Growing the Communist Party: Looking at Organizing Methods in a Historical Context


Millions of Americans, especially young ones, prefer socialism to capitalism. The capitol domes in state after state ring with the voices of tens of thousands of labor activists and their allies. The need for study and popular explanation of tactics of unity is urgent. Who could NOT want a much larger Communist Party – one with the capacity to engage with millions?

I agree with Tony Pecinovsky’s recent article, "Organizational Rubric, Power and Relevance: A Close Look At a Proud Organization," that the Communist Party needs to get in fighting trim. Tony gets right to the point: We should not spend our resources on activities that do not build that capacity.

The Communist Party needs to change and it needs to change fast. We’re not open enough to volunteers. Not open enough to member initiatives. There’s too much waiting for the go-ahead from on high. Too much worry about doing things exactly right rather than not doing them at all. Too much feeling that this is OUR party and not that of the whole class and especially that of the younger generation.

We need a quicker response time – we literally need to get back to new members within 24 hours, not 24 days. We need to be open to other forms of organization and points of engagement in addition to clubs. We need to be willing to experiment to provide every form of participation and connection possible. And we need to build our organization corresponding to how people and this generation live, open to different levels of participation. Just because we always did something some way doesn’t mean it is still right. And yes, we do need to meet deadlines and carry out tasks.

I share Tony’s frustration with organizational practices that are too often big on talk but slow on action.

But the distinction Tony proposes between ideology and getting results leads in a wrong direction and I don’t think will get us results.

Perhaps to emphasize the urgency of the need for quick and effective change, Tony also minimizes the history and impact of our organization. I think that’s historically inaccurate.

We all agree on the goals, but will we achieve them if we remove ideology from the discussion of organization and focus instead on a rubric based on stakeholder accountability, deliverables, rating performance, timelines, mutually agreed upon contracts for success, stakeholder buy–in, investor base, leveraging, and new definitions of power and self-interest? I don’t think so.

Let’s look at the question of growth of the Communist Party from a wider lens, that of history. The size and organizational level of the Communist Party is first and foremost a result of material conditions of the working class and the class struggle. Like the labor movement, the party’s size and very existence are linked to the conditions of the class struggle.

The Party experienced its biggest growth in the years of the 30s and 40s – the time of the Great Depression and the organization of the industrial unions. The cause of this growth can be traced not to the adoption of better organizing techniques but to a mass uprising of the people. The primary driving force was objective conditions. Having said that, the subjective factors – the factors that we CAN control - can be decisive. And we saw that in that period of the 30s and 40s, our movement responded heart and soul to the crises enveloping our nation’s people. No doubt they were moved by the dynamic input of the new members. The Communist Party then, along with the whole peoples movement, adopted new mass approaches including vibrant culture and militant action. The Party’s bold ideology was a key element in that growth – the fight against racism, industrial unionism, free speech.

I agree with the urgency of making changes but to imply, as "Organizational Rubric, Power and Relevance" does, that the Communist Party has not been relevant for a long, long time is to look at history shallowly. 

Today as we’re riding the current of an upsurge, we should temper our pride in our accomplishments with some working class modesty. The comrades who preceded us somehow preserved our organization through arrests, mass firings, seizures of assets and unrelenting ideological assault.

In fact, the bulk of our organization’s 90+ year history has not been riding the crest of a mass upsurge, such as the 15 year period spanning the 30’s and 40’s or the student upsurge of the early 70s. Rather it was the tough slog of breaking through the isolation of the 20s, the McCarthy attack of the 50s, the domination of the labor movement by the right wing business unionists of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

When we talk about the “labor led peoples coalition” today it’s out there on the streets to see. But in those days, it was a theoretical concept that took a lot of explaining and a stretch of faith. Yet it was the Communist Party that noted the fresh winds in the labor movement, participated in the building of rank and file caucuses, black caucuses and women's caucuses, worked with every small opening available, working on the ground, below ground, finding the possibilities in the most difficult situations. That’s a tough row to hoe.

The Party’s impact in those challenging times couldn’t be measured in the elections influenced or the folks who were willing to openly embrace it or its members. Nevertheless, not a decade nor a generation has passed in which the Communist Party has not impacted the class struggle in a positive way. Through thick and thin the Communist Party has linked labor with the African American struggle and the immigrant rights movement, stood up for affirmative action, peace and international solidarity. We have always been practitioners of the science of working class unity.

