would say that our critical eye was at times constricted. Some matters were off limits (Soviet foreign policy and development); there were blank spaces (gender and sexual relations), too many simplifications (trajectory of the economy – “boomless era of decline and contraction”), broad claims based on anecdotal evidence (progressive radicalization of working class and a party of hundreds of thousands around the corner). And dismissive attitudes toward other Marxist, radical and social democratic currents were too frequent in our discussions.
But to leave matters here would be one-sided and wrong. Our analysis of the national question of the African American and Mexican American (Chicano) peoples, the fight against racism and the special role of white workers, African American history, monopoly capitalism and the role of the state, the imperialist nature of war, capitalist economics, “fresh winds” in the labor movement, the role of the working class and its strategic alliances, the role of democracy and democratic struggle, the growth of right-wing extremism, Marxist ecology, the possibility of a peaceful transition, Bill of Rights socialism, and so forth – all this was notable.
3. The feet of a party of socialism in the 21st century are planted on the soil of the economic crisis – and for the long term.
The world economy and the triad of the U.S., Western Europe and Japan have yet to find a developmental path and structure of economic governance that brings sustainable economic growth and near full employment.
This is not to say that the economy is entering a “stationary state.” It is far more likely that the economy will oscillate around low levels of growth and high levels of unemployment for the foreseeable future.
As corporate profits climb to record levels, there is no commensurate increase in growth and employment rates. In fact, what we observe is a decoupling of corporate profits from economic growth and especially employment.
In the short term, there is little reason to be optimistic. And in the longer term the economic and ecological barriers impeding the process of capital accumulation, economic growth and job growth are formidable. Short of a new New Green Deal on a global level, it is hard to see where the dynamism for a sustained upswing, let alone a long boom, is going to come from.
The still unfolding crisis isn’t simply a crisis of regulation and the neoliberal model. But there is little doubt that the breakdown of regulation, together with neoliberal policies, greased the skids for the rise of finance three decades ago, the growth of unprecedented inequality, the explosion of debt, the bursting of bubbles, the over-accumulation of capital (too much capital and too few investible sinks) and, alas, the generalized crisis two years ago with still no end in sight.
Not to see this, not to take note of financialization, not to give adequate weight to the role of neoliberalism, to be content to characterize the current crisis as a crisis of overproduction, is to miss something profoundly important about the concrete dynamics and movement of the U.S. and global economy over the past three decades.
For now the capitalist class, and especially its top tiers, are sitting on massive amounts of surplus capital.
Moreover, it is in no rush to do anything different. Its main push is to create the best conditions to exploit labor economically and crush it politically.
4. A party of socialism in the 21st century fights for the interests of the entire nation. Since the 1980s, we have seen the deterioration of infrastructure, the destruction of the social safety net, the undermining of the public school system, the decay of urban and rural communities, the privatization of public assets, the growth of poverty and inequality, the hollowing out of manufacturing and cities, the lowering of workers’ wages, and a faltering – now stagnant – domestic economy.
In a real sense, big sections of the transnational corporate class have pulled the plug on the American people, economy, and state.
Their operational strategy is worldwide in scope. It goes far beyond our borders. The evolution, dynamics and profit imperatives of the capitalism in recent decades have turned the world economy into the main unit of analysis for the U.S. transnational corporate class.
Markets, supplies of exploitable labor, and investment strategies of U.S. transnational corporations are worldwide in scope now. Their production sites stretch across regions and time zones, thanks to new technologies and available labor.
That doesn’t mean that domestic production sites, consumption markets and workforces are of no consequence, the transnational masters of the world headquartered in the U.S. are less and less tethered to the national economy. This being so, the commitment of major sections of the transnational elite to a people-friendly public sector, a vibrant domestic economy and a modern society has waned. In fact, this elite is turning the state into its personal ATM machine and a military juggernaut to enforce its will at home and abroad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this social grouping has become a parasite sucking the life out of our government, economy and society, while living in bubbles of luxury, racial exclusion and class privilege.
This new reality has ominous implications for the future of the American people. It doesn’t alter the strategic necessity of defeating right-wing extremists, whose plan is to regain complete control of the federal government in 2012 and shove this new reality down people’s throats.
What it does do is extend the ground for broadening and deepening a people’s fightback for the country’s future.
5. A party of socialism in the 21st century elaborates a strategic policy at each stage of struggle. After all, there is no direct or inevitable path to socialism. Nor is the working class going to simply “rise up” at some appointed time and fight for a society of justice. The struggle for socialism goes through phases and stages, probably more than we allow for in our current writings and program.
