(I presented this nearly 10 years old ago to the National Board of the CPUSA. I’m posting it because it has, I believe, some relevance to today’s struggles and challenges. Much of it holds up pretty well, I believe; some things not so much. It’s slightly edited here and there.)
July 18, 2013
This report will do more than catalogue my three weeks on the road. I’m going to make some observations that will speak to some of our current policies and practices, probably in more depth than we normally do in a report of this kind. And I will raise some problems and challenges, not with the idea that we will resolve them at this meeting, but with the hope that we can think and talk in preparation for the convention.
First, a few details: I visited seven states and 12 cities, participated in 14 meetings, and spoke to roughly 200 party and YCL members and friends.
None of the meetings were big, but I didn’t think they would be. The whole tour was organized on short notice.
At each meeting, I spoke extemporaneously on the building of a transformative movement for about 15-20 minutes. And a lively and free flowing discussion and questions followed. This format worked well. It allowed for give and take, follow-up comments and questions, and, I think, a deepening of everyone’s political understanding.
In most meetings, I began by quoting Antonio Gramsci, who in Prison Notebooks wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
In my view, this captures the present moment, in which the forces for social progress and socialism do not yet have the political, organizational, and ideological capacity to resolve the current crisis of capitalism, a crisis that is many sided, deep seated, life threatening, and, global in scope, in a radical democratic and working class manner.
Now to some observations gleaned from the tour.
First, the reaction to the notion of “building a transformative movement” (and I spelled that out) was very positive. This tells me that people are looking for a way to get beyond the present impasse, to move to higher ground, to be part of a powerful movement that possesses the capacity to open the doors to a new era characterized by peace, economic security, equality, planetary sustainability, and substantive democracy.
Admittedly, my brief presentation didn’t fully answer that desire, but people welcomed the fact that I spoke to it, that I attempted to visualize a different future beyond the pain and hardship of the present moment.
All of which got me to thinking about whether if in earlier presentations of our positions, I have allowed the struggles of the present to take up all the oxygen in the room, to the neglect of a vision of an emancipatory movement and future, in which “justice rolls down like a mighty stream.”
I would like to think I haven’t, but my suspicion is that sometimes out of haste, or in an effort to counter dogmatic and sectarian pressures (and there are plenty in the Party and left generally), or just from insufficient political imagination, I may have failed to sufficiently throw light on the dialectical connection between the present and the future.
In other words, in my political rendering the struggle against the right wing became in many instances a thing in itself, disconnected from the wider class offensive, a distant cousin or no relation at all to more advanced political and economic tasks, and missing a vision of a future “beloved community.”
Here we have a worthy subject for preconvention discussion and long after. It is, after all, a dialectic that will be with us for the long run – not to mention require timely, creative and sometimes radical rethinking as conditions of struggle change.
Another observation is that the discussion from the mini-tour forced me to think a little differently about the struggle for reforms. And this happened in a roundabout way.
A participant in Oakland quoted my presentation to the April membership conference in which I said that the American people are in a “reform state of mind.” He then went on to disagree, arguing that we should make the struggle for socialism into our main organizing issue.
In reply, I said that although socialism’s appeal has grown, it isn’t the main issue of struggle for millions of Americans.
I went on to say that expressing a positive attitude towards socialism is one thing; but it is another thing to say that millions embrace it with their heart and soul. So far the American people in significant numbers haven’t done that. Socialism doesn’t yet frame their perceptions of everyday life nor shape their everyday actions.
But what they have eagerly embraced, I argued, is a growing disposition to fight for reforms. And then I went on to mention some specific struggles that are drawing people into one or another form of political activity.
When I finished, however, I had a feeling that my answer, while not wrong, was inadequate; there was something left unsaid that needed airing to round out my reply.
But only later did two things dawn on me that shouldn’t have been said in my reply:
First, the struggle for reforms is much more of an elastic concept than I allowed for. Under certain conditions, it can include reforms that are deep going and radical. But I didn’t say that in my first swipe at the question. I gave the impression that the struggle for reforms is only trench warfare, small bore with progress measured in inches.
While that is the case in most instances, in an unstable political environment the balance of forces can shift quickly, in which case narrowly circumscribed reforms give way to reforms that change to one degree or another the structures, dynamics, and forms of governance of U.S. capitalism. This happened in the Depression years.
The other thing that dawned on me is that the place of our socialist vision in reform struggles was treated like a distant cousin. This too was my a mistake. Our vision of socialism doesn’t have to be nor should it be, to employ a metaphor, on the “front burner” in every struggle, but it should be somewhere on the stove. And this is especially so when the willingness of people to entertain the idea and its necessity for humankind’s survival is factored into the equation.
