“The Nature, Role, and Work of the Communist Party” first appeared on CPUSA.org on February 27, 2007. Read it on CPUSA.com.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the nature, role, and work of the Party. Sounds like a mouthful and it is. Hopefully, it will give everyone, to continue the metaphor, something to chew on.
The outcome and implications of the mid-term elections will figure prominently in this discussion how could it be otherwise?
Our countrys political terrain has shifted. The American people expect a change in course. What is more, the labor-led peoples movement, whose energy, organization, and political clarity were decisive to the elections outcome, is now turning its attention to legislative battles.
We will do likewise, but with this added wrinkle: we will also give attention to growing the Party and its press in this new context of struggle.
I will speak more about this later, but suffice it to say that we dont see the building of a bigger Party and press as a separate task from the further development of a more powerful labor-led peoples movement.
In fact, the extension and deepening of that movement profits immeasurably from the Partys growth and active participation in it, as well as the participation of other nonsectarian left forces. By the same token, the growth of the Party and its press is closely connected to the growth of the larger movement.
It was, for example, the alliance of left (in which the Communists were the dominant group) and center forces in the depression years that carried through a deep going political realignment and created the conditions for the rapid growth of the Party in size and influence. We are not yet at that point, but the direction is promising.
Lenin once observed,
In every country there has been a period in which the working class movement existed apart from socialism, each going its own way; and in every country this isolation has weakened both socialism and the working class movement. Only the fusion of socialism with the working-class movement has in all countries created the durable basis for both. (The Urgent Tasks of Our Movement)
Isnt this observation still true? Can the deepening and strengthening of the labor-led peoples movement reach its full potential and power without a more active and larger Communist Party in its midst? And by the same token, can the Communist Party (and the nonsectarian left for that matter) numerically grow and evolve into a major player on the national scene anywhere but in the larger movement that is battling rightwing extremism and capitalist globalization?
I dont think so.
With this in mind, my paper will discuss: (1) the nature of the Party, (2) its role, and (3) Party- and press-building tasks. While I will treat each separately, in life, of course, they are bound up together.
Nature of the Communist Party
A number of general features taken together define the Communist Partys essential nature and shape its role and political tasks.
To begin, Marxism is a system of ideas a worldview that provides theoretical anchorage to understand and change the world. It combines materialist philosophy (dialectical and historical), political economy, and socialist revolution into a single analytical system that is comprehensive, integrated, and consistent, although not without tensions and gaps and under-theorized questions.
While Marxism rejects abstract theorizing disconnected from any concrete material context, it also rejects pragmatism and empiricism. It insists on the necessity of a theoretical structure to guide the activity of Marxists.
Without theory, Lenin wrote, there can be no revolutionary practice. In fact, without a grounding in theory, mistakes in policy and practice possibly big mistakes are almost inevitable, as experience has demonstrated on many occasions.
In employing Marxism as a tool of analysis and struggle, we should give emphasis to its innovative and critical side. After all, we live in, arguably, a new era of world development. Few if any of us anticipated the profound changes that have occurred over the past few decades.
The structure and distribution of economic activity and power across global space are changing dramatically. The financial sector is growing to elephant-like proportions. The structural recomposition and geographical redeployment of the working class continue at breakneck pace. Income inequality within and between countries and regions is ratcheting up to unheard-of levels. Old and crude forms of racism combine with, and increasingly yield to, new and subtler forms that cleverly conceal the structures of racial hierarchy, exploitation, marginalization, and subordination. Women, while continuing to provide unpaid labor in the home and community, are entering the paid labor force in unprecedented numbers where they encounter exploitation, discrimination, and oppression.
Right-wing religious fundamentalism is becoming a nearly worldwide phenomenon. Global warming and other forms of ecological breakdown threaten the future of humanity and other life forms. New social movements of considerable scope and strength leave their marks on the political process. China is morphing into the main rival to U.S. capitalisms global dominance, and East and South Asia constitute the most dynamic region of capital accumulation.
Finally, new forms of social and socialist transformation are asserting themselves in Latin America and in the socialist countries.
These trends should turn our theoretical eye as well as our practical activity towards what is new, to breaks as well as continuities in development.
Although in poker, keeping a pat hand (that is, playing the cards you are dealt) sometimes makes good sense, it is a poor strategy for a revolutionary party.
Now dont get me wrong I am not suggesting that we abandon Marxist principles and methodology, but Marxism can only claim a scientific character if it takes into account new realities, if it absorbs new experience, if it is open-ended to new analytical insights by Marxists and non-Marxists alike.
Though Marx and Engels developed an analytical structure and methodology that would enable the working class to comprehend and revolutionize the world, they never claimed the last word on any subject. Indeed, both of these giants of the working-class movement had a keen eye for new developments and subjected everything including their own intellectual labor to critical scrutiny.
Near the end of his life, Engels, in an effort to counter a dogmatic interpretation of historical materialism that was fashionable in the socialist movement of that time, wrote:
Our conception of history is above all a guide to study All history must be studied afresh. (Letter to C. Schmidt)
A decade or so later, Lenin wrote,
A Marxist must take cognizance of real life, of the true facts of reality, and not cling to a theory of yesterday, which, like all theories, at best only outlines the main and the general, only comes near to embracing life in all its complexity. (Collected Works, Vol. 24)
The repetition of timeless, nonhistorical, abstract formulas, therefore, is inconsistent with the spirit and letter of Marxism. Its creative development and the application of its principles occur only in intimate connection to day-to-day life.
A few worry that such an emphasis will lead to revisionism and right opportunism, and such a danger, of course, always exists. However, I would argue that dogmatism and sectarianism, traceable in no small measure to the radical movement of the 1960s that lacked a working-class political and ideological anchor, have been a much larger problem in our Party and the left at the level of practice and theory than is acknowledged.
In any case, what interests me more than either of these tendencies is our ability, given our size and resources, to analyze through the wide-angled lens of Marxism a fast-changing and complex world and then to apply that analysis to practical politics.
Obviously, shortcomings in this regard have serious consequences. After all, analyses that lag behind actual life diminish our mass influence as well as the Partys attractive power and ability to grow.
If, for example, we hadnt taken careful account of the ascendancy of the right, the divisions in the ruling circles, and the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties at the level of policy and social composition, we wouldnt have drawn the appropriate and correct conclusions that guided our activity in the recent elections.
Party of Socialism
We are a party of socialism; and never gave up that vision, notwithstanding the debates in the post-Soviet collapse period.
Our vision is of a society that is peaceful, democratic, economically just and efficient, and ecologically sustainable. Our socialist goal privileges social solidarity, cooperation, respect for difference, and equality.
Socialism is not simply a good idea, but also an overriding necessity for humankind to find timely solutions to problems that threatens its very future massive inequality and poverty, global warming, war and nuclear proliferation, energy and resource depletion, pandemic diseases, and so forth.
In one of historys ironies, socialism, despite its tumultuous history and historic defeat in the 1990s, is attracting new interest in all quarters of the globe, while capitalism only a few short years after its historic triumph over socialism is losing legitimacy in the eyes of hundreds of millions.
There are no universal paths to (or, for that matter, universal models of) socialism. Socialism has to grow out of the soil of a particular country, at a particular time, and in particular circumstances. Our country will be no exception. We will follow our own nationally specific path.
Socialism must settle the property question (from private to public ownership, from capitalist to socialist property relations, and from a capitalist to a socialist mode of production) to be sure. Every revolution must accomplish this essential task, and ours will be no different.