A strategic policy rests on an estimate of the alignment of political and social forces at each stage of struggle along the road to socialism. On this basis, a specific strategic and tactical policy emerges that brings into bold relief the contending array of class and social forces, the main democratic and class tasks at any given moment, and the political coalition that has to be assembled if the balance of forces is to shift in a progressive direction.
The historical landscape of our country is marked by periods during which such transformations occurred: 1765-1790, 1840-1876, 1890-1915, 1932-1948, 1954-1965.
In each period the contending forces and the nature of the struggle were different in content. But in each instance, the boundaries of democracy were qualitatively enlarged, a new alignment of forces took shape, and new democratic tasks came to the fore.
The election victory in 2008 cracked opened the door for another “burst of freedom.”
But the realization of this possibility has been blocked so far by right wing extremism – the political grouping that dominates the Republican Party and does the bidding for the most reactionary sections of the transnational capitalist class. It is not simply an, or the only obstacle to social change and transformation.
It is the main obstacle to social progress at this stage of struggle. And only broad people’s unity has the wherewithal to decisively defeat the deeply entrenched power of right-wing extremism, which would, in turn, weaken the corporate class and its allied bloc as a whole.
It makes little sense to take on the entire capitalist class when it is not necessary. Similarly, it is boneheaded to artificially “hurry” the political process along when pursuing such an option would likely result in defeat.
6. A party of socialism understands that in any broad coalition of social change, competing views are inevitable. The role of the left is to express its views candidly, but in a way that strengthens rather than fractures broad unity, which is a prerequisite for social progress.
The main social forces in this coalition, as we see it, are the working class, people of color, women, youth and seniors. And the overarching challenge is to transform these social forces (a category of analysis whose interests are conditioned by the place they occupy in a social structure) into social movements (a category of struggle), distinguished by their differing degrees of unity, organizational capacity, mobilization, alliance relationships, and not least, depth and consistency of political outlook.
The most dramatic illustration of this transformation of social forces into social movements was evidenced in the 2008 election campaign. Unfortunately, the “movement” of these broad social forces was not sustained in the post-election period.
7. A party of socialism in the 21st century takes as its point of departure the issues that masses (relative term) are ready to fight for.
This seems like a no-brainer. And yet, the pressures to make left demands, or anti-reform reforms (the new buzz word) the point of broad unity are constant. Too many on the left still think that the role of the left is to up the ante, to double the bet, to set its demands against the demands of the broader movement.
No one doubts that left demands have a place in class and people’s struggles; only a fool would suggest otherwise. But they are neither the takeoff point for united action nor the singular thing that the left brings to mass struggles.
More important is a strategic approach, capacity building skills, an alternative analysis, vision and values, and a sustained commitment to uniting a broad people’s movement.
8. A party of socialism in the 21st century steers clear of false oppositions between partial and more advanced demands, between gradual and radical change, between electoral forms of action and direct action, between mass action and nonviolent civil disobedience, between patriotism and anti-imperialism, between struggle against the state and struggle within the state, between anti-capitalism and sensitivity to rifts in the capitalist class, and between general (say jobs) and particular demands (say affirmative action).
I could go on, but I think my point is clear: a party of socialism in the 21st century has to appreciate that seeming opposites interpenetrate and where properly utilized, enhance class and democratic struggles.
9. A party of socialism in the 21st century doesn’t turn – liberals, advocates of identity politics, single issue movements, centrist and progressive leaders of major social organizations, social democrats, community based non-profits, NGOs, unreliable allies, and the “people” (according to some, a classless category concealing class, racial, and gender oppression) – into enemies.
Nor does it withdraw from participation in capitalist democratic institutions. Rather than participating reluctantly and intermittently and rather than seeing such participation as a lower order task, a party of socialism will elevate electoral and legislative struggle to a primary arena of struggle; it will see such participation as absolutely essential at every phase of struggle.
Struggle within the state is no less important than struggle against the state. The two are dialectically connected, but at various moments, one side of the dialectic may take priority over the other.
10. A party of socialism in the 21st century is steeped in concepts of class and class struggle. Our overriding aim is a society in which class divisions disappear over time. Class divisions, after all, are at the core of capitalism and its production relations, politics, and culture.
This material reality explains why the capitalist class and its far-flung ideological apparatus attempt to hide class divisions. We hear of, and of course, there exist other divisions that to one degree or another shape and reshape capitalism’s political economy, politics, and culture. But you have to look long and hard for any mention of class divisions and, heaven forbid, class antagonisms and class struggle.
Furthermore, the erasure of class and class struggle in popular discourse receives an assist from some left, progressive, and academic circles that are busy cutting the class question down to size. It is done in the name of resisting class reductionism and economic determinism on the one hand, and allowing for multiple determinations on the other.
