Extreme Makeover Goes Too Far


C.J. Atkins, in his recent article "Living in an Era of Change," expresses a desire for a bigger socialist movement. To achieve it, he prescribes an “extreme makeover” for the CPUSA: first dropping communist from its title; and second dropping the designation “party” and becoming instead a socialist group  within the Democratic Party.

In his own words, “I would suggest that we ponder whether it may be appropriate to drop not only the “communist” half of our title, but the “party” half as well.”

For comrade C.J., anti-communism is so deeply embedded it is impossible to overcome; “The communist ‘brand’ is undeniably sullied beyond reprieve for the vast majority of Americans,” he contends.

Impossible too are third party and independent efforts, though for different reasons. “Efforts to operate in the electoral arena in opposition to both the Democratic and Republican parties only results in splitting the center-left vote and helping the right wing back into office” C.J. says.

These ideas, while not necessarily related, seem born of a single ideological thread: a fixed, static and deeply pessimistic view of the flow of politics and ideas. Terms like “undeniably,” “sullied beyond reprieve,”  suggest no movement. Real life, however, offers little in the way of such absolutes.

The phenomenon of mass anti-communism is seen as seemingly immutable, existing outside of time and space. If C.J. is correct, today is no different than the 1950s. One  could just as well be jamming in 2010 with Lady Gaga while turning down the volume on Glenn Beck as hanging with “The Fonz” during the “Happy Days” of the McCarthy period.

So too with politics. Notwithstanding new avenues for political independence, particularly with the Internet, C.J. sees little movement outside of official Democratic circles, even with one third of the voting public being independent and one-half of those eligible not voting.

But, clearly, the U.S. has entered a new political moment. Heightened class and democratic struggle, the Great Recession and its aftermath, Obama ‘s ascent to the presidency, the assertive posture of the AFL-CIO, the growth of social networks, the counter-revolt of the extreme right, all have combined to produce an unprecedented situation – and opportunity.

U.S. ideological life is also in flux. A broad radicalization process with its roots in capitalism’s deep systemic crisis is at work. As polls repeatedly indicate, a broad left current flows in the streams of public consciousness: fully a third of America’s youth have favorable views of socialism.

Anti-communism too is not the force it once was.  Just recently in the deep south, a labor council bought an ad for the Illinois People's World annual banquet, congratulating the PeoplesWorld.org and its labor editor, John Wojcik, for a prize-winning article, an inconceivable event in the not too distant past. In Connecticut, state AFL-CIO leaders participate in PW events where the CPUSA anniversary is celebrated; in Cleveland a well-known communist, Rick Nagin, running in a non-partisan race for City Council received the city’s AFL-CIO endorsement and nearly won.

Granted, these examples are anecdotal and opposite ones could be found, but C.J. seems unaware. And for good reason. Experiences of party clubs, party press or activists are not offered, nor is other evidence presented.

Of course, there is no doubt that the communist movement while growing remains small. There is also little doubt that its problems are not unrelated to similar ones in the labor and democratic movements.

The socialist left and Marxists in particular face difficulties: in recent years sections of it have stagnated, declined, or disappeared all together. Non-Marxist democratic socialists, too, are facing similar challenges without significant growth.

The CPUSA from this standpoint has held its own with several hundred spontaneous applicants for membership a year for nearly decade. Its websites reach 5,000 readers a day, or 30,000 in a week. With all its weaknesses, the party has a national infrastructure and an experienced group of organizers and activists. This background unfortunately is missing from Atkin’s analysis.

Of C.J.’s two proposals, neither of which can be supported, the idea that the character of the party be changed is the most significant: “It is my belief that we could be more effectual operating as a socialist and working-class political organization which does not present itself as a 'party' as such,” he asserts.

There are several issues at stake here. Among them are the role a Marxist party, the concept of the necessity of the political independence of the working class, and historical precedents.

The role of the party

Comrade C.J.’s concept of what he would replace the CPUSA with is ambiguous. It seems the new group, while independent, would work in and through existing parties. “Our members can freely participate in the Democratic Party process, with the Working Families Party or other independent political formations, etc. as appropriate to the circumstances,” our writer suggests.

C.J. makes an important point in stressing the importance of electoral politics. It is certainly the case that in the U.S. the real stuff of politics and governance occurs through the two mass political parties. Here is where the action is and it is here, mainly through the vehicle of the Democratic Party, that the peoples' movement fights for its interests. Serious politics cannot stand apart from these struggles.

Also correct is his implicit criticism of a section of the U.S. left, including voices in the CP, that minimizes electoral struggle in general and show particular disdain for working with the Democratic Party.

For the foreseeable future Democratic Party circles will be an area of engagement for those wanting to make a difference.

