Shouldering Our Burdens

In “Living in an Era of Change,” C. J. Atkins makes a disarmingly gentle, yet muddled case for name change. After an opening congratulatory appraisal of the Party’s past 20 years (of successfully avoiding name change while remaining politically dynamic), he proposes that the Party not only drop its “Communist” label, but its self-definition as a party. He makes this recommendation while failing to convince that the Party does not act like a party, based on his assumptions that a party, by definition, must independently present its own candidates in the electoral process. In other words, the CPUSA does not act like a “party,” as other parties (the Green Party, SPUSA, and other “third” parties), since it does not encourage its members to reject the Democratic Party, in favor of their own alternative candidates. Therefore, like the DSA, the CPUSA is for the moment largely a think-tank organization that helps its members become part of the broader coalition movement for progressive change. However, the CPUSA has since its inception been in favor of both putting candidates forward when this was practical and supporting the Democratic Party when not, in addition to organizational work for broad social movements outside the electoral process. In this way, it has stayed close to Lenin’s justification of participating in the electoral process while simultaneously working to undermine the class domination that doggedly polices the current process. Why tie the Party’s hands by narrowing its range of activities, when it can sometimes be an organizing social force and, at other times, a party that is prepared for an electoral breakthrough should any such opportunity arise in the future?

Of course, it is this last condition that Atkins completely denies as possible, largely because the label “communist” is not acceptable, and never will be, to the vast majority of Americans. It is a brand name “sullied beyond reprieve.” Thus, the two conditions arguing against the Party remaining a “party” are: (1) its current retention of the label “Communist” and (2) the fact that America has a two-party system that makes it historically unlikely a successful third party will ever arise. As for the second point, we can agree that the restrictions of the two-party system (plus the failed attempts at campaign finance reform) have shifted the odds against change coming anytime soon, especially given the failed attempts of Ralph Nader and the Green Party on the Left and Ross Perot’s Independent Reform Party on the Right. However, one cannot see that far into the future to know for certain. Besides that, the fact that America once had more than two parties and that the debate is still taking place nationally bodes well for the possibility of future reform in this respect. So I return to my original question: why tie our hands to the potential range of activities open to us given this uncertainty and the possibility of the situation changing (even possibly in the near future)?

The thorny issue of the label “communist” may take longer to clear up. As Atkins rightly states, we have to admit that communism still remains unpopular in American politics, despite twenty years after the collapse of the first workers’ state, the Soviet Union, and a good-faith effort by Gorbachev (and other reformers) to recast both its political and economic processes to meet the demands of the post-industrial age. The associations with Stalinist crimes persist, but this is analogous to the histories of other parties and institutions (like the tradition of the Democratic Party in the Southern U.S., and the Catholic Church) that survived precisely because they could, and did, change. We have to make the case for our changes not by running from the past, a maneuver that, as some have commented, none will accept as legitimate, but by looking forward and making change-in-perception contingent on our future actions, successes (and, yes, failures). We should courageously address the past, continuously analyze it in historical context, and keep taking concrete steps in future actions that render the past not invisible, but irrelevant to present conditions. Also, if we jettison our name (and necessarily the historical tradition that comes with it), others will seize it, and we will lose the right to defend the positive changes that were also part of that experience. We cannot have it both ways.

Of course, one could argue that communism is to socialism what Cromwell’s republic was to later, Western-style democracy, and go for the simple adoption of “socialist” as part of the new name. However, there are so many groups (and media pundits) already bandying that label about that it would also demand much preliminary discussion, in order to newly differentiate our Party. In the comment section of Atkins’ article, Charles Kyger relates how someone was more horrified by the designation “socialist” than “communist” in a discussion about his political views. This can only be explained by the recent extensive tarnishing of “socialism” by Tea-Party critics of Obama’s policies that has been kept in constant “feed-loop” by the corporate media.

These exact points about the shared problems with socialism, Marxism, and labor politics serve as the jumping-off point for Joe Sims’ rebuttal to Atkins’ arguments, in “Extreme Makeover Goes Too Far.” Sims points out that there are three main cases against Atkins’ proposals: (1) the organizational tasks of an avowedly Marxist party, (2) the need to underscore and champion the independence of politically conscious working-class elements, and (3) the “historical precedents” that played such a huge role in our current stage of development. With regard to the role of a Marxist party, Sims concedes that it must work in concert with other working-class and people’s coalitions under the umbrella of the Democratic Party, to do otherwise would be self-defeating. However, as Sims also stresses, electoral work cannot be the sole task of a Marxist party, whose responsibilities include developing working-class solidarity and strengthening its socialist consciousness. This latter part includes the primary role of contact with working-class groups and telling them something about who we are, both past and present. Here, as others have pointed out in the reply section, we must re-emphasize reading and discussion of classic works of Marxist-Leninist thought, as well as current party literature (Political Affairs, People’s World, etc.). But more fundamental than that, we have to understand that the Party works in contact with the broad currents of the Democratic Party machine in both a spirit of tactical cooperation and ideological, political disagreement and (ultimately) antagonism. In other words, we must maintain a dialectical spirit of struggle in our thinking and scope of action in working within the main party system.

This insistence leads to the other point made by Sims, which is that the Party must always safeguard and struggle against any encroachment by the Democratic Party machinery on the political independence of the working-class and its specific class interests in participating within broader coalitions. As examples of groups that lost their organizational integrity in past coalitions, he cites the experiences of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the New America Movement, and the New Democratic Movement. As a positive example of a party successfully working within Democratic coalitions, Sims points to the experience of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ promotion as a successful candidate of the Vermont Progressive Party. Thus, for Sims, maintaining an independent party structure, rather than deflating that structure into an incoherent and impressionable “organization,” makes tactical sense especially when working with other progressive groups alongside the Democratic Party.