While we should avoid class reductionism, economic determinism, and simplified explanations of the historical process, we get no closer to the truth by back benching historical materialism and the analytical and struggle categories of class and class struggle.
In fact, as the working class in the course of struggle comes forward as a leader of the broader movement (which is now happening), and as the questions of power come to the fore more sharply, don’t be surprised to see a movement back to class concepts and historical materialism – not to mention a new interest in the theoretical contributions and political biography of Lenin. No one in this or the last century can match his body of work on questions of class, democracy, alliance policy, nationality, power, and socialist revolution.
More to the point, any thought of achieving socialism USA, is pure fantasy if it doesn’t include as a cornerstone an active, united, class conscious, and numerically large majority of the working class in the leadership of a larger people’s coalition.
Therefore a primary task of a party of socialism in the 21st century is to focus on the working class and the issues it confronts in daily life. Not since the 1930s has the working class faced such dire circumstances and felt such profound insecurity. Stalled wages, massive job losses, collapsing health care and pensions, job competition on a hitherto unheard of scale, and other factors are putting great downward pressure on living standards and working conditions. Were it not for two wage-earner households, overtime, second and even third jobs, and astronomical consumer debt, the working class would be in even worse straights.
In the bull’s-eye of our working class focus is the organized sector of the working class – the labor movement. This sector, with its political understanding, experience, organization, know-how, tactical acumen, and resources is at the core of any revitalized working class and people’s coalition.
But here is a problem: the working class’ associational power (the power that comes from organizing into trade unions and political parties) has declined significantly; roughly 12 percent of the working class is organized into trade unions. At the same time (and connected) labor’s structural power (the strategic power that comes from labor’s location at the core of the strategic sectors of the economy) that it leverages in its own interests has also been greatly weakened with the precipitous decline of mass 20th century production industries.
How to change this, how to strengthen labor’s bargaining power in the workplace and its social power in the community and state, how to build up its political and organizational capacity are compelling challenges. As long as the number of organized workers is near single digits, labor’s impact no matter how good its initiatives will be limited.
Thus, an overriding strategic task of labor, and every democratic-minded organization and person for that matter, is to enlarge the organized section of the working class. The country’s future depends on it.
Two things would greatly facilitate this: first, the defeat of right-wing extremism, thereby creating the possibility of a more labor-friendly organizing environment, and second, the continued evolution of labor into a social movement, that is, an acknowledged champion and tribune of the broader people’s movement.
11. A party of socialism in the 21st century attaches overriding importance to democratic (reform) struggles (right to a job, health care, housing, equality, education, clean air, immigrants rights, peace, vote, speech, etc.) They are a core element in the struggle for class advance, social progress and socialism.
Anyone who demeans the struggle for democracy goes directly against the grain and experience of the great democratic reform movements and leaders (Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, W.E.B. Du Bois, Fanny Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez) who fought for the expansion of rights/reforms and every inch – no matter how small – of democratic space.
That these struggles unfolded in a capitalist democratic shell doesn’t negate their significance. In fact, in each instance the protagonist took advantage of the existing space and rights available to organize for his or her cause.
A party of socialism in the 21st century should do likewise.
Indeed, the struggle for democracy/reforms is every bit as important in the 21st century as it was earlier. It is both a means and an end. It empowers people and people empower democracy. It not only brings relief from capitalist exploitation and oppression, it is also the main road to radical change.
In fact, it is hard to imagine how the necessary forces can be assembled and unified at each stage of struggle, including the socialist stage, if the working class and people’s movements are not fully engaged in democratic/reform struggles – first and foremost the right to a job at a living wage and other economic rights.
In saying this, it could be argued that I’m privileging the democratic struggle over the class struggle? Not in the least, changes in the balance of class power can and do either open up new vistas for democratic and socialist transformation or narrow them down, depending upon which class and its allies have the upper hand politically and ideologically at any given moment.
What I’m challenging is the notion that everything is subordinate to class and class struggle no matter what the circumstances.
Analytically and practically, I would strongly argue that the relationship between the two – class and democracy – is dialectical. Each interpenetrates and influences the other. Neither one can be fully realized apart from the other. And both interact in the context of a social process of capital accummulation.
12. A party of socialism in the 21st century doesn’t irrevocably lock social forces, organizations and political personalities into tightly enclosed social categories that allow no space for these same forces, organizations, and personalities to change under the impact of issues, events and changing correlations of power.