That said, even with the growth of newly independent forces operating within the Democratic Party, it’s hard to see how the role of a communist party could be realized within these confines. Electoral work by itself cannot be understood as constituting the sum of a party’s activity, particularly a revolutionary party.

A fighting party’s role requires timely engagement in strikes or protests against evictions, police violence, racist, sexist and homophobic attacks etc. It has to constantly link these issues to the crisis of the system and advocate for its replacement. Building class unity, consciously developing socialist consciousness, the supreme importance of maintaining an independent financial structure, (without which political independence is a joke) are all vital aspects of its role. It is here that the fight for the short-and-long term interests of the working class is realized. This naturally requires a system of organization (clubs) and methods for making its views known and developing them (press/Internet, schools).

A working-class party therefore needs complete financial, organizational and political independence.

But what, it might be asked, of the newly independent groups in the Democratic Party? Are their experiences not suggestive? Do they not have freedom of movement and fundraising? And more importantly are they not contesting within the Democratic Party over its direction and program, with labor going toe-to-toe with capital? Is it not possible that trade unions and allied partners could win such a contest and turn it into an instrument of radical reform and change?

These are important questions and the answers are uncertain, depending largely on circumstances that cannot be foreseen. One does not have a crystal ball and even an unlikely outcome such as capturing the Democratic Party cannot be completely ruled out.

What is certain is that the CPUSA must be part of this broad struggle in which two trends – the old Democratic Party machine and the all peoples coalition – continue to coexist in cooperation and antagonism. What is also certain, however, is that in this great contest the working class component of this coalition has only one thing on which it can safely rely: its own capacity for self organization and defense of its interests.

While engaging in where the action is, it must also guarantee its independent action and initiative.

This suggests that the self organization as a political party of its most consciousness element, those with a scientific socialist outlook, has to be part of this effort, for even with independent efforts, awash in sea of big business money and local patronage politics, a socialist/communist oriented group would stand to lose more than its name.

Pitfalls of independence in DP

The rich experience of the left-of-center Rainbow Coalition and the historic bids of Rev. Jesse Jackson for the presidency is a case in point. When the Rainbow’s influence grew uncomfortable to business interests in the Democratic Party, the plug was pulled and its independent structure dismantled, leaving the organization a shell of its former self and Rev. Jackson with a short-lived TV show on CNN.

Indeed, 20 years later even President Barack Obama’s independent Organizing for America, its membership and fund raising lists became an issue in Democratic Party circles. The group’s initial reluctance to hand them over to the DNC was overcome only after the election of 2008.

There are other precedents from further on the left.  For example, previous efforts like Dorothy Healy’s New America Movement and the Communist Workers Party’s reincarnated New Democratic Movement found themselves unable to maintain organizational integrity to say nothing of ideological and political independence after going into the Democratic Party. Healey’s outfit merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (forerunner of DSA). And the CWP’s ill fated venture dissolved completely. Without a clear ideological mission, a firm political platform, an established working-class base and identity, such efforts are doomed to die a death of a thousand buy-offs and cuts: a job here, an appointment there, a spot as a prominent radio or TV talking head.

It must also be noted that Earl Browder’s earlier effort, the Communist Political Association, did not survive the Cold War or a bitter factional fight that resulted in a much weakened, though reconstituted Communist Party.

While the end of the Cold War certainly creates a different political climate for independent left efforts, the larger lessons remain: ongoing pressure from the right gnaws incessantly away at the structures of independence.

The growth of the danger from the extreme right has added to this problem, which leads us to the next point: how C.J. presents the CPUSA’s understanding of the right danger.

Premising his thesis on the capture of the GOP by the extreme right, C.J. argues that “not all elements of the progressive left have drawn the appropriate lessons from this historical development.”

That lesson of course is that third party and independent bids only strengthen the right.

Certainly this was the case with some Green Party races. Ralph Nader’s candidacies in particular, with its plague-on-both-your-houses politics, are examples of how such campaigns can contribute to the problem C.J. is concerned with.

On the other hand, third party and independent bids focused on the extreme right and big business, working in concert with progressive forces in the Democratic Party could play a very positive role as exemplified by Senator Bernie Sanders and the Vermont Progressive Party. 

While the Party’s tactical adjustment now requires more work alongside the Democratic Party, this cannot and should not preclude where possible other local alternatives. The lack of such CP-led campaigns after 1991 arises not so much from a lack of need, but from organizational weaknesses.

Party formation and membership

The matter cannot be left here, however, as C.J.’s argument for replacing the CPUSA flows at least in part from his appraisal of the differences between political parties in Europe and the U.S.

C.J. seems to suggest that communist parties were formed with a distinctly European model in mind. “The question here is not as simple to answer as it is in multi-party parliamentary systems ...,” he writes.

He continues. “political parties in the latter types of systems are organizations contesting for office around an agreed ideological platform and having official membership rolls. Communist parties … have historically been formed with such a system in mind.”

