Our Socialist Inheritance and Future

Editor's note: This article is based on a presentation made in St. Louis, Missouri by the author on the occasion of a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in the fall of 2009.

Sept. 1 marked the 90th anniversary of the gathering that founded the Communist Party. The Communist Party we’re celebrating is a uniquely American institution. It is also founded on the crossroads of struggle.  We’re celebrating our 90th birthday. But our ancestry, like that of human babies, goes back to long before our actual birth. The baby that came to life at a small convention in Chicago in 1919 had some awesome grandparents.

Our socialist inheritance

Who were our socialist granddaddies? These were working class scholars and socialists, agrarian reformers,  and intellectuals who identified the source of injustice and inequality. They said that the cause of these evils was the PRIVATE ownership of the means of production. “If we make it together we should own it together,” they wisely proclaimed. Yes, our country had a long tradition of socialists – believers that the means of production should be socially owned. Despite the claims of right-wingers, socialism has a birth certificate stamped “made in USA.”

How about our other “grandparents”? Lucy Gonzalez Parsons was a former slave and her husband Albert Parsons, a former confederate soldier. They came from Texas to Chicago in the 1880s and soon led a labor movement in which immigrants and native born united to fight for the 8-hour day. Chicago’s rising capitalists struck back, framing up and executing eight martyrs, including Albert Parsons. Sadly, the names of those swaggering arrogant capitalists still besmirch the beautiful city of Chicago – Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, Cyrus McCormick and George Pullman.

But in the next century, Lucy Parsons, truly our spiritual grandmother, went on to become a member of the newly founded communist party.

Then there were the “wobblies” – members of the Industrial Workers of the World. They believed in “one big union” and no contracts. And there were the steelworkers and the miners. Not just coalminers in Appalachia but also coalminers near here in southern Illinois. Their comrades in struggle were the western “hard rock” miners in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana, the textile workers of New England and garment workers in New York. Our foremothers were outspoken women like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mother Mary Jones.

Especially significantly, we trace our ancestry to the abolitionists and freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass. He taught us that power concedes nothing without a struggle.

And mostly our roots are the hundreds of thousands of everyday folks no one wrote a book about. People who thought deeply and whose righteous indignation just couldn’t abide injustice.

The roots of the communist party USA are profoundly American. It’s an American story. 

Who needs another meeting?

You might wonder, as deeply immersed in struggle as they were, why in the heck our founders felt the need to create ANOTHER organization. Why a communist party? Or from a 21st century perspective, “who needs another meeting?” one might ask.

Surely the working class and peoples movements had struggled mightily for decades, even centuries, without one. 

Here’s why. Capitalism is a tough nut to crack!

Here’s how I look at it. If an extra terrestrial came down from outer space to study us, she would see in a minute that workers get paid less than they produce. She would see that’s how capitalists amass their wealth. It’s a no brainer. Labor creates all wealth. But here on the ground the common wisdom sees it differently. We live our lives in that miraculous “free market” world where workers are “free” to sell their labor power. Capitalism, at its best, promises workers “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” At its best capitalism promises a worker “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” But is that enough? And is it really fair?

It took decades of study and analysis by the greatest intellects of the times to unravel the truth and explain how despite the fact that “labor creates all wealth,” Wall Streeters end up as billionaires while steelworkers and autoworkers are homeless and robbed of their pensions. The coal miners have a way of getting right to the point. In the coal industry, they say, “the operators get the coal mine and the workers get the shaft.”

Back to our cousin from outer space. She might say to us, “It’s obvious – your unbelievably gorgeous planet is a Garden of Eden. You have the technology and gifts of nature to provide a beautiful life for all earthlings. Why don’t you just re-organize yourselves in a system that puts people before profits? Social ownership. How about a public option? If workers united and agreed on it, you could make that better world today,” she’d argue.

But the fact is we’re not united and we’re not agreed. Life is complicated. All is not what it seems.

Building that unity is a massive project of the working class that won’t happen spontaneously. It CAN’T happen spontaneously. In fact, working class unity is a science. We study it in meetings, in articles and in laboratories. Where are the laboratories for this science? Our workplace and community struggles are our labs. Rank and file activists are the scientists. 

Fighting racism – a question for the whole working class

One of the first tough issues the new communist party took on was what they called in those days the “national question” – the struggle against the systematic super exploitation and oppression of the African American people – as share croppers, as workers, socially, politically and in every walk of life.

Earlier socialists had believed that equality was a question that would have to be put off till the day when socialism was achieved. But in the 1920’s one of the defining principles of the new Communist Party was the idea that the struggle for equality COULD NOT be deferred, in fact it was key to achieving the unity of the class needed for any move forward, let alone socialism. Years earlier Karl Marx had noted “Labor in the white skin cannot be free as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” The early American communists led the way in seeking how to put in practice concretely Marx’s insight. They initiated struggles for equality, against lynching and for equality in unions too. Not only for the good of the black workers, but for the good of white workers. They promoted the idea that white workers should take the lead in initiating these struggles.