As one keen observer, for example, wrote,
“Given how things have turned out so far, it’s comfortable for some on the left to pass off the Obama phenomenon as all myth and illusion from the very beginning. The ‘neo-liberal’ label is pinned on him, he’s ‘always been a conservative’, ‘he’s really pro Wall Street’. Such stereotyping and assignment of an individual to a closed political box runs counter to much historical experience. Movements and the flow of events can change how individuals see things and how they act. All things considered, there can be little doubt that Obama views himself as on the side of struggling Americans – nor is there any doubt that defeating him and ‘taking back the country’ is the prime objective of the neo-fascist mob.”
This is mature advice.
13. A party of socialism in the 21st century extends a welcoming hand to intellectuals; it should tease out of its political culture any anti-intellectual biases. A party that has transformative aspirations in a very complex world requires a growing group of Marxist intellectuals.
By the same token, Marxist intellectuals found on university campuses would gain greatly from connections to labor and other social movements. In too many instances, they come up empty in a strategic and tactical sense.
14. A party of socialism in the 21st century searches for rifts and fissures within the ruling class and other social forces and shows no hesitation to take advantage of these differences. A successful struggle against a united ruling class is tough sledding.
15. A party of socialism squeezes every possible concession from its opponents, but it doesn’t blink an eye to compromise when the balance of forces dictates that course of action; the compromise may only make an inch of difference, but it is likely a lot of people live on that inch.
For sure, small-bore victories can dull the urgency of change and create illusions, but they can also raise hopes and expectations, deepen understanding and unity, and set the stage for struggle on higher ground. A people’s victory, even a minimal one, can teach more lessons than the most eloquent speeches by the best of us.
16. A party of socialism in the 21st century believes that majoritarian political movements are the midwives of reforms, radical and otherwise, and eco-socialist transformations. Militant minorities comprised of progressive and left forces make a big difference, but they can’t and shouldn’t try to substitute for broader masses of people. The cause may be righteous and the agitation compelling, but only when righteousness rhetoric is joined by a material force does change happen.
17. The task of a party of socialism in the 21st century is to give leadership to the movement as a whole, to be a force for broad working class and people’s unity, to interconnect the particular and general demands of a multilayered social movement, to articulate a socialist vision and values – a challenge to be sure.
We have no illusions that we can meet this challenge through our efforts alone nor do we think any other organization or social movement on the left can either. The highway to radical democracy and socialism hinges on a far bigger, broad-based, and mature left than presently exists.
At the same time, we strongly believe the Communist Party, USA fills a uniquely necessary space on the continuum of the radical movement.
Our experience, our broad and flexible strategic and tactical concepts of struggle, our keen appreciation of the imperative of broad unity, our working-class outlook and roots, our internationalist and dialectical approaches, our willingness to embrace new forms of organization, communication, and united action, and our vision allow us to make a vital contribution to the project of the left and to the struggle for human emancipation.
18. A party of 21st century socialism will give special importance to the struggle for racial and gender equality.
In recent decades vast political, economic, social and demographic transformations have occurred. Nevertheless, the fight for full racial and gender equality retains its overarching importance in its own and strategic terms.
Anyone who devalues the struggle for racial and gender equality (which are better understood as internal and organic to one another rather than intersecting; much the same could be said about class and its connection to race and gender) limits the sweep of any victory at best; at worst, it provides an opening to the most backward sections of our ruling class and their constituency to gain ascendancy ideologically and politically. Indeed, for three decades racist, misogynistic and homophobic appeals were the grease that smoothed the passage to power of the extreme right.
And no ebbing of this filth has happened since the election of Barack Obama two years ago. Actually, a ramped up right-wing-driven ideological counteroffensive has occurred.
A firm rebuff to this counteroffensive is imperative, and a special responsibility falls on the shoulders of white people and workers in this regard. Neither racism nor sexism is a special product of the working-class movement, as some suggest.
Saying this doesn’t imply that the working class has no hand at all in reproducing either form of inequality and oppression. To think so would be naïve.
But it would be more naïve to think that white and male workers have no interest in the fight for racial and gender equality and against racism and male supremacy. They do, and it is moral as well as material. Racism and sexism spiritually dehumanize as well as materially impoverish the entire working class.
Despite the deep embedding of unequal relations in the structures and political economy of capitalism, and the unceasing propagation by right wing extremism especially, the struggle against racism and sexism is winnable – but only on the basis a broad, united, multiracial, class-based movement. Anything less in today’s conditions will not stand a ghost’s chance of success, and, will, in turn, forestall progressive and socialist advance.
19. A party of socialism in the 21st century will vigorously combat nativism and xenophobia.
Immigrants bring to our country their cultures, labor power, and their traditions of struggle.
No one who has been involved in struggles on the contemporary scene can help but note the role of immigrant workers in fighting for democracy, workers’ rights, quality education, community empowerment, cultural heritage, and immigration laws that are humane and just. Their spirit is militant and anti-capitalist.