C.J. then asserts, “The CPUSA for instance, was formed as a political party in this sense.”

The CPUSA was “formed as a political party in this sense?” A more careful reading of the early histories of the parties of the Third International seems in order here. Such a review would show that most of these parties after their birth downplayed the need for electoral and parliamentary effort as the primary means of effecting change: influenced by the Bolshevik revolution, their eyes were on “seizing the state” not getting elected to Parliament. Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism was a response to to this problem. The early history of the CPUSA will show a parliamentary system was hardly in mind when it was created. The left social democrats and Marxists who founded the CPUSA adjusted fairly quickly to the U.S. experience.

But comrade C.J. has another point. In the U.S., he writes, "Political organization, especially as illustrated by the primary system for candidate selection, is relatively loose."

This is correct: U.S. politics employs a looser concept of party affiliation based on voter registration forms where one declares a political party. Voter preference is expressed in ballot casting.

In this respect, the Communist Party’s concept of membership is borrowed from one introduced with Lenin's thesis on the "party of a new type."

C.J.'s  main point seems to be that the Communist Party’s concept of membership which requires active participation in clubs is very different than the one understood by most Americans where less emphasis is placed on participating in a Democratic or Republican club.

The CPUSA’s own recent history reveals the degree of the problem. Several thousand people over the past decade have tried to join the Communist Party online, many of whom may still consider themselves “members” in the American understanding of the term. The Communist Party itself, however, because of the legacy of “cadre” concepts of the party has been disinclined until recently to accept them. Sadly, a decade of possible growth was lost.

In the age of the Internet and social networks, the CPUSA needs to completely break with the concept of a cadre party. It wasn’t correct even before the Internet; it certainly doesn’t fly today. In embracing social networks and the multi-platform possibilities of the Internet, the CPUSA will discover a dynamic method of press and party building.

Ideological Challenges

What then are the prospects for addressing the underlying problems of revitalization that C.J. seeks to solve? That the CPUSA can and should continue the process of reforming itself is beyond dispute. The question is on what ideological basis?

Comrade C.J.’s article raises this issue sharply. Saluting the party’s effort to revive itself, he goes on to pay tribute to its broader outlook and to a “open, innovative, and creative methodology that has – to a great extent – left behind the dogmatism and sectarianism of what passed for ‘Marxism-Leninism’ in the past.”

While sharing C.J.’s healthy respect for a creative methodology, the sweeping shot at “dogmatism and sectarianism of what passed for ‘Marxism-Leninism’ in the past” is unfortunate.

A more generous spirit toward the contributions of the men and women who led the U.S. communist movement in the 20th century would seem more in keeping with C.J.’s enthusiasm for a more open and creative Marxism.

Whatever the deficiencies – and there were some – to refer to the CPUSA’s ideological legacy as simply dogmatic is a mistake.

That a sectarian concept of Marxism-Leninism has become the rallying point of a smattering of factional individuals with a website, should not allow one to cast off a body of thought and practice in one fell swoop.

Indeed, a 21st century articulation of the socialist and communist idea must be built on an acknowledgement of both the accomplishments and mistakes of the past.

And regarding the mistakes one cannot be sparing: the single party state, the crimes of the Stalin and Pol Pot periods, the lack of democracy, over reliance on central planning, the skipping of stages, the U.S. CP’s  seemingly blind faith in the Soviet experiment of “real existing socialism,” ideological stiffness and onesidedness, all.

Here the issue is what is the best means to confront anti-communism? Cast off the name; disown it. Create distance from 20th century experience, in favor of a still undefined 21st century socialist project? Or critically assimilate it, condemning its crimes, historicizing its experiences, defending its achievements. It’s an important question: the “traditions of the dead generations” still weigh heavily and the countries still engaged in an attempt to build socialism will not go away.

This is not just a problem for the Communist Party: anti-communism is not just directed at the CPUSA. It is a challenge for the entire working-class and progressive movement as evidenced attacks by Glenn Beck, et al, on Obama, the labor movement and others. Without taking it on, like ruling-class racism, the entire working-class movement will not advance to its potential, will not even fully complete the anti-ultra right stage. The rejection of anti-communism is part of the rejection of anti-ultra right ideas by U.S. public. Martin Luther King Jr was correct in his call to end an acceptance of anti-Communism as if it was a method of scientific thought. If an advanced democrat and Christian like King understands this, can Marxists do less?

Unfortunately there is no getting around this long and difficult ideological struggle. 

But as has been suggested there is good news. The CPUSA is holding its own and changing. For a decade its leadership has fought for a deeper involvement in mass movements and electoral work. In 2008 it built a new web portal, reestablished the daily Marxist press, and is attempting to master social networking. Members who join online are now treated more seriously.