As for understanding the Party’s historical precedents, Sims takes issue with Atkins’ negative assessment of past “dogmatic” Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Pointing out that there is a significant body of critical, non-dogmatic work under the rubric of Marxism-Leninism, Sims calls Atkins’ dismissive characterization of this body of thought “unfortunate.” I am inclined to agree. We have to be careful not to generalize about the Marxist-Leninist tradition, and do the hard critical legwork of distinguishing the worthy bodies of literature and thought from the chaff. In closing, Sims insists that the forces that have contributed most to the tarnishing of communism have to do with the specific anti-communist tradition sustained by the Ultra-Right within the U.S. However, I agree with others who have also pointed out that this tarnishing of communism cannot be solely, or even mainly, attributed to the forces of anti-communism, since other groups favorably disposed within the American Left often hesitate in openly associating with the Communist brand. This has to be accepted and understood as part of the ongoing legacy of mistakes and political failures inextricably bound up with the Soviet past.

This last point is one of the two main points that Dan Margolis presents to take issue with Sims’ presentation and to endorse Atkins’ position, in his responding article “What’s in a Name?” He opens his article congratulating both authors for maintaining a cordial exchange, by attacking ideas, not people, but oddly dispenses with the affectionate and brotherly address “comrade” (with which this author shares a particular fondness). That aside, the two mistakes that Margolis sees with Sims’ presentation are: (1) confusing the problems with the negative connotations of communism with anti-communism and (2) that the changes that Atkins proposes do not go as far as Sims suggests. With the first point, I agree, but with the second point, as is clear from the foregoing, I disagree. Margolis sees nothing wrong with Atkins’ position, which he completely endorses, namely that the CPUSA should drop its “Communist” label and no longer call itself a “party.”

In presenting his case against retaining the communist label, Margolis is far more unsparing than Atkins by going into more sustained enumeration of the crimes of former and present “Communist” regimes, and the need to affirm unreservedly the inalienable nature of human rights. Then, he goes on a long excursus of how unnecessary a defense of the communist past (and present) should be for anyone seeking to fully participate in the current political situation. He claims that Sims fails to demonstrate that group integrity dissolved in the examples of groups, like the Rainbow Coalition, the New America Movement, and the New Democratic Movement, that worked in contact with the Democratic Party machinery. I agree that more discussion needs to be presented by Sims on this point, especially since no background is provided for these experiences. However, it does not take any stretch of the imagination to understand why working with a powerful party machinery, like that of the Democratic Party, might pose fatal problems for loosely-defined and inarticulate organizations, whose members often get lost in its iron maw.

However, back to Margolis’ point about the communist past. I don’t think that we can discard that past so easily through name change as he suggests. It is not enough to anticipate only Glenn Beck and other right-wing media pundits in addressing this issue. The Party has plenty of rivals on the Left who would also seize upon the surrendering of the term “communist,” as an opportunity to demand of former-CP members why remain part of an ex-party that merely reproduces their strategies and tactical formation, one that they have carried out longer. Wouldn’t we risk becoming redundant with say the DSA, by being only an organization working within the Democratic Party and going by the designation “democratic socialist”? How would we be setting ourselves apart from them? Furthermore, other parties, such as the SPUSA, would pick off those members convinced of “going it alone,” by consistently pushing independent candidates in the electoral process. Surrendering “communism” would hand the other left groups an unearned moral victory, a “told you so” moment that would severely weaken, not strengthen the newly designated organization. Margolis fails to even address these concerns.

In closing, the only route that seems defensible is to accept the long and difficult path of rebuilding the Party’s reputation, especially when everyone left of center shares a broad deficit of popular support in America. But we all recognize that this situation is fluid and that the current economic recession and two failed, unpaid-for wars should also keep the Right no less broken and on the defensive, if we continue to hammer these points home. However, we can do that most effectively by sustaining our name and organizational structure within the current hysterical climate of irrational taunts raining down from the Ultra-Right, on everyone left unconvinced of Reagan’s “revolution.” That’s why the Memphis Club of the CPUSA remains committed to being part of a Communist Party, in a long, ongoing, and internationally recognized effort to recast human relations, first envisioned by Marx and Engels and shaped by the best laborers of that tradition.

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  • I agree with comrade Ramsey's contribution. Other contributors to the name change debate have pointed out that we need to understand that we are not talking about a name change isolated from the current direction and politics of the Communist Party.

    In essence, Atkins continues the national leadership's line that we are not growing at a rate commensurate with possibilities because it is" just hard to recruit." Thus we embark on a pathway that will liquidate the Party, change name, eliminate the organizational department, stop the print version of the press, degrade the importance of cadre, drop Leninism, discourage initiatives in the name of the Party, allow intermediary organizations to die, and not support mass initiatives that may be critical of Obama. Is it not conceivable that we don't grow because our line (strategy and tactics) do not meet the demands of the moment? Neither the National Convention nor the National Committee has seriously examined our policies. Those of us who are critical are written off as a small discontent minority forcing this writer to repeatably defend his role in the mass movements and yes, in trying to defeat the ultra-right in 2010.

    There are some in my district who believe that given our abandonment of Marxist-Leninist principles, why not change the name and leave communist party to the next Marxist-Leninist party that will inevitably come along. I sincerely hope we have not gone beyond the point of no return.

    Posted by David Bell, 01/26/2011 10:28pm (13 years ago)

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