No wonder that the right wing demonizes them. Immigrant-bashing and denial of rights combines with racism and other backward ideologies and practices to divide the developing people’s movement. A party of socialism in the 21st century will elevate this struggle and combat this assault on the immigrant community across the country.
20. A party of socialism in the 21st century will give proper political importance to the struggle for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered rights – something that it didn’t do in the past.
Socialist society should not privilege one sexual orientation over another; instead it should celebrate sex, diverse sexual orientations, and marriage arrangements. Sexual longing is a deeply individual matter and love and marital partners shouldn’t be a matter of state concern.
More immediately, the movement for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered rights has emerged over the past four decades into a powerful and broad social movement that occupies an important position in the people’s movement. Through its efforts victories have been won and sensibilities of society changed.
Nevertheless, right-wing extremism continues to contest this movement’s legitimacy and aims. It continues to paint gay people as despised and immoral. Homophobia remains for this backward political grouping a wedge issue to be employed to mobilize its constituency. However, right-wing extremism isn’t winning this struggle, and while much still needs to be done, there is no reason to think that this will change.
21. A party of socialism in the 21st century will place a high priority on independent political action and the formation of a party independent of corporate capital.
Two contradictory trends are observable. On the one hand, millions are registering to vote as independents; still more feel alienated from the political process; and new independent parties and forms are cropping up at the local level.
On the other hand, the main social forces and organizations of political independence and the necessary base of an independent political party continue to work within the Democratic Party.
But with this twist: they operate independently of the organizational structures of that party. And that is likely to continue; in fact, as their dissatisfaction grows they will attempt to enlarge their voice and power.
In other words, the main and necessary forces of an independent political party will likely exhaust all or nearly all of the possibilities to reform the Democratic Party, including attempts to take it over, before looking for an exit. Our tactics should take this into account.
One final observation: we say too definitively that the independent forces stand no chance whatsoever of taking over the Democratic Party. That still may be the case, but it is a mistake to rule it out completely at this point.
22. A party of socialism in the 21st century is internationalist in outlook and practice. And well it should be.
Though we are barely a decade into the 21st century we have a good glimpse of what the lay of the land will look like decades ahead.
What is most striking is the growing imperative to address and resolve global problems in a timely way – global warming and environmental degradation, nuclear weapons buildup and proliferation, unceasing wars, resource conflicts, immense poverty, uneven development, health epidemics, etc.
What is the upshot of all this? These trends unless arrested could make the world unlivable.
In this dark cloud there is a silver lining however: hundreds of millions worldwide are becoming aware of the fraught situation and conscious of the need to take action. Self-interest and internationalism are merging, but is it fast enough?
Standing in the way is U.S. imperialism, which remains the main obstacle to a peaceful, livable, and sustainable planet. Both wings of the ruling class are determined to maintain U.S. primacy in the global system, notwithstanding employing different methods of rule – one by force and the other with a mix of diplomacy, multilateralism, soft power and force, but employed more judiciously.
While the differences between one and the other method of rule are important and should not be ignored, the overarching desire for top dog status worldwide remains regardless of who is in command of U.S. foreign policy.
Thus only a popular movement at home and abroad will compel U.S. imperialism to make a strategic retreat in every region of the world beginning with Central Asia and the Middle East, to end the occupation of Afghanistan, to complete the withdrawal of U.S. military presence from Iraq, to settle the long-standing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli government, to lift sanction regimes against Iran and other states and end the blockade on Cuba, to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons, to close up military bases around the world and dissolve NATO, and so forth.
A big challenge for sure, and crucial to winning the American people to engage in such a movement, is re-envisioning our role in the world community. The point isn’t for the U.S. government to simply to crawl into a national shell, but to reinsert itself into world affairs on the basis of cooperation, peace, equality, and mutual benefits. But as long as the notion of Manifest Destiny, of an “indispensable nation” lingers, the fight for a new democratic foreign policy will be immensely difficult.
It follows that the role of a party of socialism in the 21st century is to assist this process, to fight for international unity and peace, and against its own imperialism, and to articulate an alternative vision of the place of the U.S. in the world community.
23. A party of socialism in the 21st century will note and draw lessons from the enormous achievements of socialist societies. Social problems (such as unemployment and the burden and inadequacy of child care, for instance) that persist in capitalist societies were, if not solved, greatly alleviated in many of the countries of socialism. Nor can we forget the solidarity that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries provided to countries fighting to break out of the web of colonialism and neocolonialism, nor the decisive role of the Red Army in crushing Nazi Germany, nor the Soviet Union’s sustained opposition to nuclear war.