Now that we see the floodgates open to participating in the big stream, it’s not necessary to denigrate the work that we’ve done and in another period might also return to.

Here’s an example that comes to my mind: communist organizers Claude Lightfoot and Jack Kling were two leaders, black and white, in Chicago’s unemployed movement in the 30’s. They spoke at street corner rallies to tens of thousands. They led delegations that put peoples’ furniture back in their house. They led a Communist party in Chicago of thousands. When I met them in the 70s they still led the party in Chicago, with the same skills and organizing methods. But in between had been a period of severe reaction and a labor movement that allied itself with the bosses. Membership stagnated; growth almost stopped. However, the lack of growth could not be attributed to bad organizational methods. And despite difficulties, many important things were still accomplished under their leadership.

Recently there was an experiment within the labor movement to institute some what were described at the time as transformational changes in organizing practices. Although some of the changes were positive (others weren’t) the radical growth predicted by the proponents failed to materialize. In the labor movement, good organizing methods are very important, but they don’t make up for underlying objective factors.

So at this moment, when members are again streaming into our party, it is important to accurately gauge the reason for past difficulties so as not to incorrectly attribute them to subjective conditions.

Now I’d like to register a friendly disagreement with some new concepts of “power” and “self-interest” put forward in Tony’s article in relation to the question of building the Communist Party.

First we have to make clear that despite its name the Communist Party USA is not a political party in the way most Americans understand that term – that is, our main activity is not to raise money to run or oppose candidates for elected office.  Nor, however, are we a charity or a social service or even social justice group. We are fighting for the welfare of the working class – present and future, understanding that this is the path to peace and justice and survival for humanity and our planet.

So while it’s appropriate to talk about “building power,” our focus can’t be on building power for our organization. Instead, it should be about building power for our class. This is a meaningful distinction, not just a play on words. Our task is ambitious – to see the labor movement stronger, other working class and peoples’ movements stronger and the class consciousness of the whole class stronger. The definition of power cited in Tony’s article “the ability to control, prevent or cause change” does not quite fit the bill. We need a class-based definition. Our organization has no power it exercises by itself. As Karl and Fred told us “we have no interests apart from the class.”

Tony calls on us to organize based on “self interest” and he’s right. But self interest is very connected to ideology. Everyone operates out of self interest; the challenge is how they see their self interest. Why contrast those who would join for “altruistic” reasons (altruistic = concern for the welfare of others) with those who want to be in an an organization that’s effective and relevant to their immediate needs? I think it’s a false dichotomy. The point of class consciousness is one can and must be both to be effective in either. The magic appeal of class consciousness is that being for others is the most effective way I can be for myself.

I understand that a lot of the concepts mentioned in Tony’s article come to us from the not-for-profit movement. The not for profit is the dominant organizational form of today’s social justice movement. The not for profit movement is also a place where we meet with some of our most valued allies. Many of the new and valuable organizational tools and methods have been developed there.

However, we must also keep in mind that the main source of funding for not for profits is corporate foundations (subsidized by substantial tax breaks). Therefore not-for-profits by and large are forced into an organizational form, and, dare I say, rubric that corresponds to the requirements of their funders. They impose a corporate model of organization: with boards whose dual responsibilities a) are to make policy; and b) to appeal to the funders. Paid staff carry out the day to day work. The rubrics they use to evaluate and make grants in the first place comes from schools of business, Thus, the demand for deliverables, results based methods, etc. Corporations pretend to use "objective" measures for evaluation but there is no proof that these measurement criteria are valid.

“Results oriented” sounds good; the concept was developed in opposition to process oriented. However, in the “business” of building class consciousness, process IS important. For example, in union organizing, do we judge our work only by how many members sign up (results oriented) or also by achievement of an organizing committee (process)? In our line of work – building class consciousness – I would say that we care a lot about the process as well as the measurable results. Building unity, class consciousness, leadership and experience in struggle are hard to quantify.

We can’t treat our members, whether they are on the payroll or volunteers as employees and measure them by corporate standards. Our motivator is ideology – a high level understanding of self-interest. I don’t think production goals are suited to peoples organizations.

There are, of course, some very important social justice organizations that are NOT dependent on corporate funding: unions. And thus unions are among the most democratic, grass roots-based organizations in American life. They follow a working class model of organization – a place with elected leadership and an opportunity for working class people to develop in leadership: as shop steward, local committee member (civil rights, health and safety, solidarity) local union officer, central labor council member and so on.