But for our vision of socialism to resonate with a broad audience, it has to be deeply democratic, humane, attuned to the sensibilities and challenges of this century, and, not least, express an awareness of the major internal deficiencies and historic defeat of 20th century socialism. The challenge is go to forward to socialism, not backward. But that can only happen if we set aside simplistic explanations, inherited answers, and rote formulas. Instead the challenge is to critically look at the past, while taking account of today’s realities. Easier said than done for sure. This too should be a part of our preconvention period.
Another observation from my trip is that acknowledging the frustration and to a degree demoralization that many people feel – even expressing my own frustration with the pace of change – was a good note to strike; it allowed me to connect with the audience. We don’t always have to be the “official optimists;” we don’t always have to be on the sunny side of the street, especially when the grounds for a fair weather forecast haven’t yet materialized.
Our challenge is to capture the contradictory nature of life, struggle, moods, and broad trends. What we should bring to the fore is a multi-faceted reality in which the inevitable problems and obstacles to freedom combine with new possibilities that, if seized by millions, make the expansion of freedom’s boundaries possible, if not immediately, then in the course of protracted struggle.
But this hasn’t always been our practice. For example, we suggested on many occasions that the radicalization of the working class – not to mention 20th century socialism – moved along a steadily ascending line, perhaps with a hiccup or two. But to make that claim entails a nearly complete rewriting of history.
While optimism allowed us to note the “fresh winds” in the working class and labor movement that took shape in the 1980s, its downside was that it blinded us to other processes that were fracturing, disuniting, and disempowering the working class. This isn’t an unimportant matter; our assessments shape what we think, say, and do as well as affect the confidence and credibility that others have in us.
In recent years, I would argue our assessments have acquired a more dialectical character, that is, an appreciation of the competing and contradictory trends and tendencies in the working class and other movements. Two examples come to mind: the new labor document authored by Scott and Bobbie’s presentation at the April conference. Neither demoralized anyone – rather they allowed for contradiction and complexity, while offering solutions, but no easy answers to difficult problems and challenges. I would argue that this method is the only basis for radical politics.
Still another observation: we need a more nuanced and rounded assessment of the Democratic Party and the Obama administration. Too many think that we are uncritical in our support of Democrats and possess no vision of political independence, either within the framework of the Democratic Party or beyond it. And I’m not talking about the sectarian left who on principle condemn the Democrats and any participation in two party electoral politics. In their view, only independent politics outside the two party system and movement building in the streets matters.
Now I am not suggesting that we do an about-face with respect to the Obama administration or the Democratic Party. But we must make a bigger effort to present our approach to electoral politics in a more full-blooded, clear, and (here’s that word again) dialectical way.
We have said, and should continue to say, that the Democratic Party is an essential player in any conceivably realistic strategy for defeating the Republican Party and right-wing extremism. And that remains a necessity if the working class and its allies are to move to a higher stage of class and democratic struggle – not to mention a new level of political independence.
Moreover, any idea that labor and the democratic forces will simply abandon the Democratic Party and quickly track toward a third party is wishful thinking and wrongheaded. Yes, there is a good deal of grumbling (and for good reasons) with the political orientation, mistaken policies, and cautiousness of the Obama administration and Democratic Party leaders, but there is little stomach for bolting the party on the part of the very forces that would constitute the core of any viable independent politics and party. We (and others) may wish otherwise; but the evidence for it is not there.
I’m also not convinced that the conditions for the formation of a new party will materialize anytime soon. Looking back at our literature over the past half century we conveyed, too often in my opinion, the impression that a new, mass-based political formation, while not imminent, wasn’t that far away either, if not this election cycle, maybe the next or the one after that.
I can understand that sentiment, but I believe its roots lie more in frustration and magical thinking than reality. What is the lesson in this? Our assessments (and the strategic and tactical guidelines) that follow from them, can’t rest on revolutionary sentiment and temper. Instead, they have to be shaped by concrete conditions of struggle, the existing balance of class and social forces, and the readiness of millions to move in new directions in a sustained and practical way. Our desires and militant spirit shouldn’t determine our policies.
In the meantime, the Democratic Party (whose disposition for reform, especially at the top, is constrained by its class anchorage and its commitment to creating favorable conditions for the accumulation of capital and the smooth reproduction of the system as a whole), will be an unreliable and inconsistent, but absolutely necessary ally of the broader people’s movement and a place where millions of good people and their social organizations are found at this stage of struggle.
Since the crisis of 2008, the Democratic Party leadership has effected some adjustments to new political and economic realities, but neoliberalism still, albeit in a reformed version, continues to be the disposition of the centrist forces in that party by and large.
And this will change only to the degree that the main mass forces of this broader coalition battling the right, the corporate offensive, and neoliberalism gain in strength, deepen unity and understanding, increase substantially representation in elective offices, and defeat right wing Republicanism next year and in 2016. A tall order!
Moving on to another observation from my trip. Some of our members are imprisoned by symbols, images, and terms that are from a bygone era. In too many instances, they are at the core of their political identity and political self-definition.
