The other way around

In an election newsletter, Sochie Nnaemeka, NY Working Families Director, writes “In this past election, we saw the impact of this overlap and coordination in the Hudson Valley, with strong field energy and progressive momentum behind WFP-endorsed Assembly candidate Sarahana Shrestha helping to fuel Pat Ryan’s successful election bid to Congress.”

Actually, having lived in Kingston, I believe Pat Ryan’s successful bid for Congress, not once, but twice, fueled and brought Sarahana Shrestha across the finish line, not the other way around. Ryan is a very popular, well respected political leader in the Hudson Valley. Prior to running for Congress, he was the county executive of Ulster County. including at the height of the Covid pandemic. And in that capacity he performed his responsibilities skillfully and in close consultation with county residents.

Am I making a big deal out of nothing? I don’t think so. An understanding of the relationship between the left and others in the anti-MAGA coalition is crucial at this conjuncture. It isn’t a one way street or zero sum game. To the contrary, it should be cooperative and mutually reinforcing as well as contested. Dynamic not static. Rooted in concrete conditions, not abstractions and past experience. And the strenghening and unity of the movement as a whole should figure as an overarching task of the social justice movement.

As an old comrade of mine loved to say, if it only took the left to change the world, we would have done it a long time ago.

David Crosby

Don’t let the past, remind us what of we are not now … Listening to CSN and CSNY … Great Harmonies/Great Songs

No basis for negotiations

Putin reportedly said in a recent meeting with Turkey’s president that he is open to a serious dialogue with representatives of Ukraine “under the condition that the Kiev authorities meet the clear demands that have been repeatedly laid out and recognize the new territorial realities.”

This isn’t a basis for negotiations, but surrender on the part of the Ukrainians. Why would they enter into negotiations on this condition? And yet, many on the left seem unaware of or simply ignore Putin’s bargaining posture, while insisting that the Ukrainians agree to talks with the Russians.

To Leslie

I just watched “To Leslie.” By far the best movie I have seen in a while, or maybe a long time. It should win multiple academy awards. If you haven’t seen it, see it! You won’t regret it.

On the Communist Party

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.

Share This