That said, a party of socialism should make an unequivocal break with Stalin and his associates, not to please the enemies or critics of socialism, but to acknowledge to millions that the forced and violent collectivization of agriculture, the purges and executions of hundreds of thousands of communists and other patriots, the labor camps that incarcerated, exploited and sent untold numbers of Soviet people to early deaths, and the removal of whole peoples from their homelands can’t be justified on the grounds of historical necessity or in the name of defending socialism. They were crimes against humanity.
To describe these atrocities as a mistake is a mistake – criminal: yes, a horror: yes, a terrible stain on the values and ideals of socialism: definitely.
To make matters worse, the practices of the Stalin regime set in place theoretical notions, structures and relations of governance, laws of socialist economy, justifications for concentrated power, and a great-leader syndrome that in the end weakened socialism in the USSR and other socialist countries.
I can’t speak for other parties, and have no desire to, but our party should be unequivocal in its condemnation of the Stalin regime.
24. A party of socialism in the 21st century is well aware that the transition to socialism is complex and contingent on many factors, both intended and unintended, foreseen and unforeseen, on conscious actions of contending forces and on factors largely beyond its control (imperialist wars, economic crises, global warming, resource wars, natural disasters, terrorist actions, etc.).
There are pauses as well as surges; incremental changes give way to ruptural tears in the social fabric; positions are won in the state, economy and civil society, but setbacks and shifts in momentum are part of the package too. Dress rehearsals happen more than once.
Changes in the realm of thinking interface with changes in the realm of action. Far more than social transformations of the past, socialist transformation rests on a deep-going change in values and thinking; the working people are fully into it, mind as well as soul.
Contrary to our customary understanding that one ruptural – insurrectionary – event defines the transition process, a series of turning points, as I see it, map the transition over a protracted period of time. In other words, more than one constitutive moment defines the transition period to socialism, and in their totality creates the conditions for a flourishing socialist society.
As crucial as control over and the democratization of the state is, it is still only a piece, albeit a necessary facilitating piece, of a larger transitional and interactive process that decentralizes and diffuses people’s power throughout society.
The state in other words is one, but not the only institution to be transformed by forces within and outside of it.
Which comes first – the transforming of the state or civil society – is a question that bears little analytical fruit. The relationship between the two is dialectical and thus the two interact constantly and in complicated ways.
All this is premised on deepening and broadening of socialist consciousness, on building up the political and organizational capacity of the working class and its allies, on sustained mobilization on a scale never before seen, and on an ability to resist and block attempts to illegally and unconstitutionally reverse democratic gains.
It also rests on an organized, flexible, strategically insightful, united, and tested leadership (of parties and movements) that fights for breadth of alliances, takes advantage of the slightest differences among its adversaries, and above all, fights for broad unity and sustained mass action.
In recent years, radical social transformations have occurred in relatively peaceful (peaceful is not passive) circumstances in Latin America. There an active, organized, and overwhelming majority of the working people led by left coalitions (in which communists are a part) and its allies have democratically won political positions in state structures and then utilized them to isolate elites, dislodge neoliberal governments, and clear the ground for democratic, social, socialist transformations.
A party of socialism in the 21st century should study this experience closely. Broadly speaking, the transition to socialism in the U.S., I suspect, will follow a similar path, differences notwithstanding.
The traditional imagery of the revolutionary process – economic breakdown, insurrection, dual power, violence and bloody clashes, smash the state, and the quick rollout of socialism – provides few insights. In fact, I would argue that it is an analytical deadweight; it favors simplicity over complexity; it dulls and dumbs down the socialist imagination; and it’s disabling strategically and tactically.
Underlying much of the above is that the state isn’t simply the instrument of the ruling class – a monolithic and tightly integrated class bloc and weapon. While the capitalist class is dominant, the state is filled with internal contradictions and is a site of class and democratic struggles – not just any site though, but a crucial and decisive site.
Thus the nature of the struggle isn’t simply the people against the state, but the people winning positions and influence in the state and then utilizing them to make changes (within and outside of the state) in a highly contested political environment – an environment of sharp clashes, uncertain outcomes, and an engaged people.
Now some will say that this is highly unlikely, even utopian. But one has to ask: is the seizure of power and the quick dismantlement of the existing state in favor of a new “out of the ashes” socialist state any less utopian? The latter model has been ascendant for nearly a century and still socialism is only a wish among communists in the advanced capitalist world.
Of course, the reasons for this are many, but I don’t believe the insurrectionary model of revolution makes the road any easier or is any more realistic as a reading of the future.