But how, and the pace and to what degree it happens, largely depends on concrete circumstances. At socialisms dawn in any country 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.
Such ownership relations and market mechanisms do not preclude economic planning and democratic control. In fact, given that the longer term task of a socialist state and society is to shift the logic and purpose 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 not to mention institutional forms in and outside of state structures that guarantee oversight and control of the social economy by working people and their representatives.
While we dont think that the working class and its allies can simply grab hold of the state after all, the institutional structures, laws, agencies, and bureaucratic layers of administration took shape over time in the crucible of the most powerful capitalist country in the world we also dont believe that the state will be smashed into so many pieces or that socialism will be constructed on a blank slate.
Rather, the main task will be to transform the class content of state structures, including its structures of repression; extend democratic rights into the economic, social and cultural spheres as well as deepen them in the political sphere; enact radical economic reforms; create new democratic forms of participation in addition to invigorating existing ones; and finish the democratic tasks left behind by capitalism in the first place, the elimination of racial and gender inequality.
All this should be stressed because in the American mind, the idea that socialism and democracy are incompatible has widespread currency. And this perception cant be ascribed solely to ruling-class propaganda. Socialist societies have had democratic shortcomings, too often major ones.
The path to socialism in our country will be long, laced at every turn with massive struggles on many levels, and involve diverse class and social forces. It will proceed not straightforwardly, not smoothly, not without reversals and original features through stages and at each higher stage of struggle the balance of power will qualitatively tip to the advantage of the working class and people. What distinguishes the socialist stage from the preceding stages is that a fundamental rupture and break in class power will occur as the formerly exploited and oppressed classes gain dominance over state institutions.
Such a rupture of power wont settle everything once and for all, but it will constitute a decisive turn in power relations between opposition blocs and allow the new ruling bloc, provided it acts wisely and in a timely fashion, to consolidate and extend its hegemonic position over the state and society.
While the labor-led peoples coalition battling the Bush administration will lead this struggle, only a social movement of much greater scope, depth, and consciousness can bring the train home to the socialist station. In other words, the struggle for socialism, while finding echoes in the past and vivid images and foreshadowings in the movement of the present, will be on a higher plane in terms of its mass character, political and organizational unity, and ideological understanding. How could it be otherwise?
Decades ago socialist revolutions grew out of economic catastrophes and major wars. But communists, going back to the 19th century, never believed that armed struggle and civil war were the only avenue to socialism.
The worker, Marx said in a speech in Amsterdam in 1872, must one day conquer political supremacy in order to establish the new organization of labor But we do not assert that the attainment of this end requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores, and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America and if I am familiar with your institutions, Holland, where labor may attain its new goal by peaceful means. (Quoted in Freedom and Determination in History According to Marx and Engels, Joseph Ferraro)
But doesnt the above contradict Marxs assertion that Force is the midwife of history.
Not necessarily force takes many forms.
In the 1950s, the communist movement, for example, said that the objective changes that had taken place since the Russian Revolution namely, the consolidation of a world socialist system, the emergence of majoritarian working-class movements in the capitalist core countries, and the enormous power of the national independence struggles diminished the inevitability of world war and opened up alternative paths to socialism that, though turbulent, could avoid civil war.
Since then, of course, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and other developments, the correlation of forces worldwide has changed again. And yet U.S. imperialism, as much as it may desire this, and as much as the Bush administration has strived for it, has not been able to achieve unrivaled global dominance. If anything, the events of the past few years have revealed the limits of U.S. imperial power, the deep going contradictions of capitalism, and the necessity of socialism.
Thus, it would be premature to say that the nature of this epoch (from capitalism to socialism) has changed or that a peaceful path to socialism is no longer possible.
Closer to the truth is this: in this epoch of transition to socialism, the paths to and construction of socialist societies are much more protracted, contradictory, and complex than we imagined previously.
In recent years, for instance, radical social transformations in relatively peaceful circumstances have occurred in Latin America. There the force and coercion of an active, organized, and overwhelming majority of the working class and its allies combined with the winning of bridgeheads in state structures, including repressive ones, have isolated elites, dislodged neo-liberal governments from power, and cleared the ground, so far peacefully, for social and socialist transformations.
At the same time, the process of socialist construction in the socialist countries has moved in new directions and acquired a new, albeit much debated, content.
We should study these experiences and draw the appropriate lessons, while keeping in mind that our countrys path to socialism will have its own original and peculiar features. Needless to say, we will struggle to create the conditions for a peaceful transition.
Party of the Working Class
We are a working-class party. This fundamental characteristic is expressed in many ways. Our members and leaders are predominantly working class a class that is multinational, multiracial, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, and native-born and immigrant.
Our strategy and policies are 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 goes a long way to explain why the capitalist class and its far-flung ideological apparatus attempt to make class divisions invisible. We hear of and of course, there exist other divisions: racial, gender, national, religious, political, sexual preference, age, and so forth that to one degree or another affect capitalisms 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 appreciating diversity, difference, and 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 categories of class and class struggle.
In fact, as the struggle intensifies, as the working class comes forward as the leader of the broader movement, and as the questions of power come to the fore more sharply, dont 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 theoretical and political insights on questions of class, democracy, alliance policy, nationality, power, and socialist revolution.
Insofar as to the charge that the working class has not lived up to the revolutionary pride of place that Marx and Engels gave it, I would make three observations.
First, no other class, social strata, or movement possesses the strategic social power of the working class, and revolutions do turn on the question of power in the last analysis.
Second, the transformation of the working class from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself is a long, protracted political process. No one ever claimed that the revolutionary capacity of the working class is in its DNA or spontaneously issues from its place in the system of social production. Indeed, it is contingent on many things, including the ability of communists and the left to win a majority of workers to the ideas and practice of class struggle and socialism.
Although, I would add (to borrow a phrase from E. P. Thompson, the great British Marxist historian), the working class has a hand in its own making. Workers are not empty vessels that the communists and the left simply fill up with revolutionary ideas; rather, our task is to round out and give added depth to their thinking, based on their experience.
And, finally, the winning of socialism is a family affair. No single class or social movement has the necessary understandings and power to storm heaven. It requires the formation of broad and interactive alliances. A-go-it alone strategy by the working class or anyone else is a surefire recipe for defeat.
Under the impact of new technologies, economic restructuring, and neoliberal policies, the working class is becoming larger and more diverse with tens of millions of new recruits in new sectors and spaces of the national and global economies.
Marx and Engels assumed that wage labor would become more homogenous as well as larger in size as capitalist economic relations deepened and spread. On one count, they were right. The working class constitutes and increasingly so the overwhelmingly majority on the planet. But, the leveling process hasnt occurred; instead, stratification and variation of status and conditions are more the rule.
On a high level of abstraction, it is true that the working class as a whole has common, objectively based, interests. After all, there is a single system of exploitation. But to leave the matter here is inadequate because strategy and tactics issue from a more concrete level of analysis.
At this level we encounter not only common class interests but also contradictions and conflicts stemming from the different conditions, diverse composition, multiple locations, spatial separations, and uneven political development of the working class in short from the dissimilar ways that workers experience and understand exploitation and oppression across global space.
This complex reality, however, should not obscure the common interests, which are the framework for unity. Nor should it leave us assigning some sectors of the class to a folder labeled revolutionary and some to another labeled reactionary: dont waste your time. But rather, this understanding should make us more skillful fighters for working class unity from the local to the global level of struggle.