In so doing it is laying the basis for building a much bigger party, but there are no shortcuts. There are however more effective means. A qualitative improvement in the level of organization will result in greater quantitative growth. Any concept of renewal and party growth that stands apart from these means seem illusory.

There are no magic wands, no "extreme makeover” that will result in sudden spurts of growth.

The only path forward seems to be the slow steady political, ideological and organizational work of building the CPUSA as a working-class political party around its main strategic concepts and with a firm ideological foundation and program.

On such foundation, the Party should not be afraid to boldly experiment. Here thought should be given to reviving the idea of creating online a group called “bill-of-rightssocialism.org" that would work along the CPUSA and others in advocating the socialist idea.

In addition, the CPUSA should consider new forms of party organization on and offline with a much broader concept of membership.

The CPUSA’s public presence, greatly narrowed because of attrition and some retrenchment must be given much more attention. Advertising on social networks and cable should be given every consideration. “Rebranding,” a concept borrowed from capitalist marketing techniques, can and should be based on a class struggle basis.

Those who say that even with this, Communists will never gain mass acceptance should be reminded of the rapidly shifting thought patterns of the generations coming into political life today. 

In this rapidly changing political environment, the seemingly impossible can become possible. In this regard one need only recall how many in our ranks and beyond considered it impossible that an African American could be elected president, particularly one who was incessantly red-baited.

As is evident in retiree organizations like SOAR and AFSCME, even among the oldest generations there are significant declines in anti-communism. And while among this group there may be less of a chance of escaping the Cold War influenced public perception of who we were, that is not true among workers who are now coming of age. It is here that we will shape the concept of who we can and must become.

Photo by docpi, Flickr, cc by 2.0

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  • A primarily -- but not exclusively -- ELECTORAL formation that unites the left of the workers movement for 2012 is the immediate challenge, and the one to which views on the role of the CPUSA should be subordinated. Mass actions beyond the electoral arena are also needed. If we succeed in moving the left (including ourselves) in a coherent and significantly expanded manner into the election preparations, then I believe more basic questions regarding 21st Century 'socialism' and 'communism' will be subject to much more concrete, and less abstract, answers.

    I thought Jim Lane's retort to the name change proposal was the most interesting. Actually, I think he was quoting Judith LeBlanc to the effect. "If we changed our name, we would be dishonest -- we ARE the Communist Party."

    My reply is: The reverse is true. What we ARE and, have been, at our best, for the past 40 years of my experience is a party of radical working class democracy and empowerment. Our projected vision of 'bill of rights socialism' itself is more comparable to the RSDLP of 1905 -- democracy plus the right to agitate for more socialism -- than to any orthodoxy or agenda involved with the history of Russia after 1917, or the USSR.

    Calling the deeds we have done, the struggles we have waged, the blood and tears shed, the heroes and heroines who have laid down their lives for the rise of the working class -- and NOT to rise above it -- 'Communists' is not dishonest -- although the popular definition of 'communist', even on the left, hardly fits. But neither is it the right or correct name for what we are, and what, for the forseeable future, we will be.


    Posted by John Case, 12/02/2010 2:22pm (12 years ago)

  • If you believe you have the right to steal the wealth someone else creates through their work, you might be a capitalist.

    Posted by Freerman, 12/02/2010 1:12pm (12 years ago)

  • If you believe you have a right to take someone else's earnings(wealth)....you might be a communist.

    Posted by Freeman, 12/02/2010 9:56am (12 years ago)

  • Communism leads to dependence of the government and the destruction of liberty and individuality.

    Posted by Freeman, 12/02/2010 9:53am (12 years ago)

  • A very good article. I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis and conclusions.

    Posted by Diane Mohney, 11/30/2010 9:32pm (12 years ago)

  • Extremely interesting and positive for our movement is this Joe Sim article and reference to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.(as was Terrie Albano's on this same subject).
    The historical materialist would be very specific about the authentic and unique sources of revolutionary activity,in a given nation,especially in its internationalist connection,building peace and unity.
    The work of MLK,in the United States of America,his rejection of anti-communism,his embracing of the Mohandas K. Ghandi "Soul Force",the internationalist and Pan-Africanist genius of our own W.E.B. Du Bois,all point to peace,the end of poverty,repression and the pivotal role of people of color,with all people as workers,in this.
    Also,the important work of Gerald Horne,one of our historians,revolves about this theme.
    We proudly re-enter this pro-communist,pro-labor peace tradition of MLK,especially in the computer age.
    Here too,in this article,with specific suggestions,brother Joe Sims offers real solutions to the problems raised in this age and era,under these specific conditions.
    By following in the paths of giants of peace,equality and justice,laid down by leaders like MLK,Du Bois,O'Casey and Neruda,we can reach our goals,which were those of the latter.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 11/30/2010 4:36pm (12 years ago)

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