Another notable exception is that the Communist Party was born in working class struggles and is funded through contributions of its members and supporters. This is not a small achievement over almost 100 years of persecution. Consistency and stability on questions like the importance of the fight against racism, anti imperialism, class-struggle trade unionism, union democracy and coalition building tactics have made an incalculable contribution to the peoples movement in this country.

The successes and sustainability of the Communist Party deserve to be studied and given credence every bit as much as the organizational principles proclaimed which do not have a proven success record.
There are many lessons to learn from every generation of fighters.

I still agree with Tony’s main point. We need more discussion about what works and what doesn’t. And we need to draw our new and young members into the discussion.

Thanks to Tony for getting the ball rolling.

Photo: Map showing locations of hundreds of new members since 2010. (PA photo services)

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  • Thats funny because I have tried to join the Party for over 2 years now and have yet to even recieve a simple response stating why I have not been accepted. Isnt it supposed to be a people's Party? Whats with the membership Nazis?

    Posted by Robert Lambeth, 06/16/2011 11:58pm (9 years ago)

  • Greetings!!!

    A piece of writing in memory
    of such as
    Comrades Elsie Dickerson, Barbara Jean Hope, et. al.

    Really, a very, very, very interesting as a response.

    News Item: In Japan, as a result of the double environmental and energy policy problems, 90 % of the deceased after the date of the tsunami were above aged 60.

    New concrete problems approach our actual recruitment:

    The first is the "aging-out" of American populations, all multi-national, mullti-ethnic formations have the approaching problem.

    Someone stated recently on a Philadelphia local radio show that the age group above 60 would equal one in three of the American population by 2020.

    The radio statement is not borne out in the stats reviewed below, but there is still an impact on the way we, of CPUSA, are recruiting as a result of our working class becoming older, in stages, and living longer, in stages.

    Objective conditions have a habit of changing political the landscape drastically.

    Resulting moods of thought within organizations of a Marxist Leninist makeup may be to advance before the trend, and make the mistake of not preparing after the trend has peaked.

    But what is the peak?

    The peak is the need of our party to ideologically secure age groupings all along the spectrum.

    Simultaneously, we must begin the ideology of Marxist Leninist with a much younger age-grouping for organizing purposes, say at about age 14 or at the level of a Young Pioneer.

    A radical suggestion would be to focus outside institutions of education where youth congregate for recruitment to the CPUSA.

    But that is a radical, and highly untried approach.

    The traditional approach to youth, within educational institutions, has been found to work.

    We may find much more traction for recruitment of youth within educational institutions from young peoples, aged of 14 upward.

    Also: There is a rightist focus to move the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) into public school systems across the United States, as witnessed in Chicago, (as a major incursion) and now in Philadelphia, (as a minor, but as a dangerous incursion.)

    The difficulties to overcome: the ideological fluidity of youth is observed to be much higher, and at the same time the ideological direction of youth much more developed now than in the last 50 to 60 years.

    Even so, there are massive and vast areas of ideological confusion among youth which we will be able to assist in clarifying.

    Youth, of course, will question, but now more so than even we had of the questions in mind in our youth

    So, interestingly, peace-interests of youthful working class pre-comrades may be the basic focus to overcome future rightist adverse impacts against youthful age groupings unto their 20s and 30s.

    Give youth something to bite into: Place a copy of Capital and the Communist Manifesto in every public and school library and in the United States.

    Seed the internet with: "To Be A Communist."

    Pre-comrade Marxist Leninists youth may even pick these documents out on the internet.

    The results will be slow, will pick up, and will blossom as the sun rises in the mornings.

    In Love and Struggle
    Ken Heard
    Onward to Socialism!!!

    Posted by Ken Heard, 06/14/2011 5:46pm (9 years ago)

  • "We need a quicker response time – we literally need to get back to new members within 24 hours, not 24 days. We need to be open to other forms of organization and points of engagement in addition to clubs. We need to be willing to experiment to provide every form of participation and connection possible. And we need to build our organization corresponding to how people and this generation live, open to different levels of participation. Just because we always did something some way doesn’t mean it is still right. And yes, we do need to meet deadlines and carry out tasks."
    This is extremely relevant to me.
    I live way out in Utah, not much cp structure to speak of out this way. When I first applied for the yclusa way back in November it was two weeks before I got a response. Still no idea who I report to, where I should send my dues, or how I can participate. Most questions and emails I write have never been responded to. I'm not even 100 percent sure I've genuinely 'made contact' so to speak. A lot of info on the website is outdated or faulty. I truly believe in the principles inherent in communism, and I'll keep pushing forward, but I worry others will be more easily discouraged by the difficulty of even being noticed.