Any thought of achieving socialism USA, is pure fantasy if it doesnt include as a cornerstone an active, united, class conscious, and numerically large majority of the working class leading a larger peoples movement.
At the end of his life, Engels wrote,
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 in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required. (Introduction to Marxs The Class Struggles in France)
The task of our Party, therefore, is to focus with a new sense of urgency 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, and other factors are putting great downward pressure on living standards. 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 bulls-eye of our refocusing should be the organized sector of the working class and especially, its strategic components. This sector, with its political understanding, experience, organization, know-how, tactical acumen, and resources has to be at the core of our effort to activate wider sections of the class.
This is not to say that organizing among other sectors of the working class is unimportant, In fact, labor has to do more to organize unorganized workers and especially women, racially oppressed, immigrant, and industrial workers. Nor is it to say that we lessen our efforts to build the Party and its press among low-income and oppressed and unorganized workers; we have to do more in this regard.
But what it does say is that organized workers are the strategic link to the overall advance of the class as a whole.
Our class approach argues against wrongheaded notions that narrow the working class, simplify the struggle for class unity, or diminish the political capacity of the working class and its organized sector to evolve into the leader of a peoples movement for radical change and socialism.
We look at the world through a class lens. The class struggle is the mainspring of the historical process.
As Marx and Engels observed in the Communist Manifesto, the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the class struggle. Up until then, the historical process was seen as accidental and arbitrary. In constructing a new theoretical model, they persuasively argued that historical change was in large measure the outcome of the collective struggle of millions against their class oppressors rather than the whims of dominant classes and individuals or historical accidents. Their insight provided people in every corner of the globe with a new way to understand as well as influence history.
The class struggle has its origins in actual exploitative practices, which in turn are traceable to an integrated, global system of exploitation. The ceaseless accumulation of capital and the exploitation of wage labor are two sides of a single coin. And this inner drive is reinforced and sustained by the rivalry of competing capitals.
Left to its own devices, capitalisms logic is to employ its control over the production process and the state apparatus to squeeze every possible ounce of surplus value from the working class. After all, when it comes to exploitation, capitalism is hard-wired, insatiable, and nearly universal, even penetrating the countries of socialism.
But its near universality and dominance has not ushered in an era of peace and prosperity for the worlds people; just the opposite.
It is easy to agree with Marx:
The main issue, he said in an address to the Communist League, cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society, but the foundation of a new one. (Historical Materialism: Marx, Engels, Lenin)
Not surprisingly, social democratic and center forces look at it differently.
Exploitative practices on a corporate and state level, they would agree, do exist, and on a growing scale. But they do not necessarily trace these practices to capitalisms internal laws and tendencies or to the class nature of the state. Instead, most blame myopic corporations that prioritize short-term profit-taking and misguided public policy.
While acknowledging adversarial relations between capital and labor, they claim that disputes can be resolved within the framework of capitalism, albeit on a more level playing field (economic and political) than now exists.
This ideological fault line, distinguishing communist and other left forces from social democratic and center currents does not preclude unity of action on issues of common concern however. Nor are the views of social democratic and center forces etched in stone.
In fact, a notable feature of todays struggle is that social democratic and center forces are not cut from the same cloth as their predecessors of the Cold War years. They are bitter opponents of the Bush administration, support coalition building, mobilize labor through its own independent apparatus, oppose the Iraq war, display more sensitivity to issues of equality and diversity, and increasingly have serious doubts about capitalisms ability to provide a decent life for working people.
Moreover, many welcome our participation in movements and struggles.
While much of the communist movements criticism of social democratic forces was on the mark, sweeping characterizations of them as irredeemably reactionary in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian revolution were not only mistaken but harmful.
So much so that Lenins went to great lengths to counter this in his famous essay, Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and his speeches to the Communist International in the early 1920s. But in the end, he was unsuccessful.
In fact, after Lenins death, Stalins class against class policy gave the young communist movement reason to pursue its sectarian policies with a new vigor, going so far to call social democrats social fascists.
And this continued until the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935, where Georgi Dimitrov argued for breaking with sectarian habits and for unity with social democrats who were changing their views under the fascist threat and the weight of the economic crisis.
On the heels of this, our own Party developed broader strategic and tactical concepts of struggle. And only because we did that were we able to contribute decisively to the struggles that brought about a radical realignment of political and class forces in the U.S.
Moreover, in the course of these struggles, communists gained the respect of the working class and its allies, thereby creating favorable conditions for the Party to grow in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Militancy and initiative mattered for sure, but only to the degree that they expressed themselves in the context of our strategic policy, only to the degree that we contributed to building a broad democratic front, and only to the degree that we assisted in reelecting Roosevelt and New Dealers to Congress.
Thus, the growth we experienced in that period didnt take place in a vacuum. It required the political elaboration and practical application of a strategic policy that captured the main trends and tasks of that period; and, of course, it was intimately tied up with the growing intensity of the class and peoples struggles. The lessons for our work today are self-evident.
Democracy and Class Struggle
Still another essential feature of a Communist Party is an unyielding commitment to the struggle for democracy and democratic rights.
But isnt democracy in capitalist society limited and restricted? Isnt it the most effective means for concealing class relations and rule?
There is no controversy here. No communist has to be persuaded of the limited character and ideological function of democracy under capitalism.
But by the same token, no communist should forget this incontrovertible fact: the struggle for democracy is of overarching importance to the working-class and peoples movement.
It is not simply a means to an end, nor a tactical device to be employed when it advances the class struggle. Rather the struggle for democracy is both a means and an end. It empowers people and people empower democracy.
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 peoples movements are not fully engaged in the democratic struggle.
In democratic struggles for peace, unionization, health care, racial and gender equality, the environment, affirmative action, education, jobs, living wages, pension rights, etc. the working class and its allies gain experience, understanding, and cohesion to the point where they can contest for power.
Lenin once wrote,
It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, overshadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-around consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy. (The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination)
In short, there is no road to socialism that bypasses the struggle for democracy. In saying this, are we privileging the democratic struggle over the class struggle? By no means, class and democratic struggle interpenetrate each other in innumerable ways.
Only in textbooks and at high levels of abstraction do we find pure forms of struggle, that is, the democratic struggle here and the class struggle there. In real life, the two interact, draw into struggle the same forces, share a common class foe, and press against capitals accumulation process.
Over the past quarter century, the struggles against right-wing ascendancy and neo-liberal globalization have merged more and more into a single stream of struggle.
While democratic tasks change with each stage of struggle at the national level, todays overriding democratic tasks on a global level are (and will probably remain so for some time): restraining the aggressive drive of U.S. imperialism and U.S. transnationals, abolishing nuclear weapons, addressing the environmental crisis, and radically reordering unequal relations between developed and developing countries.
A cornerstone some would say the essence of a Communist Party is its strategic policy.
Without a sound strategic policy a party effectively relinquishes its role as a leader of the class struggle. It can talk militant and sound revolutionary, but without a scientifically substantiated strategic policy, the transition from the politics of protest to the politics of power is impossible.
In determining a strategic policy, we start from a very sober analysis of the stage of struggle and the overall balance and distribution of power among the contending forces.
From such an analysis, the main political tasks come into view as well as which forces are obstructing social progress and which are necessary for its advance.