In other words, a word, a slogan, or a name is the embodiment and the defining core of their politics. They embrace, for example, “Marxism-Leninism” – but not a marxism that requires rigorous study; not a marxism that is dialectical, self critical, and open to new experience; not a marxism that is the analytical basis of a specific set of strategic and tactical guidelines and concrete practices; not a marxism that looks at the world and politics through a wide angled lens; not a marxism that searches for a peaceful, constitutional and democratic path to socialism; not a marxism that seeks an increasingly bigger footprint in the electoral/parliamentary arena; not a marxism that employs class to enlarge our vision and enrich our approach to popular alliances; not a marxism that appreciates the interpenetration – not the separation and autonomy – of different forms of subordination, oppression, and exploitation; not a marxism that draws insights from other marxist traditions and radical social theory generally; and not a marxism that is sunk first of all in our nation’s history, customs, values, and democratic and radical heritage.
I said in my presentation on 21st century socialism that we should reconsider the wisdom of resting our theoretical foundations on what is called “Marxism-Leninism. “ I continue to think that it became in the 20th century a closed system in many ways, prone to simplistic, schematic, and reductionist formulas, and suspicious of and separated from other Marxist and radical currents from whom we have much to learn.
Furthermore, in assuming the franchise of official interpreter of all matters theoretical, our (communist) movement not only kept a distance from important conversations that were going in Marxism and radical social theory, but we turned off many people who should have been our friends with our arrogance.
Even someone like Antonio Gramsci, the great communist leader and marxist theorist, who obviously is within our tradition, was considered suspect. Now no one ever said quite that, but on the other hand, his writings were never recommended. And I could easily go on and mention many other examples of people who were working in the Marxist tradition who either went unappreciated or were even dismissed out of hand by us. We should revisit these issues in the preconvention period too.
Still another observation is that anti-communism not only makes some of our friends uncomfortable and turns off many sections of the larger public, but it is also something that makes many of our own members uncomfortable once they move beyond party and left circles. While most of us are understandably and rightfully emotionally attached to the party and its history, many also feel that our name gives those who don’t share our views a negative idea and image of what we stand for and who we are. More than a few members and leaders sense this and act accordingly.
This problem came up in not one or two meetings, but in nearly every meeting. I explained that there are different degrees of openness; not everyone is a public communist. How open someone is not a matter of principle, but a tactical question; it depends on circumstances.
But on another level, it is fair to ask: is the name more trouble than it is worth? Should we consider another name that would better capture our values, politics, and aims? At any rate, it is a question that we should discuss in greater depth. I’m sure that there are many different and strongly felt opinions on this matter, but that shouldn’t prevent such a discussion.
Another observation from my tour is that the leadership depth and breadth of the YCL across the country is very thin. Though I met new and promising members on the tour, they were still few in number and most of them were limited in experience and understanding.
This is not a new problem; it goes back longer than I care to think, and in my view it is why we have had such trouble building a viable marxist youth organization. A prerequisite for such an organization is a critical mass of young, politically attuned leaders. Without it, it is nearly impossible to sustain and grow a marxist youth organization, which our past and present experience abundantly confirms.
Forms of organization are not a matter of principle. They rest on material conditions, not on what we did decades ago, not on some one sided and undialectical reading of Lenin. The mechanical copying and repetition of decontextualied phrases from a bygone era imprison us to outdated forms of thinking and organization, and in the end are a fool’s errand. Here too, a fresh and objective look at this matter during preconvention period is necessary.
Three more quick observations on disparate subjects.
First, too many of our members and even some leaders have a one-sided notion of our party’s role in the Depression years. The archetypal image is that of the militant communist carrying back furniture into the people’s homes.
That is, no doubt, inspiring and makes us proud. But to see it as the defining feature of the Party in that period is at best one-sided, and, at worst, skews and even distorts how we understand our “independent” role.
What was distinctive about the party’s role and what explains the Party’s growth in influence and size in the 1930s was the u-turn in policy and practice that we made in the second half of the decade. It included a rejection of sectarian politics, slogans, images, and practices, a turn from dogmatism in theory, and a rejection of a model of socialism and socialist politics shaped almost exclusively by the Soviet experience..
It was this strategic and political turn, in the first place, that explains our outsized role in the movements of that time — not to mention the building of a mass party, press, and presence. We should consider some initiatives to educate our members and friends about this critical piece of our history.
My second disparate observation is that although our united front style of work is increasingly embraced as a policy, I was struck by the limited ability of many members to apply it in concrete conditions. This is not so much a criticism of the membership as it is of the leadership. We obviously need to be more hands-on, more concrete, and more practical.
And finally, this: a couple of comrades asked me how long I have been the National Chair. I told them 14 years, which reminded that one of the main challenges for the convention will be to elect a new national leadership that is able to lead the party in times that are both daunting and exciting.