25. For a party of socialism in the 21st century, its vision of socialism is a work in progress.
It will have distinctive features and characteristics, springing from our own history and experience. It will complete the unfinished democratic tasks left over from capitalism, while preserving and deepening existing democratic freedoms and civil liberties. It will breathe new life into representative democracy and uphold the rule of law. It will recognize the people as sovereign as well as register support for a multi-party system of governance and alternations of parties in power if the people so decide.
Our socialism will bring an end to exploitation of wage labor, not in one fell swoop, but over time. It will expand collective/democratic rights, while at the same time giving pride of place to human fulfillment and creativity. Bureaucratic collectivism and a command economy that reduce people to cogs, social relations into things, and culture to a dull gray will be resisted by a 21st century party of socialism.
Our socialism will be anything but drab. It will have a modern and dynamic feel to it. It will dance to the beat of our people, our cultural diversity, and our many rhythms. It will celebrate the best traditions of our nation and give “love of country” a new democratic content.
Our socialism will embrace a new humanist ethos and value system as we overcome divisions of class, gender and race. A community of caring, kindness, equality, and solidarity will become the dominant realities of daily life.
Our socialism will encourage mass participation in every sphere of life. To do so, the workday and workweek will be reduced and a social wage will be legislated. But these measures alone are inadequate for at least half the population. The workload for women has increased in recent decades as women have entered the workplace and as the modern requirements of daily life (longer life expectancy for the elderly, for example) have fallen disproportionately on them.
Thus new social arrangements to care for the very young (free quality child care for all) and the very old as well as collective alternatives to what is still “women’s work” – cooking, cleaning, and laundry – are necessary. Women combine paid work and unpaid household labor into a pre-dawn to post-dusk workday.
Our socialism will insist on the separation of church and state, but it will also assume that people of faith will be active participants in society.
During the transition period, at socialism’s dawn in our country as in others, and then long into the day, I expect that a mixed economy, operating in a regulated socialist market and combining different forms of socialist, cooperative and private property, will prevail, albeit with tensions, contradictions and dangers.
What the exact mix is, how it changes, and the particular forms of democratic control will change as conditions – objective and subjective – change. Such ownership relations and market mechanisms do not preclude economic planning or a national investment strategy.
In fact, given that the longer term task of a socialist state and society is to shift the logic of production from wealth for the few, militarism and limitless growth to production for human need and economic sustainability, it is hard to imagine how such an enormous transformation can be successfully tackled without planning and a society-wide investment strategy, albeit based on broad consultation with and democratic control by working people and their representatives.
Unlike capitalist apologists who say that private ownership by the few is the material basis of freedom and economic security, proponents of socialism will rebut such a claim with the propaganda of the deed: they will show in practice that socialist forms of property and economic organization are the ground on which freedom can flower.
The charge of socialism’s builders is to bring the social and democratic into the main sites of socialization – the state, economy, media, and culture; socialism in this century should be every mindful of the difficult, yet necessary task of subordinating the state to social power.
In other words, the state in socialist society shouldn’t hover above and control every aspect of society. Such socialism becomes distant, alien and bureaucratic. Instead, the builders of socialism should put into place a dense network of worker and community organizations that are politically and financially empowered to govern in various institutional settings.
Contrary to some opinion on the left, socialism’s essence isn’t reducible to property/ownership relations and class power in the abstract. Although both are structural foundations of socialist society, they don’t by themselves constitute socialism.
What they do is create the possibility for a socialist society, but socialism becomes real, becomes socialism only to the degree that working people exchange alienation and powerlessness for engagement, empowerment and full democratic participation, only to the degree that power, decision-making and planning are diffused to the wider community. Otherwise, they become mystifying shells that conceal unsocialist structures and practices.
Working-class initiative and a sense of real ownership of social property are the sinew and ligaments, of socialism, while legal relations, public ownership and structures of class power are facilitating mechanisms.
In short, a party of socialism in the 21st century will measure the degree of socialist development by real relations, not formal ones.
Socialism gives priority to sustainability and sufficiency, not growth without limits, not endless consumption. Socialist production can’t be narrowly focused on inputs and outputs, nor employ purely and narrowly constructed quantitative criteria to measure efficiency and determine economic goals. Nor can status and the fulfillment of human needs be reduced to the constant expansion of consumer goods. Socialism isn’t simply a “provision and rights society.”
That said, we cannot wait for socialism to address the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation. That must be done now. We are approaching tipping points which if reached will give global warming a momentum that human actions will have little or no control over.
Finally, in order for a socialist society to flourish, the process of change has to occur on several levels almost simultaneously. Just as the emergence of capitalism rested on the coincidence of several processes interacting together, the same is the case with a socialist society.