For the past 25 years, the building of a labor-led peoples coalition against right-wing domination of our nations political structures has been our strategic objective. It has given political coherence to our policies and practical work and allowed our Party to stand head and shoulders above many organizations on the left.
Take, for example, the recent elections, in which the main political task was to take control of Congress out of Republican hands. No other struggle had the same potential to reconfigure the politics of our country and strike a blow for peace and social progress.
We understood this, and thus we were where a communist party should be: fully engaged in that struggle which if won changes the dynamics of every other struggle.
Not everyone, including some on the left and even a few in our Party, appreciated this. Much the same could be said about the peace movement that took nowhere near full advantage of this political opportunity. As Election Day approached, too few threw themselves heart and soul into the struggle to change Congress, and too much time was spent bemoaning the Democrats. At best they damned them with faint praise.
Luckily, tens of millions of people were of the opinion that the ballot box, despite its limitations, was the most powerful way to express their unhappiness with the war as well as other policies of the Bush administration, and acted accordingly.
Struggle for Racial and Gender Equality
A commitment to the struggle for racial and gender equality is at the core of our outlook and practice. The struggle for equality is an inseparable part of the class struggle and the struggle for socialism. It is at the heart of democratic and social progress.
In recent decades vast political, economic, and social transformations have altered the class, national, and racial demographics of the population and the terrain on which the working class and it allies battle their class enemies. Nevertheless, the fight for full equality retains its overarching strategic importance, although it has to be fitted to todays conditions politically, economically, socially, culturally, and ideologically.
Anyone who devalues the struggle for racial and gender equality in any of its forms gravely weakens the overall struggle for social progress. At the very least, such devaluation limits the sweep of any victory; at worst, it provides an opening to the most backward sections of our ruling class and their political constituency to gain ascendancy. In fact, isnt that what we have seen over the past quarter century?
Wasnt the ascendancy of the extreme right achieved in large measure by racist appeals to white voters?
In nearly every category that measures social well being, the conditions of racially oppressed people have worsened. In the communities of the African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and other nationally and racially oppressed peoples, including new immigrant communities, the situation is at crisis levels.
It seems like jails cant be constructed fast enough to accommodate the swelling prison population of whom the disproportionate number are young African American and Latino men
Womens rights have been under siege too reproductive rights, equal pay for comparable work, living wages, parental leave, quality public education, health care and affirmative action are being shredded by the extreme right. Racially oppressed women are in the eye of both storms. The objective of this many-sided assault is not simply to wipe out gains won in earlier periods, but also to crush the fighting spirit of the African American, Mexican American, and other nationally and racially oppressed peoples and women and their developing strategic alliance with labor.
The ruling class well understands that the convergence of labor, the nationally and racially oppressed, and women constitutes its most formidable foe and presages a future without exploitation and oppression.
After all, the nationally and racially oppressed and women are not simply objects of super-exploitation and oppression, but also are fighters, organizers, and unifiers; they bring insights and understandings to every struggle; and they bridge the main sectors of the peoples movement.
In fact, the success of the labor-led peoples movement depends on their full participation in the leadership and membership. There is no other way to go forward. The new terrain of struggle not only brings some relief from the rights vicious assault, but also new opportunities to go on the offensive against racism. But if history is any guide it wont happen without struggle and initiative.
As for us, the struggle for racial, gender, and other forms of equality should be given a new urgency too; it must come to the top of our agenda and be woven into everything we do. The same could be said about the struggle for immigrant rights.
The struggle for equality has to be more than a point of agitation; it must be concrete and practical. It should focus on action. It should be an integral part of our political and legislative agenda. It should proceed on the grounds that white people can be won to fight racism, based on their own interests. And, the ideological struggle against white and male supremacy should be stepped up.
Over the past thirty years, the extreme right has steadily changed the ways that millions understand racial and gender oppression. Their ideas on equality how to define it, who has achieved it, what progress has been made, what prevents it, etc. have become the dominant ones in the minds of millions. Therefore, we, along with other democratic minded people, have to engage the right (and some others as well) on the level of ideas.
To make matter worse, we run into concepts on the left and in progressive circles that are ideologically disabling too. Whiteness theories and studies, for example, tend to focus nearly exclusively on identity and privilege of white workers while leaving major social and institutional realities like capitalism, the national question, inter, as opposed to intra, class divisions, and the institutional nature of racial and gender oppression in the background, sometimes to the point of invisibility.
On a broad aggregate level, white workers have a relative advantage over nationally and racially oppressed workers due to the fact that the latter experience national and racial, as well as class, exploitation and oppression. This advantage and differential status is reflected in wages and income, employment opportunities, incidence of poverty, home ownership, educational attainment, health care access, life expectancy, and so forth. And in many of these categories, it has grown wider.
This harsh reality belies the claim that racist discrimination and oppression are disappearing, that we live in the post-civil-rights era. But it does not follow that white workers are either privileged or derive material gain from racist exploitation and oppression, except by understanding the dynamics of class and race in the narrowest way something that I dont think we should do.
Actually, exploitation of white workers and superexploitation of racially oppressed workers are two aspects of a single process of capitalist exploitation. They are embedded within and reinforce one another.
While racism weighs heaviest on nationally and racially oppressed workers, it also depresses the living standards of all workers. It hollows out democracy generally. It provides a rationale for imperialist war that is never in the interests of the working class. And it weakens, often fatally, working class struggles and disfigures the class and moral outlook of white workers. Racist exploitation and oppression, in other words, constitute a body blow to the economic security, political and organizational unity, and fighting capacity of the entire working class.
Perhaps the best, though by no means the only, evidence of this fact is found in the history of the South, where virulent racist exploitation and oppression combined with intense exploitation of all workers to retard the economic and political development of that region. Even today, nearly 150 years after the defeat of slavery, the living standards, working conditions, and democratic rights of working people in the South lag behind those of their counterparts in the North.
Hence, white workers in the South have paid a steep price in political, economic, social, and ethical terms, obviously nowhere near as steep as their Black brothers and sisters, but significant nonetheless. But it is precisely this fact that is obscured by the proponents of the notion of white skin privilege. Even where it is acknowledged, the acknowledgement is usually incidental rather than at the core of their analysis.
Proponents of this concept end up almost inevitably mired in political paralysis and defeatism. After all, once it is concluded that white workers are privileged and have a material stake in the reproduction of racism, what can left and progressive people do besides moralistically posture? In the universe of white skin privilege, the prospects of class unity, equality, and social progress become dim indeed.
Institutionalized racism is not a transhistorical phenomenon merrily marching through history with a life of its own. Nor is it the special product of the working-class movement, as some suggest. On the contrary, it has specific systemic and class roots. Its a creature of capitalism.
Saying this doesnt imply that the working class has no hand at all in reproducing racism. To think so would be naive.
Still when racism manifests itself in the thinking and actions of working people, we should be exceedingly careful not to separate its expressions and practices from its capitalist context nor conceal its systemic and class roots.
That said, the struggle against racism is winnable only on the basis of broad, united, multiracial actions, only on the basis of white workers assuming in their own interests and the interests of class unity a major responsibility for combating racism and fighting for the special demands of nationally and racially oppressed people. Anything less will not have a ghosts chance of success. Just as a broad antislavery coalition was necessary to overturn the system of slavery in the 19th century, so too is a broad coalition of the working class, the racially oppressed, and all democratic forces necessary to eradicate the contemporary structures of racism and racist ideology as we enter the 21st century.
