Gus Hall, the chair of the Communist Party, USA for 4 decades — I was a coworker in the late 1980s and 1990s — didn’t coin the phrase Bill of Rights socialism, but he certainly breathed new life into it. Gus’s recharging of this term wasn’t done on a whim, but came on the heels of the sudden implosion of the Soviet Union. In his view, this world shaking event was directly traceable to the “right opportunist” leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev (as if a calcified party resisting economic renewal, renovation, and democratization had no role), the inept ideological work of the Soviet party (as if the gap between the day to day life of ordinary Soviet citizens and the party’s ideology wasn’t a source of deep discontent and cynicism among ordinary people), and the backwardness of the Soviet people (as if people aspiring for social renewal and democracy is worthy of calumny and derision).
But Gus, who was shrewd, if he was anything, was well aware that tens of millions of Americans didn’t share his point of view. As they saw it, the sudden collapse of the first and most powerful land of socialism, with barely a scintilla of resistance from the Soviet people, was the result of the anti-democratic nature and economic dysfunction of Soviet society. Rather than challenge this popular understanding, Gus pivoted away from what he considered an unwinnable fight and turned his attention to a far easier lift, reviving the phrase “Bill of Rights” socialism.
On its face there is nothing wrong with attaching Bill of Rights to socialism, as Gus did. In fact, it makes good sense. Socialism, if it is to be viable and authentic, should organically embrace and grow out of a country’s democratic (and class and national) experience and traditions. Socialism, disconnected from such experience and traditions, will never fire the imagination of millions nor provide the gateway and architecture to building a new society.
But in making this pivot, Gus dodged an area of inquiry that should have commanded his (and the rest of the party’s) attention, that is, a serious, self critical, and uncompromising effort to understand what in the thinking of U.S. communists allowed them/us to so easily make democracy in the Soviet Union and other socialist states subordinate, conditional, and expendable to the “imperatives” – as they/we understood them – of building and consolidating working class power and the socialist state under the singular and undisputed tutelage of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
While lifting up the struggle for democracy here (although even here, our rigid and narrow concept of class, wariness of non-traditional, multi- tendency movements, among other reasons, turned us into critics of gay liberation, environmentalism, second wave feminism, Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, and so on), Gus never expressed even a whisper of concern about the well-known undemocratic practices and features of Soviet society, not least the monopolization of the media, a single party state, and the trashing and incarceration of its domestic critics.
But none of this should surprise anyone. After all, Gus/we thought, because the Soviet working class led by its vanguard party was in power, democratic rights, inscribed in the Soviet Constitution, were substantive, the means of production were public/social property, its foreign policy was beyond reproach, and the USSR was entering its “developed socialist stage” on its way to communism.
Moreover, the “dissidents,” in our calculus, were few in number and “petit bourgeois” in their habits and outlook. They were found, we argued, only on the edges of society. And never were there enough of them to fill the public square.
But we never asked ourselves: why would Soviet citizens publicly dissent en masse, knowing that their arrests were likely, convictions assured, and long jail sentences probable? If we had looked beyond our own understanding, we would have found that the location of dissent in Soviet society took place, not in Red Square, but in kitchens and other safe spaces where dissent wouldn’t earn you a billy club to the head and an “unplanned and long vacation” to a location that was anything but a summer resort.
We were, in effect, prisoners of a mistaken understanding of class and socialist partisanship, as well as captured by outward appearances, formalized thinking, and a siege mentality, reinforced by the pressures of the Cold War and a top down leadership structure. Our defense of the Soviet Union wasn’t prima facie wrong. Anti-Sovietism, after all, was a powerful political and ideological weapon of the ruling circles in the U.S., designed to legitimize a constantly expanding military budget, imperialist adventures, and a network of military bases and alliances worldwide on the one hand and portray the Soviet socialism as a failed experiment and a remorseless, expansionary “Evil Empire” on the other hand.
In our zeal to defend “Soviet Power,” however, we dismissed any criticism of Soviet socialism, no matter the source or the argument. It was no more than anti-Soviet animus and tantamount to siding with the enemy, U.S. imperialism, we said. This deeply embedded mindset at every level of the party left no space for a concrete, honest, and many sided evaluation of the Soviet Union, including its centralized bureaucracy, endemic corruption, one-man, one-party rule, and a hollowed out democracy..
Admittedly, I drank the Kool Aid too, up until the mid-1990s. But the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a nasty (and looking back, unnecessary) breakup of the party later the same year left me with a smoldering, but still inarticulate, feeling that something was awry in our politics, ideology, and culture.
When commingled with my growing reservations in the leadership of Gus and his very loyal assistant in the years that followed, I began to develop a critical – in a sense subversive – eye. But I wasn’t the only one. Some other members of the leadership did as well.
Still it was 10 years before Gus stepped down at nearly 90 years old, and even then he needed a nudge.
Now the recounting of this experience may feel like ancient history to most young activists with little relevance to today’s movements and struggles. And maybe that is so. Nevertheless, I will take the liberty and run the risk of derision (at my age and situation in life, it’s not something that worries me) by making a few brief observations.
First, solidarity extended to socialist and anti-imperialist governments and movements should rest on more than their rhetorical claims (which are easy to make) or formal markers of their success (which are to easy to declare) or a shared worldview. Decisions of this kind require independent and critical analysis and judgment.
Second, social justice and left organizations should resist a few making decisions for the many. The latter may seem efficient, but only in the short run, and even in the short run, top down decision making can quickly become come back to bite the vitality and unity of an organization, as I learned the hard way. Admittedly, the creation of a democratic and open ended political culture that encourages critical, collaborative, creative thinking and collective decision making is a challenging task that experience tells us can go off the rails.
Third, the training of a broad and deep team of able leaders and activists who are courageous, modest, good listeners, and think analytically and independently is a foundational cornerstone of any live, growing, and successful organization or movement.
Fourth, a collective readiness to soberly and unflinchingly acknowledge in a timely way mistakes of policy and practice is imperative, though much easier said than done. Ignoring, minimizing, or, worse still, claiming victory in defeat is an appealing option. But such a choice at some point will come back to bite you. Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial leader of Guinea-Bissau decades ago advised as well as warned, and its lost none of its contemporaneity. “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” We failed to master this mode of thinking in the Communist Party.
Finally, theoretical and policy development, such as the relationship between class and democracy, should resist simplifications, designated interpreters, and prescribed boundaries of inquiry. It should allow for complexity and contradiction, insist on independent, continuous elaboration, and practice a method of analysis that is historical and dialectical.