A trip down Memory Lane

I wanted to take you on a quick trip down Memory Lane. But how could I compile a list of struggles the Communist Party was immersed in and cite them as our achievements? To do so would not only be immodest, it would be historically inaccurate. To be honest, there wasn’t one thing I could think of that the party did by itself. Then it dawned on me. That’s because we don’t do things by ourselves – we don’t start them ourselves and we, don’t lead them ourselves. If the working class struggle is like a carpet, we’re the red thread through out. It wouldn’t mean anything without the other threads and the carpet would be thread bare without us too. So what does the Party bring to these struggles? First we bring unmatched dedication and passion. But along with that we bring a special lens to analyze EVERY question: “What are the long term interests of the working class?” we ask. How do we build unity? How do we tip the balance of forces in favor of the working class? 

Overcoming ‘dual unionism’

From the start, our class and party had to developed tactics for fighting to protect and strengthen unions. The bosses had found their way into infiltrating and undermining that critical working class tool. You know, when you find yourself in a union where the leaders take the bosses’ side all you want to do is leave and start a better union. So it’s not surprising that the working class went thru a long phase in which activists withdrew to form separate “more perfect” unions. This unfortunately put them out of touch with the mass of workers who were left under the unchallenged influence of  backward leaders.

William Z. Foster, leader of the great 1919 steel strike and later head of the Communist Party argued against “dual unions.” He helped develop a different tactic – fighting to stay within existing unions while organizing caucuses to mobilize and win over the rank and file. This developed a nationwide movement of workplace leaders. It organized the rank and file for democracy and change. Party members took the lead in building the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) and Trade Union Education League (TUEL). This is another contribution of the Communist Party and its allies to the science of working class unity. 

The Great Depression – new tactics

The decade of the 30s may be the harshest the American people have ever known. Starvation stalked the land. Even the farmers had no food. Adolescents left home so their younger siblings could eat. Millions of families had no homes – they camped in squalid “Hoovervilles” named after an uncaring president. For millions there was only charity and soup lines and that wasn’t enough to live on.

The new moment called for new tactics. Direct action – penny sales where farmers bid 1 cent on their foreclosed farms while neighbor forcibly barred the foreclosing bank from the proceedings. Furniture move backs where neighbors reversed the evictions of families. There were challenges to racism, like the Scottsboro case. There were legislative victories including Social Security and unemployment insurance. And there were cultural initiatives including public art and music and theater.

It wasn’t some high level committee that decided all these tactics and campaigns. They came out of the genius of the rank and file.

Today the years of the 30s are remembered as much for the blooming of unity and culture and pride in struggle as the suffering. 

As the Depression ended, the experiences and training accumulated by our working class powered by a new militant spirit led to the greatest surge of organizing known in our country’s history. The same folks who had led unemployed protests took those lessons into the factories. These working class geniuses thought up the sit down.  Previous strikes had been broken when employers brought in scabs – effectively using worker against worker. “If we don’t leave the plant, they can’t resume production. Can’t use other workers against us,” they figured. The big bosses were willing to have violence in our homes and communities, but they didn’t want their factory full of expensive machinery to be a battleground for hand-to-hand combat. The legislative gains of the New Deal era, such as the National Labor Relations Act were also critical in the organizing victories.

The slogan of “Black and White unite and fight!” was a policy that led to great gains in the union organizing. It planted the idea that equality was a bread and butter issue for the whole working class.

By the middle of the decade, millions of workers were in unions. 

Repression and anti-communism

But in the mid 40’s just at the peak of these successes, waves of repression and anti communism battered the working class movement. Many workers lost their political bearings. Living standards were rising. But anti communism purged the mines, the mills, the churches and working class community organizations of their indigenous leadership – the stewards, the thinkers, the doers – the red thread. Over one million workers were cast out along with their unions from the CIO. In work places across the nation, workers were left to the unchallenged influence of pro-management misleaders. A new trend of thinking began to refer to workers as “middle class.” Meanwhile, plans to organize the South, to expand the New Deal to education, health care and pension matters faded away.

This set back led to decades of stagnation. It led to the spectacle of George Meaney, McCarthy era president of the AFL-CIO, BRAGGING that he never walked a picket line, rallying construction workers in support of  the Viet Nam war  and against peace activists and opposing affirmative action, immigrant rights and women’s rights. It led to dismantling of shop steward systems and disastrous class collaboration policies of labor-management “cooperation.” 

What happened to the militancy? 

The question often comes up in labor history discussion: what happened to the militant labor movement of the 30s and 40s? Did the workers get too rich? No! Threadbare, the labor movement lost its focus on unity and struggle. And later, it stood defenseless against the anti labor assaults initiated with the election of Ronald Reagan in the 70s. 

Rank and file caucuses

Again it was time for working with caucuses. The late 60s and 70’s saw class conscious workers busy building rank and file caucuses at every level of the labor movement. Young and old joined to build rank and file caucuses in steel and auto, teamsters. Black caucuses. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, LAACLA and Coalition of Labor Union Women became important forces. Women's caucuses, peace committees, and solidarity committees emerged “Keep your eyes on the rank and file,” we told each other. If the boss’s strategy was to cut off workers from the class conscious elements, we knew that by hook or crook we had to fight to stay there.  