At any rate, the ideological struggle against white male supremacy and for equality is of great importance, and we have to engage it more aggressively.
Party of Action
Marx once wrote and it has been endlessly quoted that the point isnt simply to interpret the world along various lines, but to change it. In writing this, Marx wasnt devaluing the role of theory, but rather insisting that theory had to be connected to and tested by political practice.
Communists struggle to combine theory with practical action. Ideas can become a material force only to the degree that they are embraced and acted upon by real live people, only to the degree that they become the lived experience of millions.
An inactive communist or Communist Party club is a contradiction in terms. In our Party, practice is as much at our core as is theory and strategy. Every collective and member should be a part of day-to-day struggles. Indeed, mass struggles are the sites where our theory and political practice are joined.
Among other things, we have to refocus on economic struggles, many of which will surface in the political arena. Not for a long time I am talking about decades has the working class experienced such an assault on its living standards and conditions. I will allow that a small section of workers have experienced some gains, but that isnt the main picture that we should emphasize. The main picture is of rapidly growing inequality and insecurity between the class of exploiters and the class of producers. The transfer of wealth from the latter to the former has been massive and historically unprecedented. It couldnt have happened without the state acting as a mechanism to unashamedly redistribute surplus value to the largest corporations and the wealthiest families.
Hardest hit, as mentioned above, are nationally and racially oppressed workers and their communities. This calamitous situation, which includes the marginalization of unprecedented numbers of people, especially young people, gives real meaning to the term social death and accounts for its use by scholars.
As we engage in these struggles, we shouldnt forget (and sometimes we do) that we are a party of ideas as well and that workers are hungry for ideas. They want to know why things are the way they are; they want to know what and who are driving things. This assault argues for refitting our priorities, politics, and ideological work to the new conditions of capitalist exploitation and mass sentiments. And to do it in a political context that contains possibility and hope.
Internationalism is another essential feature of our Party. At the core of internationalism lies the common interest of the working and oppressed people, regardless of national boundaries, against their common exploiters and oppressors.
While each working class has to settle accounts with its own bourgeoisie, such a settling in this era when capitalisms threads of exploitation, oppression, and militarism stretch to nearly every nook and cranny of the planet requires new forms of internationalism.
The system of imperialism that Lenin analyzed a century ago continues to operate with full force, but in a different context and in new ways so much so that some understandably wonder if we are in an entirely new stage of capitalist development. I dont think that is the case, but to speak of a new phase of imperialist development seems appropriate. What are some of its salient features?
One is the change from a policy of global hegemony that combines force with multilaterialism and consent, to the Bush administrations unilateralist policy of world domination that relies exclusively on military power. 9/11 provided the political atmosphere and context for this shift.
Another is the new level of capitalist globalization, spurred on by political and economic contradictions of capitalism, the development of new technologies, and the broad-scale application of neoliberal policies.
A third feature is that world capitalism, while more interdependent, is less unified and seamless. Uneven political and economic development is intensifying contradictions and competition at the state, regional, and global levels. New centers of power are emerging and the world market is a site of intense political and economic competition.
Still another feature is the absence of the Soviet Union. For decades the first land of socialism provided a counterweight to U.S. imperialism. It restrained the adventuristic plans of U.S. imperialism and its client states, and acted as a gravitational pull on the forces of national independence in the direction of anti-imperialism, democratization, secularism, and anticapitalism. With its disappearance, unilaterialism, force, and world domination became a more plausible strategy for the most aggressive and militarist section of the U.S. ruling class.
Finally, we have witnessed the emergence of right-wing religious fundamentalism (as distinguished from religious fundamentalism) on a near global scale. In nearly every region of the world, religious extremism has gained in strength and has aligned with sections of the ruling elite.
In the U.S., it constitutes the political base of the Bush administration. In Israel, it supports the most reactionary policies of the Israeli ruling class. And in the Middle East and South Asia, right-wing political Islam aligned itself with both local elites and U.S. imperialism in varying combinations to defeat progressive, left, and communist forces over the past few decades. Unlike the national independence movements in earlier periods, the ideology and politics of right-wing Islam do not move towards democracy, economic justice, and secularism. Rather, its aim (at least from what we can glean from those countries where they have come to power) is to impose an antidemocratic and sectarian religious project on the people.
Of course, in making such characterizations we should distinguish between right wing-Islamic fundamentalism and nations and people of Islamic faith, appreciate that political Islam contains contradictions, and, avoid, even inadvertently, giving license to Bushs War on Terror.
After all, Bushs claim that the War on Terror is the modern day equivalent of the fight against Hitler fascism is nothing more than a subterfuge to mobilize the U.S. people behind U.S. imperialisms plan for unrivaled domination in the 21st century. Its essentially a rationalizing discourse for hegemonic ambitions in the same way that anti-Sovietism was during the Cold War.
Terrorist actions of both state and non-state actors are a danger and require a coordinated response by the worlds people. The assertion of the military strength of U.S. imperialism, however, is the exact opposite of what is needed.
Indeed, an immediate way to lessen the danger of terrorist actions is to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a settlement that recognizes the national rights and security concerns of both peoples), and increase substantially the aid of the U.S. and other major economic powers to the developing countries.
The foregoing suggests that we live in an unstable world, one filled with unending conflict and dangers; and it may seem that imperialism has the upper hand and that humankind is poorly equipped to address the most menacing problems of the 21st century global warming, the nuclear arms race and proliferation, militarism and especially U.S. militarism, underdevelopment, and the scramble for scarce nonrenewable resources.
On closer inspection, however, that conclusion is too pessimistic.
First, events in Iraq have gone from bad to worse for the occupation and pressures are mounting for withdrawing U.S. troops; U.S. imperialism is unable to impose its domination on the countries of the Middle East, and its international legitimacy is at the lowest level ever.
Second, fissures of political, economic, and diplomatic consequence are evident among the major powers. To see world imperialism as a seamless, united entity is a mistake on the level of analysis and political practice.
Third, the rejection of neoliberalism is a nearly worldwide phenomenon, but nowhere more so than in Latin America. The developing countries in every continent are asserting their right to their resources and sovereignty.
Fourth, new expressions of international working-class and trade union unity are surfacing.
Fifth, the socialist countries show a new political and economic vitality.
Finally, peoples and nations across the planet are increasingly challenging the status quo and the threats facing humanity.
To this we add the resounding defeat dealt the Bush agenda and the Republicans at the ballot box on November 7th.
These developments, however, dont take away from the urgency of internationalism to the contrary, they are proof positive that old and new forms of international working-class and peoples unity are necessary. Solidarity across borders, regions, and continents is a strategic requirement of class and democratic struggles, much like industrial unionism and anti-fascist unity was in the 1930s. Our trade union comrades and the whole Party for that matter have to give more attention to this issue.
Democratic centralism is the main organizing principle that structures the activity of the party and the interactions of its various collectives. It strives to unite the Party in its thinking and actions.
Democratic centralism isnt reducible to majority rule or to higher collective bodies exercising authority over lower ones. While both have an important place in the structure of a working-class organization, and especially a revolutionary working-class organization, the main way to mobilize and unite the Party is through political discussions, education, and persuasion.
To accomplish this requires transparency of decisions, mechanisms for communication in all directions, and well functioning collectives at every level of the Partys structure. Of particular importance in this regard are growing and active clubs at the grassroots. Such clubs are the main way that we discuss, apply, test, and evaluate our policies, but more about this later.
