Recently, I had coffee with a historian. We discussed the Communist Party, although not in any comprehensive way. Below is a letter I sent to him following the conversation.
1. As far as Gus is concerned, I would only add that Gus saw himself as a first-class political thinker and Marxist-Leninist, irrespective of whatever status and honors he was accorded by the Soviet Party. Moreover, his high self regard was regularly reinforced in day-to-day party life. The accolades he received when visiting the Soviet Union were more “frosting on the cake.”
2. The form of decision making was collective in form, but personalized in substance. While collective bodies regularly met, it was Gus who set the agenda, determined the boundaries for discussion, and insistecd on adherence to those boundaries, but not alone. He had the help of his most loyal supporters. I was on both sides of this dynamic, although, to be honest, longer as a gatekeeper to my regret now.
3. Wiki mentions that according to Mike Meyerson and Charlene Mitchell, Gus lived a “bourgeois life.” That’s an exaggeration, actually simply wrong. His home in Yonkers was large, but not luxurious, and he had a modest place in South Hampton. I visited both and neither was even close to “bourgeois.” What they could have said (and more accurately) is that Gus lived considerably better than most of us on the party payroll. Our wages were low and our lifestyles were extremely modest.
4. Very few members joined the party because of their admiration for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union figured prominently in our party’s political, ideological, and cultural galaxy. But when it came to joining and remaining in the party, it was nearly always existing US capitalism and its depredations, not existing Soviet socialism, that brought most of us into the party orbit and kept us there. Were we shaken by the nearly overnight evaporation of Eastern European and Soviet socialism? For sure, but very few at the time were ready to give up on socialism. As for exiting the party, that’s another matter. Many left, which brings me to the split in the party.
5. The split and factional fight in the party in 1991 has its genesis in the differences and tensions – including the top down and personalized nature of our deliberative and decision making structure – that had been brewing within the party long before the Soviet Union went belly up. Some go back to the 1960s. Nevertheless, the ascendency of Mikhail Gorbachev, a young, energetic and democratic-minded reformer in 1984, and socialism’s implosion not long after, each in their own way heightened these tensions and divisions. Moreover, the party’s convention in 1991, only a few months after the failed coup in the USSR provided a platform for the internal differences to reach a boiling point and for nearly half of the leadership and membership to leave the party. Only later did I realize that there were no winners in this clash. Perhaps it could have been avoided if Gus Hall on his own initiative or at the urging of his closest supporters had stepped down in favor of a collective leadership, representing both sides of this factional fight.
6. That our political culture was defensive and resistant to change was due in part to the tumultuous nature of its first decades and the political repression encountered during that time. No other political grouping on the left, I believe, faced anywhere near the type of scrutiny and repression that the party did. In saying this, I’m not expecting anyone to rescue us, as the great marxist historian E P Thompson rescued “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity,” but I would say that any assessment and history of the party that is stripped from the pressures, possibilities, circumstances, and context of that era will come up wanting. It seems to me in the writing of history, an answer to the question why it happened is as important as what happened. Narrative is necessary, but not sufficient to capture the nature and dynamics of social phenomena in general and the party’s history in particular.
7. Though the party was small from the late 50s on, it always had a layer of leaders and activists who were both devoted and well connected to mass organizations and movements. In many instances, they were leaders. That wasn’t always obvious to outside observers, including historians, because the vast majority of party activists in the aftermath of McCarthyism and during the Cold War didn’t function as public communists for understandable reasons in many cases. Thus, the political and practical contribution of the party in many fields of struggle went unnoticed.
8. In much of the party, we acted as if we had a nearly unblemished record over the long arc of the party’s life. But only a moment of reflection should have disabused us of that thought. Any serious rendering would acknowledge that we made plenty of mistakes and took more than a few wrong turns, some egregious. Nevertheless, other than critically pointing to Earl Browder and Browderism, we resisted any serious examination of our history, theory, and practice. Never a good idea if you want to stay relevant. It wasn’t until after the convention in 1991 that I began to look critically at the party and my own role.
Our antenna, instead, was trained on any expression of what we called right opportunism and revisionism. This, as you can imagine, had a stultifying effect on internal life and deliberations, on any discussion beyond prescribed bounds, and on mass initiatives. As National Chair, I and some others made an effort to shift our focus, widen our angle of analysis, rethink our past, and change our culture, but without much success. For this and other reasons, I stepped down as National Chair in 2014 and resigned my membership two years later.