    Posted by , 06/08/2011 8:44pm (9 years ago)

  • hello, I am a member of the french communist party, that used to be a huge organisation. I think you ought to know this : we have been enduring a process of modernization called by our leadership the "mutation", since the year 2000 and before, which consists mainly in a move away from marxism and the working class. As a result we have lost 90% of our membership, and three quarters of our voters. I dont imply it was the only cause, but it certainly didn't help.

    fraternellement GQ

    Posted by Gilles Questiaux, 06/05/2011 3:48am (9 years ago)

  • Tony's initiative, Roberta's response and the ensuing discussion is interesting and valuable. A couple of points I would like to add:
    1. In the early 1990s, I was part of a congressional campaign by a Communist Party candidate. Although there were many frustrations, I did not think it was all time wasted. A lot of people were exposed to our ideas, and we got more than 2,000 votes. But obviously that campaign and most of the others in which we have run candidates was a protest/educational event, and not really engaging in "electoral politics". And usually we can find a better use of our time. I do not, however, think that we should exclude forevermore the idea of running either CPUSA candidates or joint candidates with other people's forces as a REAL ELECTORAL ACTIVITY, i.e. one in which the idea is to actually win and then follow up the win with political action. My main complaint with third party candidacies is they always seem to be aimed at the top of the ticket, which traps them in a rigged game they can not win. The game is rigged because the corporations and the ultra rich are allowed, now more so than ever, to buy elections; because we don't have any kind of proportional representation which might let new parties get a foot in the door, because of the unfair nominating petition signature requirements, and because of the massive ideological apparatus of the bourgeois media. But I don't think we should just wash our hands of all independent electoral possibilities. We should continue to look seriously at possibilities of running our own, or joint left candidates more "down ticket", i.e. where we might actually win, which would have quite an impact. It would not be at all bad to have some electoral wins for town councils and other down ticket offices like that. It would definitely spark interest in us and our ideas. This should be handled on a case by case basis, in some cases running on the Democratic ticket, in others making an electoral bloc with other smaller parties, in others running independent candidates, and occasionally running candidates under our own name when some special circumstances create an opening.
    2. I agree with everything that Roberta says about shaping up the way we operate, which is often quite deplorable in a combination of sectarianism (unwillingness to exchange ideas with people to whom we are not already close) and organizational looseness. To break away from sectarianism, we need to be well organized, because sectarianism is internalized by some of our members and they need a bit of a push to get out there and engage with the people in struggle. Such a push can only come from the organization. Although I also agree that not-for-profits often work on a business model dictated by their funders, there is one thing we can learn from them which is coherent and scientific planning based on set goals and objectives. In my opinion each district needs, for example, a plan according to which new applicants to the party are contacted (by date X from when they initially apply), which in turn entails assigning the job of contacting them to specific comrades. Too often, this task and others like it are just allowed to slide, with no specific goals, no clear assignments and, especially, no check up and accountability.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 05/31/2011 12:44am (9 years ago)

  • To EEW Clay: good point about ambiguity/confusion in comment on bourgeois political machines. To help clarify: US Working class third (or fourth, or fifth, etc ) parties must be able to operate within the two party system, since our democracy is a winner take all one. Except at extraordinary points in our history, third parties cannot win and, even when they do, its a consequence of being part of a split in one of the major parties of the time.

    At the same time, because of time and money and work constraints, workers need a much more day to day foundation for their organization than bourgeois political parties typically provide. Working class organization must by necessity be focused on the economic and social, not just the political, challenges of survival in a crisis ridden system in which virtually all risk and dangers are laid upon their shoulders.

    The short way to say this is: the CP -- and other Left groups as well -- need to aggressively develop grass roots factions in the Democratic party, run candidates in the primaries, develop progressive referendums. etc, with the ultimate objective of taking the party over, or midwifing the emergence of a new party out of the old in the manner in which the Republican Party emerged from the old Whig party in the 1850's. The efforts of groups like Move-On, PDA, and others show that these tactics can have a big impact.

    The role of the Christian Right in the Republican Party since Reagan also demonstrates the power of grass roots approaches rooted in immediate social and survival concerns.