We still have much to do to give substance to the concept and practice of democratic centralism. Deepening collective discussions on the main policy questions is one aspect, improving our ability to convey these discussions to every collective in the party is another, and collectively carrying out and reviewing decisions is critical too.
Necessity and Role of the Party
All of these essential features of a Communist Party, taken together, make us a unique participant in the working class movement and allow us to play a leading role at each stage of struggle.
And yet, some, including in our own ranks, ask: have parties guided by Marxism outlived their purpose? Is their structure of organization still necessary in the contemporary world? Have the conditions of struggle changed so that new forms are supplanting traditional forms of working class organization?
While these questions are worth exploring, such an exploration would not lead us to conclude that the Party has no role in the 21st century. In fact, the complex character of the revolutionary process convinces me that a party possessing these features is as necessary now as it was when Marx and Engels penned the Communist Manifesto perhaps even more so, given the acuteness of the problems facing humankind.
At the same time, our role and relevance depend on our willingness to adapt our theory, ideology, policies, practice and structure of organization to new conditions and let go of what is no longer valid.
While communists are not chameleons, neither are we ostriches with our heads in the sand. Indeed, we are deepening our participation in the main struggles against right-wing extremism, refining our strategic policy and tactics, examining the new questions bedeviling humankind, and revitalizing our own organizational structures.
In short, we are bringing everything into line with the new conditions and mass sensibilities that structure and inform the class struggle and present humankind with unprecedented challenges. We have a ways to go, but the main thing is that the process has begun.
What Is Our Role
Thus the salient question is not so much are we relevant? as what is our role? If I were to give a shorthand definition of our Partys role, it would be this: to deepen, broaden, and assist not by ourselves, but alongside other left and center forces the working class and peoples movement at each successive stage of struggle, especially at the socialist stage.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote,
The [communists] have no interests, separate and apart, from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
The communists, they continued, fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class
In a similar vein, Lenin wrote:
The task of the party is not to invent some fashionable method of helping the workers, but to join the workers movement and to assist the workers in the struggles, which they have already started themselves.
On another occasion he said that the task of communists is to organize the class struggle.
Thus our role is to plant our feet in mass struggles. Everything else we do turns on that and not just any mass struggles, but those that the working people themselves give a particular urgency.
Or to put it differently, our role isnt primarily to come up with issues or initiatives that we consider important. We dont set the political agenda for the working class and people; other forces do, including the people themselves. We might think that one or another issue or struggle should be on their front burner, and our political logic may be flawless, but that is beside the point.
For communists to influence working people, we have to be on the terrain where they are already fighting. We have to be attuned to the issues that are already roiling them. We have to be part of the struggles in which they are already engaged.
Does this mean that communists never initiate anything? No but we should do so only after taking the pulse of the people and with an eye to bringing other forces in on the ground floor.
At the same time, given our size and strategic policy, the main way that we exercise our role is in existing struggles and through existing forms. Our political style isnt to bowl alone.
Fair enough you are probably thinking, but you are also probably asking yourself: didnt Marx and Engels end the sentence quoted above (The communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests ) with the phrase:
but in the movement of the present, they (communists) represent and take care of the future of that movement.
And elsewhere in the Manifesto, they describe what distinguishes a Communist Party from other working class parties:
1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of different countries, they point out and bring to the forefront the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
2. In the various stages of development, which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
In the same passage they go on to say,
The immediate aim of communists is formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.
In these passages, it is evident that the role of the communists also includes the tasks of uniting the working class nationally and internationally, bringing forward the interests of the broader movement at each stage of struggle at each stage of struggle, and preparing the working class for the struggle for political power against its capitalist class adversary.
It was Lenin, however, who articulated the most comprehensive view of the role of communists in broader movements.
The role of a Communist Party, according to Lenin, is many layered and many sided. It cant be reduced to either practical action or agitation. Nor can it be limited to one level of struggle economic, political, or ideological.
Nor does it only consist of deepening class-consciousness or popularizing advanced demands.
To the contrary, it blends all of these aspects/levels of struggle into a coherent whole not abstractly with each aspect/level occupying an equal and separate space, but rather by interweaving them together on the basis of a concrete analysis of the concrete political situation.
There is, in Lenins playbook, no straight path to socialism. Rather, the revolutionary process goes through different stages, with each characterized by a different configuration of class and social forces and a different set of class and democratic tasks that have to be realized in order to move to the next stage.
In contrast to the sectarian left, Lenin insisted that communists take sober account of the particular stage of struggle reached and that their role, strategy, tactics, and political demands be shaped accordingly.
Of singular importance to Lenin are democratic struggles which change at each turn of the struggle.
He is no [communist], Lenin wrote, who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question. (What is to be Done)
In the course of these struggles, the working class, with the assistance of the Party and the left, forges closer unity in all its various forms, acquires a deeper appreciation of the role of various class and social forces, attracts to its side key allies, learns the art of combining advanced demands with partial demands, becomes the social head and the social heart of the people and nation, and amasses the political capacity and confidence to weaken and eventually defeat its class adversaries.
Embedded in this analysis are a number of Marxist concepts.
First, social change in general and socialist revolution in particular are the handiwork of majoritarian movements. The proletarian movement, wrote Marx and Engels, is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. (Communist Manifesto).
This elementary truth of Marxism resonates at the socialist stage with special force. Socialist revolution demands the conscious and sustained participation of all the discontented sections of society, alongside the more active and leading forces. It is not an affair only of the left, although some on the left and a few in the Party act as if it is.
A second concept is that class-consciousness is not reducible to a them versus us attitude or to an understanding of the secret of capitalist exploitation that Marx so meticulously disclosed in Capital.
According to Lenin,
Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a [communist] point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. (Lenins italics) (What is to be Done)
Here we have a much more expansive concept of class-consciousness than is sometimes conveyed in our discussions and analysis. Moreover, it brings into bold relief once again the importance of the democratic struggle, because where else will the working class gain such consciousness.
Still another key concept is that while working people need their own experience in struggle, experience by itself wont build a movement capable of contesting for power. Or expressed in another way, an understanding of the political requirements to advance from one stage to another isnt an automatic derivative of struggle, nor is it acquired in the economic arena primarily. If it were, we would have arrived at socialism long ago.
A fourth concept (which logically follows from the above) is that the role of communists and the nonsectarian left is to raise the political consciousness and organizational capacities of the whole movement thereby enhancing the capacity of the labor-led peoples coalition to ideologically and practically navigate the complicated path to socialism.
A final concept is that at every stage of class and democratic struggle, our task is not only to deepen, broaden, and assist the movement, but also to enlarge the communist and left presence and organization within it.
At the beginning of this section I offered a brief definition of our role. But now I am going to expand it: at every stage of struggle, our role consists in joining, deepening, extending and assisting the movement on issues and struggles of its own choosing; it consists in bringing the working class into every aspect of the general democratic struggle and deepening the political and organizational unity of the broader movement; it consists in reaching out to left and progressive forces and in turning a class and socialist perspective into the common sense of the majority who fight for a better future; and it consists in leading, not by ourselves, but with others, the struggle for socialism.
It is also the role of the communists to build the Party and its press, about which I will go into more detail later.
Party’s Role in Post-Election Period
So far our analysis is several steps removed from the actual struggle of real, live, contending forces in a particular political context.
Nevertheless, a general understanding of our role offers us some guidelines that should make it easier to determine our specific role in todays setting, but only to the degree that we adapt and modify them to the actual situation on the ground. The truth, as Lenin said, is concrete.