26. A party of socialism in the 21st century will construct its own organizational model in line with its own material conditions and needs. It shouldn’t be hatched out of thin air or imported from another country. The size of the membership, the concentration and location of members, the breadth of leadership, the scope and intensity of the class struggle, and its aims are the main determinants of the organizational character of a 21st century party – its structures, forms and rules of organization.
The structures, forms and rules also depend on the organizational and cultural traditions of our country.
Organizing club meetings every two weeks, insisting that every member belong to a club and pay monthly dues, agitating clubs to focus on a shop or neighborhood, and expecting every member to support the entire party program, circulate the press, and abide by the decisions of the majority is one way to structure a communist party. But it is not the only way. We need much more flexibility as far as structures of organization and membership expectations are concerned.
We are a small party with a committed but thin layer of leaders that hopes to become a much bigger party in a non-revolutionary situation, in a far-flung country, and in the age of the Internet.
In this era defined in many ways by the internet, we shouldn’t attempt to replicate in every, or even most, details the old model of communist organization. A party with a high degree of discipline and centralized structure of organization doesn’t fit the present status of our party or the zeitgeist of our times. This isn’t 1917 – our society is exceedingly complex, the mentality of the Cold War is receding, people are busy as hell, a good number of boomers are tired, and young party members are juggling careers, debt, and activism.
These realities require new forms of interaction, communication, education , decision-making, organization and messaging. And, not least, they require new standards for party membership and a new style of leadership that politically engages the membership and leads by force of argument.
So where does this leave democratic centralism? I’m for dropping the term. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m for collective discussion, broad interaction, democratic decisions, testing decisions in life, and the struggle for unity in action.
But the rule that every member is obligated to carry out party decisions no longer fits our circumstances. The truth is that we never enforced it. If someone chose not to carry out a decision, nothing was done in most instances. If we can’t win members and leaders to a position politically then administrative action is unlikely to help.
The main way to mobilize and unite the party is through political discussions, education, transparency of decisions, persuasion, and sound political decisions.
For similar reasons I suggest we drop the term “unity of will.” Among other reasons, it’s a term, or really a concept, that can easily be abused, and it has in our past.
27. A party of the 21st century must be Internet-based. To believe otherwise is to turn one’s back on recent experience, especially President Obama’s 2008 campaign. The argument that Internet work is at war with on-ground organizing should be retired.
The Internet gives us a tool to organize people far beyond our organized spaces; it allows us to grow faster in old and new places; it provides a menu of programs and services that any member or club can easily access; it allows us to compensate for our thinness of leadership; it makes possible a new division of labor; it gives us the ability to communicate regularly with the whole membership in a timely way; it makes it possible for the People’s World and Political Affairs to reach an infinitely bigger audience; it makes it possible for us to organize meetings in cyber space across thousands of miles, and to expand our visibility and presence.
So far our experience has been positive, but we have only scratched the surface of the Internet’s potential.
28. A party of socialism in the 21st century should open the door to new members. Joining should be no more difficult than joining other social organizations; going through political hoops and close vetting aren’t necessary. That is for White House appointees, not people who take a liking to us.
What is needed is not more stringent standards, but a range of ways that new members can become familiar with our program, policies and activities. The Internet is critical in this regard, but I would also add that we need an on-the-ground team to travel into organized and unorganized areas to meet and greet new members, to acquaint them with our party and its positions, and to hear what they are thinking.
29. A party of socialism in the 21st century will examine its history with a critical eye. To do otherwise is to sever today’s party from our history. No party or social movement on the left can claim as rich a history as we can. But that treasure-trove becomes valuable only to the degree that we see it in all of its complexity.
Sometimes we act as if the only mistake we made was our failure to rein in Earl Browder; other times we mechanically transport forms of organization and struggle from one era to another as if nothing has happened in the meantime.
At still other times we resist shedding old ideas, schemes, dogmas, symbols and practices that time has passed by or cast a negative judgment on.
No party, including ours, is mistake-free; we make mistakes and we make them in the present as well as the past. Politics is complex and fluid, and mistakes in theory, assessments and practices are inevitable.
We do no favors to past or future generations of communists when we keep the lid on our mistakes. If we could conjure up our deceased comrades, I’m sure that they would insist that we look at our past with a critical and mature eye; they would tell us not to worry about their feelings or legacy, which I would add stands on its own quite well.
A party of the 21st century takes inspiration from our past but shouldn’t be imprisoned by it. The past should only be a general guide to the future, but no a blueprint for the future.
As mentioned at the outset of this article the effective forces and coalitions to meet the challenges of the 21st century are not yet gathered together. But we are quietly confident that they will be as we go deeper into the 21st century. We are also confident that the Communist Party will meet history’s challenge as well, that is, we will change, grow, and provide leadership to people searching for a better life and more just society.