    Posted by John Case, 05/30/2011 7:46am (9 years ago)

  • It seems brother John Case has taken what Bobbie has written out of context. Building class consciousness and power could never be a process that excludes what Case calls being"...AGRESSIVELY active in electoral politics".
    Sister Bobbie would never oppose(we certainly hope)Communist or communist running,independents running,labor and community parties running, for office, in coalitions or otherwise, to forward this very same class consciousness and power-this even with her expressing some reservations concerning the name, Communist Party U.S.A.(by the way Case has also voiced that our name should change for power change and accuracy).
    On the one hand, very silent on "bourgeois political machines" and on the other very critical of the same, one wonders where this brother Case is.
    But sister Bobbie can speak and write for herself, and has.
    One can't help but think that Bobbie is saying that the Communist Party is a qualitatively different party,fielding and supporting specific candidates to make this class consciousness and power in government to own and control resources like transportation,communication, natural resources and medicine.
    These issues and struggles need to be controlled by the great numbers of people, in the U.S. and the world,who are workers, to ensure the survival of the planet.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 05/29/2011 7:56am (9 years ago)

  • I think both Tony and Roberta make important points and promote a healthy discussion.

    However, Roberta makes the following statement:

    "First we have to make clear that despite its name the Communist Party USA is not a political party in the way most Americans understand that term – that is, our main activity is not to raise money to run or oppose candidates for elected office. Nor, however, are we a charity or a social service or even social justice group"

    For this time and era, for the demands of this struggle, I believe this is wrong, in fact, a possibly fatal error.

    The working class needs a party that is AGGRESSIVELY active in electoral politics at every level; and that also FAITHFULLY fulfills a responsible social service role in both communities and workplaces. Capitalism is in its many and growing decadent dimensions is breaking many bonds and supports formerly filled by public New Deal and Great Society programs and institutions systematically undermined and destroyed by Reaganism, and now being filled cynically by right-wing religious organizations. Working people need leaders who are first responders, and advocates for victims of the crises. Thats how GRASS ROOTS organizations can transform the misery of exploitation and reaction into a powerful political force among people who do not have the luxury of wasting any time with bourgeois political machines.


    Posted by John Case, 05/28/2011 6:12pm (9 years ago)

  • Excellent contribution! Tony and Bobbie are leading the Party in thinking through today's party-building situation.

    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by JIm Lane, 05/25/2011 5:06pm (9 years ago)

  • Astonishing events, like the very election of the first African American to the highest office in the land, the miracle of working class coalescence in Wisconsin, and its reverberations throughout the U.S.,the setbacks of oppressors in modern Egypt,Tunisia,Libya, all have a foundation in new organizational methodologies applied by the protagonists of world history,the modern working class,and especially its youth.
    Many social and science geniuses, qualifying as such by recognizing the role of ordinary workers making their " genius"possible in a profound sense. The U. S. premier genius Benjamin Franklin, recognized by Karl Marx for his advanced labor theory of value, along with the social materialist W.E.B. Du Bois,recognized by the National Board of the CPUSA, upon joining in 1961, as the preeminent American intellectual of the fight for "...human progress,peace,science and culture",both embodied the confidence Communists have in working people, science and people's culture.
    The very social being of the people of the U.S. is a result that the Communist revere above all other results and is born of the interconnectedness between the working class and its best female and male working class intellectuals. Intellectuals like Elizabeth Flynn and Shirley Graham Du Bois, the legacy they have left. Along with the great sacrifice and social action of the millions and millions of working class peoples, these have made our present and happy future possible.
    Sister Roberta Wood's outstanding article here, helps us translate the bountiful presence of the working class in the United States to the action of control and ownership of our destiny by protecting our planet's ecology, collective bargaining rights,the democracy we need to protect one another as workers, and the internationalism forwarded by Communist writers and historians like Gerald Horne.
    The CPUSA must retool, as she and many others are urging, to be more immersed in the struggles of all workers, the millions, to make our practical unity of action a common practice and weapon against our imperialist and reactionary adversaries- "The White Masters of the World"(The World and Africa,first edition 1947)-to borrow from Du Bois.
    This retooling must be done to win food,jobs,health care,housing and education for the millions of workers ,especially young workers, through our forcing our political will in the elections of 2012,but also the elections of today and tomorrow.
    Our organizational methods must be 21st century methods, using the cell phone,laptop,desktop,Ipod,digital camera,and Internet-in a word, microchip. We are now doing this.
    We will be successful for the happy future for humankind, mobilizing for growth.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 05/25/2011 12:19pm (9 years ago)

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