What then is the situation on the ground? To begin, the November 7 election was a peoples victory. It was a stunning blow to the Bush administration. Its policies were repudiated, and its political authority was greatly diminished.
Bush is on the defensive. And his rubber stamp, right-wing-controlled Congress is, thank goodness, history. What is more, the election trouncing of the Republicans was a major setback to the most reactionary sections of the ruling class.
Tip ONeil, the former speaker of the House, famously said, All politics is local. There is truth in this observation, but it can be easily taken too far. National issues figure into elections too. And this fall, they framed the debate and were decisive to the outcome.
Bush himself should take credit for this, for he nationalized the elections and turned them into a referendum on his own policies. The Iraq war overshadowed everything, thanks in no small measure to him.
Most of us had hoped and believed that the House would change hands, but few predicted that the Senate would too. That seemed a little bit of a stretch, an instance of political overreaching and wishful thinking, something that we have learned through bitter experience not to do in recent years.
But not this time! Our hopes were realized as millions expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the war, corruption, mounting economic difficulties, the administrations incompetence, and other issues.
As punishing as the election results were to the administration, they were not a bolt from the blue, but rather culminated the steady deterioration in the standing and legitimacy of Bush and the Republican Party over the past two years. They are paying a stiff price for their arrogance, governing style, and reactionary policies.
They cant count on a congressional majority anymore, nor easily dismiss and demonize their opponents anymore. They cant rule unilaterally either at home or abroad anymore. They cant thumb their noses at those who raise concern about democratic and constitutional rights anymore. Nor can they even expect unconditional loyalty from their political base, or insist that the Republican congresspeople fall in line anymore.
The administrations political universe has changed, and Karl Roves hope of permanently realigning U.S. politics in a rightward direction for generations to come has crashed on the shoals of the November 7th elections.
The extreme right, however, is not a dead duck, just a very lame and dangerous one. Bush still wields the powers of the presidency; the right wing commands a significant presence in Congress; the courts lean in a conservative direction, and maybe that is putting it too mildly; the conservative movement, while fractured, is powerful, and Bushs partners in the military, energy, finance, and other industries havent filed for divorce yet.
Moreover, the right will surely attempt to regroup and bounce back in the near term and in 2008, but it wont be so easy. Political winds are blowing in a new direction and the long era of defensive struggles is yielding, not all at once, but yielding nonetheless to struggles that go in an offensive direction.
The task of the labor-led peoples coalition and of our Party therefore is to translate the November 7th victory into meaningful political, economic, and social reforms.
Broad coalitions that reach into Bushs mass constituency can easily be imagined in the months ahead. Labor, the nationally and racially oppressed, women, and other social forces are already pressing their issues.
The Iraq war is on everybodys agenda. The Democrats are pushing the issue in the Senate and House, with some support from their Republican counterparts. While they havent outlined their position in detail, opposition to Bushs escalation, support for an exit strategy, and cuts in funds to prosecute the war are its main elements.
Other issues that will figure prominently are a minimum wage hike, health care, union organizing rights, and immigration, to name a few.
Each of these has great organizing potential. They are made for broad coalitions and grassroots actions. The very same forces that organized on the ground in the lead up to the election will be in the center of these struggles,
Skillful tactics that combine the united front from above with the united front from below are what is needed.
The Democratic Party leadership has embraced many of these issues. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, notably the first woman to occupy that position, is charging ahead.
We should welcome this and, actually, not be surprised. After all, Democratic Party leaders are sensitive to two incontrovertible facts. First, the American people expect them to enact legislation, to govern in a bipartisan way, and to return some civility and integrity to the Congress. Second, Democratic leaders know full well that what they do this year will have a decisive bearing on their prospects for retaining control of Congress and winning the presidency in 2008.
So there is real pressure on the Democrats to produce. This gives the labor-led peoples movement leverage to press its legislative agenda, some of which corresponds to the legislative agenda of the Democrats.
At the same time, other legislative initiatives will come into play that the Democratic leadership is not ready to move on at this moment anyway. One is the Conyers health care bill. And there are others. But that should not be a reason for the peoples movement to sit on its hands.
While we should keep an eye on what is going on in the Democratic Party and influence the political dynamics in a progressive direction where we can, lets not get preoccupied by every twist and turn.
What happens inside Washington and in the Democratic Party is important, to be sure. But the main way that we are going to influence the legislative process is in the midst of the labor-led all-peoples coalition.
Most Pressing Task
Given the sea change in US politics, what is our role? How should we work? Should we change our strategic policy?
Although the Republican right took it on the chin, it still constitutes the main obstacle to social progress and peace. So a change of strategic policy is premature. At the same time, we have to make some adjustments in our tactics and political agenda.
The most pressing task is to reengage with the same movement with which we worked during the elections. As before, its core forces are labor, the nationally and racially oppressed, women and youth.
For the foreseeable future this movement will activate its own constituencies and advance its own agenda while working closely with the Democratic Party and especially its progressive and liberal groupings in Congress to combat the right-wing danger and win legislative victories.
While reengaging with this labor-led movement, communists (and the non-sectarian left) should also reach out to new forces; bring opposition to the war into every movement and struggle; combine vigorous opposition to racism with equally vigorous advocacy of broad unity; employ broad and flexible tactics much like we did in the elections, perfect the art of combining partial with more advanced demands, and give full support to independent political forms at the local level. (After all, in the longer term a key strategic goal is to establish an independent political party on the national level that is capable of challenging both parties for mass influence and political power.)
We should also be mindful of the fact that what happens this year will have a major bearing on the outcome of the 2008 elections elections that offer the opportunity to deliver a decisive defeat to the right.
The drawing of every club and every communist into these struggles is essential. Most clubs will be unable to give attention to more than one or two issues. Clubs, therefore, should think big, but thinking big and loading up the club plan of work with multiple club initiatives is not the same thing and can easily turn into a morale buster. Lets keep our plans simple and doable, but implement them boldly and broadly; lets find creative ways to link the national issues with local issues that are roiling the community or workplace and lets keep in mind the new terrain of struggle.
Building the Party and Press
In the course of deepening, extending, and assisting the labor-led peoples movement, we have another equally important task. You guessed it building the party and its press in the context of these struggles.
The growth of the Party in size and capacity bears decisively on our ability to assist the larger movement at this stage of struggle, to successfully traverse the ground to socialism.
Saying this doesnt mean that we trump other progressive, left, and socialist forces that are making an important contribution to the movement. But our Partys working-class character, treasure trove of experience, accent on unity, and ability to apply Marxism in a creative way means that we bring something to the plate that others dont.
What then do we have to do to grow the Party? What needs to change to build the Party in a many-sided way?
Some things are obvious. We need more members and more clubs. We urgently need a bigger readership for our press. We need to better integrate our mass work and Party work (this is a big and old challenge). We need more public forums and Marxist schools.
We need more, many more, members who are known as communists to their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow activists.
We need more organizational visibility too more people should know that there is a Communist Party, what we stand for, what we do, who we are.
We need a stronger presence on the internet.
We need a comprehensive system of Marxist education and leadership training.
We need more club chairs and comrades who give their best to their clubs as well as to the mass movements.
Having said all this, I believe that the most immediate task is to bring in new members. As much as we might like, we cant do everything at once.