Let me digress for a moment. We often look back admiringly to the struggles of the 30s and 40s. But do we appreciate what our generations have done? We don’t often stop to wonder about the change the labor movement has made in our lifetime. The Meaney administration was turned out in 1994 and look at the changes that have followed. The 2009 annual AFL-CIO convention wrapped up in September. Here’s a snapshot. A high point is a march from the convention center to the opening, of the new anti-capitalist Michael Moore movie. Biggest of all, this would have made old George Meaney swallow his cigar, the implementation of a diversity resolution passed by popular demand at the last convention. The resolution mandates diversity – so that fully 40 percent of delegates were Black, Brown, women, gay and lesbian. The resolution required that every union send a delegation reflective of its membership. The struggle for diversity is still not all the way there, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the  enormous stride for the unity of our class. You CBTUers here in St. Louis must take special satisfaction in seeing the fruits of your decades of sticking with the struggle.   
The decades of McCarthyism and after were difficult. Jail, firings, isolation. Working class fighters and allies, the most dedicated of patriots, being called agents of a foreign power.

But even in those tough times, the 50’s and 60’s also saw the civil rights movement, and the 70s saw the anti Viet Nam war movement.   

Tweaking and tweeting

I guess you could say that after 90 years we might need to tweak things a little. Things have changed a bit since 1919 and I’m not just talking about the obvious gadgets – iPhones or even microwaves. Imagine, when the Communist Party was founded, there were no ice cubes, the main mode of human transportation was foot or horse, there were no phones in homes. There were no commercial airplanes, the average education level was 8th grade, and half the population was rural. Climate change as a problem was unknown.

There were no land fills – nobody threw anything out.

There was no health care industry because there was almost no health care – few drugs, few treatments. You got sick, you died.

There was no vote for women, nor in most places for African Americans. Jim Crow was the law of the land, it was illegal to be gay and you could go to jail for organizing a union.

Methods of organizing and communicating corresponded to those conditions. People lived and learned differently. Mail was delivered twice a day. And at that time 92% of the population read newspapers.

A critical project for the new Communist Party was to get its own printing press and establish its own newspaper. In 1924, just a few years after the founding of our party The Worker hit the streets, providing a voice and communication network for working class activists first weekly and then daily. 

We’re focused on today 

This year while we’re celebrating our 90th anniversary, our main attentions is on today’s unity problems – how to win the fight for health care. What is the point around which we can build the greatest unity, move the balance of power? Yes we’re focused on the public option, but even more, we’re focused on building this amazing peoples movement.

We love our history but there’s no point in being a cult about it. For example, do we need a hammer and sickle? A sickle was a common agricultural tool of European peasants, but that symbol doesn’t mean anything to Americans – we only see a sickle if someone dresses up as the Grim Reaper for Halloween. Yes, we need a new 21st century logo that evokes an image of the unity that WE are building.

Ninety years! Not many organizations live that long. Issues and causes arise and then fade into history. Charismatic leaders surge forward and age out. Populations change, new generations move on in the sea of struggle. Some sink while others disembark and go ashore.

But like the labor movement, the Communist Party has sailed the seas of the class struggle for generations. There have been times when we’ve ridden on top of the waves and a lot more times when we’ve navigated the seas of the class struggle staring UP at those towering waves.

Remember that despicable committee of capitalists who engineered the execution of the Haymarket heroes in 1886? Marshall Field notified the press “that should put to rest for all time trouble from union troublemakers.” How has his smug prediction held up? Today even the department store that bore his name has been sold to Macy’s and the name Marshall Field has become a polite euphemism for another pair of words that starts with “MF” (“as in George Bush is a real Marshall Field.”) But every year on May Day across the globe millions rally in honor of the Haymarket martyrs and their cause and the City of Chicago has erected a new monument in their honor.

Like our country’s labor unions, its Communist Party is part and parcel of working class history and working class life. It’s no shame to acknowledge that any organization’s history – including ours – is marked by mistakes and miscalculations. Humans learn by experience. What the Communist Party is about is applying a scientific method to examining that experience. We are studying, in the laboratory of the class struggle, how the human race can get control of an out of control system that destroys humanity and our planet

So after 90 years I’m not ashamed to say we’re changing. I said we were TWEAKING our org. Actually we’re TWEETING it – and Facebooking, and podcasting.

Yes the most exciting news this year is that we’re going on line to reach millions in a way our forebears couldn’t have even dreamed of. The relevant statistic for our time is that 92 percent of young people are on line. Seniors are there too and everyone in between. Mail is only delivered once a day, but email comes all day long. We can do even better than a daily newspaper – we’re there 24/7 with news and ideology. New organizational tools are letting us reach rural area and places where we’ve never had contact before.

But we’re keeping in front of us the vision of a socialist USA, with a fully enforced Bill of Rights without war and exploitation and the dream of humanity – a world at peace.

Thanks for joining our celebration. For 90 years it’s been America’s Communist Party.