Having comrades active in labor or other democratic organizations or left forms is not a substitute for a growing Party at the grassroots. A growing Party at the grassroots is the cornerstone of everything we do. Without it, our mass relations and everything else will limp, thus making it difficult to build and influence the labor-led coalition as the revolutionary process advances.
Or to put it differently, only a grassroots-based party has the political wherewithal to assist in building a particular kind of movement with the capacity to make its way through various phases of the revolutionary process, a process that will undoubtedly be complex and protracted.
We can all think of situations where two or three more communists would have made a real difference.
Think about how close many of the races for Congress were, and what a few additional communists could have done. Or imagine what a few more communists on a few more central labor bodies would mean, say, to the antiwar struggle or the upcoming fight around health care.
Say we increased the size of every club in the next year by two or three people. Wouldnt the club meetings change and the political possibilities grow? Wouldnt we begin to function differently and wouldnt it give everyone a lift?
You probably agree, but you are thinking to yourself: havent we said this before? Whats different this time? Why should we think that we can be successful now?
To begin, conditions are more favorable. On the one hand, the bankruptcy of right-wing extremism and neoliberal policies is evident to tens of millions. On the other hand, the movement is feeling its oats again. People are open to new initiatives and ideas. The mood is one of optimism.
I would also add that the image of the Party has changed for the better too. Our coalition partners see us differently. They appreciate our role, commitment, and skills. They see that we value unity. And they like many of our ideas and our modesty.
Does this mean that people are ready to join the Party in droves? No, but I would argue that recruitment could be steady and incremental. Of course, that will only happen if each of us step out and take some chances; only if each of us let more people know who we are; only if each of us asks people to join the Party or subscribe to our press; only if each of us sheds once and for all the remaining vestiges of a style of work and internal culture that were shaped by the Cold War. Although that period is long over, we havent fully put it behind us nor overcome the cautiousness and hesitancy it produces.
I am not suggesting that anticommunism has disappeared, but I will say unequivocally that it does not have anywhere near the potency that it did.
These changes have to start with the leadership. Each of us has to challenge ourselves to take the plunge and give new content to our work. Each of us and every collective have to organically join our mass work with Party and press building. In short, we have to reinvent our political culture and change our style of work not to mention develop a very concrete plan of Party and press expansion.
We have to evolve and evolve quickly to the point where EVERYONE is a Party and press builder. Will it happen overnight? No, but lets take the first steps. By the end of the year, is it realistic to think that half of our membership and three-quarters of our leadership will be active builders? A big challenge to be sure, but we can and we must do it.
I said earlier that growing the Party in size was the key link, but not the only link to strengthening the Party. So what else do we have to do?
We have to revitalize our clubs. But that wont happen overnight so the challenge is to identify the next one or two steps that will begin the process towards that goal.
One obvious step is for clubs to meet regularly, at least once a month; otherwise there is no continuity to the clubs work. A club that meets irregularly is a discussion circle. It isnt able to act and react to mass developments. Nor will it build the Party and our press. Of course, regular meetings themselves wont magically transform a club, but no one thing will.
Club meetings have to be conducted differently too. To be frank, most of us dont enjoy our club meetings. Theyre too administrative, too long, too poorly prepared, and sometimes one or two comrades dominate the discussion. Too often it feels like we are spinning our wheels.
Clubs should also have a territorially defined area of work (workplace or neighborhood). I know that it isnt easy to solve, but it might not be so hard either.
So how do we change this situation? I wont spend time describing an ideal club meeting probably we all have a pretty good idea of that. Nor will I speak to the issue of concentration, or of local struggles. What I will focus on is the change agent, that someone who is key to transforming the club.
Who is it? Its the club chair.
Where the chair is politically invested in the club, it makes all the difference in the world in how the club functions and its focus. The position of club chair is not yet seen as a primary political assignment for a comrade, but it should be. And we should appeal to comrades in the national committee and districts committees to volunteer to be club chairs, or if they cant to be part of the club leadership. This alone would make a big difference in our ability to successfully tackle this issue.
Its ironic that club leaders (along with district organizers) are probably the most important layer of leadership in our Party, and yet we dont provide much assistance to them. We talk about training seminars for club chairs, we talk about assisting the clubs chairs, and so forth, but our actions betray our words. We act as if it is enough to make long speeches, agitate, and give pat answers to sticky problems when the real task is to become acquainted with the clubs work and help it to figure out the next step or steps that will move the it forward.
Admittedly none of this will be easy, but is there an alternative? Although there are other ways to mobilize our membership, influence politics, and recruit new members, we make an irreparable mistake if we regularly bypass the clubs, especially if we want and we do want to bring every member into struggle, build the Party in working class and nationally and racially oppressed communities, and influence politics in a far more decisive way.
Building our press is essential if we are to grow the Party and influence the wider movement. The Peoples Weekly World (PWW) is our best tribune. No one else and nothing else is able to speak to and influence a wider audience quite as well as the paper. When it comes to going beneath the surface of events and giving activists a deeper view, the PWW does a far better job than any of us. In doing so, it builds the labor-led peoples movement as well as the Party.
If I had one criticism of the paper, it is this: its audience is too small. But responsibility for that shortcoming lies with the national leadership and with other party collectives. Our efforts to reach a bigger audience with the paper are very limited. How many clubs, how many leaders, how many members regularly circulate the paper? We know the answer to that question more or less. How then, do we change our attitude and approach? And we all agree, Im sure, that we have to change this situation.
Much the same could be said about Political Affairs, but with this caveat: it is more of an orphan, although PA through its own efforts has expanded its readership.
In addition to promoting our publications and establishing a distribution apparatus that reaches newsmakers and grassroots activists, we should take much better advantage of the Internet. Now we grossly underutilize it; we are missing an opportunity to reach an exponentially bigger audience. This must change.
We also should print our publications, pamphlets, and documents in Spanish if we hope to increase our visibility in the Latino community, especially among immigrants, many of whom because of their experience and history would be interested in the Party.
The Young Communist League is making waves among young people and that is something that brings us joy. But there has to be more, much more, to our relations with the YCL than this. Not only should we champion them and they us, but we should explore the political and practical ways to deepen our relations.
Some of the issues that we are grappling with growing the party, revitalizing the clubs, etc. are precisely what the YCL is addressing too. We should compare notes on this matter as well as organize regular exchanges on political questions. While we say that the YCL is an independent organization, it is not separate, nor is it independent ideologically and politically. Thats not an argument for sticking our noses into everything that the YCL does, but rather an appeal to regularize and improve the quality of our interactions with the YCL and to continue to work together on common concerns.
Finally, we should have a full discussion of Party education. The education commission is ready to present its thinking concerning the status of our educational work and offer some plans for going forward. A Communist Party that doesnt educate its own members as well as its friends is asking for trouble.
Now to some specific proposals:
1. We begin the planning for the fall regional conferences on Party, YCL, and press building.
2. We explore the idea of visiting 200 readers of the PWW who we dont know in the second half of next year.
3. We ask 15 clubs to organize recruiting meetings.
4. We establish a regional organizer system that will assist the Organizing Department.
5. We organize meetings in the main centers of the nationally and racially oppressed to discuss the status of the Partys work.
6. We hold club conferences as soon as we can.
7. We organize club leadership training seminars later this year.
8. We explore with the YCL leadership organizing a college speaking tour.
We have reached the end of this paper, but only the beginning of a Party-wide discussion on our nature, role, and tasks of the Party.
So let the discussion begin!